Celia Hayden spent her 20s as a touring musician and record store manager, but after the music shop downsized, she happily accepted a job at the crematory where her older brother worked as a funeral director. In 2015, Hayden, now 38, became a licensed mortician—a dream she’d considered pursuing as early as high school graduation. With the overtly “dark” Halloween season in mind, I talked to Hayden, my former creative writing student, about her unique perspective on loss, fear and the intimidating job she performs so passionately.
What do your numerous tattoos represent?
I have a Japanese maple on my right shoulder—under the tree in the grass is a tombstone, which represents my grandmother. I have an anatomically correct cross section of a heart with a “mom” banner weaved inside. I have a “cut along the dotted line” tattoo through my axillary (armpit) area. This area is one of the embalming points drilled into your head throughout the entirety of mortuary school. I rewarded myself with it after passing my embalming exam.
How has your job affected how you think about death/loss?
Maybe my risk-assessment mechanism has been a touch corrupted. People say, “Smoking can kill you,” but so can falling down the stairs on the way to your morning coffee. I have never thought of death as a taboo subject, and I have struggled with major depression for decades. I think my personal struggle has helped me be more compassionate in my vocation, and I believe that my vocation gives me perspective on how fragile any given circumstance is.
What is the hardest thing about your job?
It isn’t what most people would expect: the hours. Like other full-time jobs, you put in your 40 hours per week, but then you are also on call all night or all weekend. Our work doesn’t stop if there is a holiday or bad weather. We miss our kids’ birthday parties and cancel plans at the last minute.
What is most rewarding?
The most rewarding thing to me is the ability to give grieving people an opportunity to see their loved one at peace and say their goodbyes. It is the start of the healing process, and it means a lot to me to be able to contribute to that.
What do you tend to do on Halloween?
I love Halloween! Candy. Monsters. Bats! How can you not? We decorate our entire front lawn as a mini-cemetery, dress like zombies and hand out candy. I am a big horror movie fan so when Halloween comes around and the horror movie marathons start I’m parked in front of the TV. I treat this occasion the way people treat football season.
Why do you think people like to get scared at this time of year?
I think it is easier to spend your fears on movies and stories than it is to wrestle things that can actually impact you, like health and money issues or unexpected deaths.
What scares you?
I don’t have any special or unique fears. I want my daughter to grow up healthy and happy. I really don’t want to die in a fire or drown—those two are just horrible to imagine. I would say mostly I’m afraid of spiders.