The late morning sun is unrelenting as I gingerly navigate the worn brick steps up the side of the temple, sweaty fingers struggling to find purchase on the worn handholds as my damp and modest Bermuda shorts bunch between my knees.
The young man leading the way is short and stocky, clad in a traditional longyi wrap and doesn’t seem remotely out of breath despite the dizzying height. I try to pretend I’m not either. I fail miserably. He notices, because it’s hard not to notice a red-faced American woman panting like a dying cow at your heels. He graciously suggests we stop at the next landing and take in the view.
My young guide has been trying to figure me out since he picked me up at my resort just after dawn, and his curiosity has finally gotten the better of him. “I have to ask. You have traveled here all alone? To Myanmar? All the way from the United States?” His dark eyes widen as I assure him this is all true. “And what do you do for work that allows you to travel the world on your own like this? Burmese women, they would never do this.”
“I’m a funeral director.” I wait for the shocked expression I’ve come to expect, but he doesn’t understand.
His brow furrows. “Sorry?”
“A funeral director. Undertaker? Mortician?” Nothing. “…I care for the dead.”
“Ah!” A spark of recognition that quickly flames into fascination. “But you are a woman. And you do this work?” He quickly becomes quiet, almost reverent. “Here in my country, we would regard you as the most high monk and greatly deserving of respect. Most people would never dare to touch a dead body. Only the wisest and most respected monk would be so brave.”
Most people think that funeral director to travel writer was an enormous change. They’re not wrong, but it turns out that the families I was serving in the funeral home all those years were preparing me to look at the world in a completely different way. I wouldn’t be the writer, or the person, I am today without them.
Here’s what the job taught me:
When you’re a funeral director, no point is reinforced more regularly than this: everyone dies. Everyone you will ever meet is going to die. Some of them very soon and some of them unexpectedly. They all have lives and families and friends who will be forever changed once they’re gone.
Every person you meet is a human being, deserving of respect, dignity, and compassion. Even the rude ones and the seemingly unlovable ones. Once you know this – really, genuinely know it – you’ll find so much more compassion for the taxi driver who tries to run up the meter or the old lady who is way into your personal space on the bus.
I’ve been told I have the patience of a saint. That’s definitely not the case, but you really can’t be an impatient funeral director. Every person who sits down in front of you has an intensely personal story to tell, and sometimes you have to excavate it like an archaeologist brushing away a lifetime of buried secrets.
If you can do this well, you can apply the same gentle, persistent uncovering to the places you visit. I’ve almost never sat and talked with a person across the funeral home table that I didn’t come to like and respect, no matter how rocky a start we might have gotten. In the same way, I’ve almost never come home from a trip and declared that I didn’t like that place at all. In both cases, there’s always good to find if you’re patient enough to unearth it.
Love of unfamiliar cultures
I grew up in a tiny New Hampshire farm town, where the only diversity was Catholic vs. Protestant. There wasn’t a single traffic light in town, and the ancient librarian knew every resident by their library card number.
I was a brand new funeral director in Orlando, Florida when I conducted my first Buddhist funeral. The funeral home hallways were crowded with Vietnamese men in vivid orange robes, clouds of incense smoke drifting over their bald heads and the dated Victorian lampshades. An elderly monk struggled to his feet and bowed to me, his gnarled hands pressed together around a strand of wooden beads. I was instantly enchanted, and happily spent the next decade absorbing foreign cultures through their funeral rituals.
When I started traveling the world, I was relieved to find how many things were already familiar to me thanks to the families who graciously gave me a peek into their culture during the most difficult days of their lives.
Razor sharp focus for the things that matter
Spoiler alert: it’s not the things, it’s the people. The thing about humans is, we waste an awful lot of time worrying about things that mean absolutely nothing. Television shows, workplace gossip, celebrity nonsense, petty arguments… we’re so good at it. I promise you, in 15 years as a funeral director, no one ever brought up any of those things at my table. So why do we waste so much time on them now?
Sunday lunch at Grandma’s house and fishing with friends and being the boss whose door was always open are the things that people talk about in a eulogy. Maybe we should spend more time on those things now. Like, right now. Call your mom.
A sense of urgency
One of the indelible images burned into my brain forever is the sight of an 18-year-old man in my chapel in his royal blue casket. It was the first time I had ever buried someone younger than myself who died of natural causes, and it was a lightning bolt for the short, tenuous nature of life and how we really, honestly, are never guaranteed any certain amount of time. If there’s a thing you want to accomplish in your life, you can’t wait until retirement or your 40th birthday or next summer. Those times might never come, and I’ll shout that from the rooftops as long as I live.
I was a workaholic 20-something when I realized my bucket list had grown into the hundreds without my ever having checked a single thing off of it. I kept dreaming and kept adding to it and that’s as far as I had gotten. The day that really hit home was the day I randomly picked a number out of a hat and found myself on my way to Myanmar and a climb up the side of a Buddhist temple that would stay with me forever.
How to talk to anyone about anything
Death is uncomfortable. Money is uncomfortable. Suicide, homelessness, estranged family members, domestic violence, mental illness – the list goes on. These are not polite topics and surely they’re not something you’d ever discuss with a perfect stranger. Unless you’re sitting across from me in the funeral home arrangement office, pouring your heart out five minutes after we’ve met. There’s something about the forced intimacy of the situation that makes these taboo conversations a little more bearable.
After that, there’s really nothing I can’t talk about with anyone. Awkward question at the doctor’s office? No longer a big deal. Asking for directions in a foreign country where I don’t speak the language? Piece of cake. A decade and a half of having to instantly be up close and personal with a total stranger’s most uncomfortable stories is a great way to quiet the voice in your head that tells you there’s a difference between “us” and “them.” With the skeletons in our closets laid bare, we’re all exactly the same and really not that intimidating after all.
It’s the little things that matter the most
I ran into a woman in the grocery store about five years after I had buried her husband. I didn’t expect her to recognize me in jeans and a t-shirt, but she did, and her face lit up when she saw me. We stood and talked for a few minutes about how she was doing, and then she reached out and grabbed my hand. “I still have the rose. I keep it on my nightstand and I look at it every night and it’s so comforting to me.”
Her husband had been a romantic guy, and brought home a bouquet of red roses for her every week. She would playfully scold him for wasting his money when he knew they would die so quickly. When he lost his brief battle with cancer at age 55, there was no question that she would cover his casket in an absolute mountain of red roses. The service was standing room only and went on for hours with friends and colleagues sharing stories of how this thoughtful man touched their lives.
Alone in the empty church after the crowds departed, I gave her a gold-dipped rose that I had bought for her and told her that now she had one to keep that would never die. I’ve probably never been hugged so hard in my life, and I knew she was touched, but I didn’t realize how long that moment would last for her.
Grand gestures are nice, but the tiny moments that show someone you were really present with them for a moment end up being the things they carry with them forever.
The connections you make with other people mean more than all the monuments and museums you’ll ever visit
Not to toot my own horn or anything, but I received my fair share of awards and accolades during my time as a funeral director. I like to think I was pretty good at my job, but when I look back over my career, those things never come to mind. I think about the lifelong friends I made while working long hours to take care of grieving families, and I think about the bosses who became mentors and then friends. I think about the people whose lives I touched who may not realize they touched mine right back.
I’ve come to realize that travel, for me, is exactly the same. I went to Athens to see the Acropolis but when I daydream about moving there it’s because of the elderly taverna owner who kept a jug of wine waiting for me at the end of every day and the barista who threw a party for me in her cafe as a farewell on the last night of my trip and the family who took me in and treated me like their long lost daughter when I turned up to a closed hotel and nowhere to go.
The Greeks, of course, are famous for their hospitality, but my travel journals are full of stories like that from all over the world. The monuments and museums are doubtless worth seeing, but it’s the unexpected connections with people that make travel, and life, magical.
Ready to take the plunge, make the most of life and go on an adventure? Check out Intrepid’s range of top trips.
(All images courtesy of Leslie Price, and taken on her travels.)