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  • Liz Dunnebacke

Interview With Pioneering Woman in Deathcare, Janice Bodet

Janice Bodet is the retired Director of Funeral Service at Delgado Community College. A Licensed Professional Counselor and Licensed Funeral Director, Ms. Bodet sat down with Wake to give an account of her career in grief counseling and how she found her way to this work after the death of her daughter, Jeanne, in 1982.

Jeanne was the oldest of seven children; she was 12 years older than the youngest child. So when the third and fourth and fifth were born, she was like a little mother to them. She was more than a sister to all of them; she was also a friend.

She was 22 years old when she died. She went on a trip with - it was her husband at the time, but we didn’t know [yet]… she and he had gotten married...oh it’s a story! They were both in hotel and restaurant management. They wanted to go to Hawaii for summer school and they wanted to live in the same dorm room and the requirements were that they had to be married. So they took off, unbeknownst to us - this was two weeks before she died - to Florida and got married by a justice of the peace.

She died in an automobile accident. She was driving her husband’s brother’s car. It was a red Corvette - [to this day] I can’t stand to look at Corvettes. The brother was also in the same accident. He was driving with her and he died the next day. She died at the scene, instantly, so the report goes. When they told us about it...the emergency 3 o’clock in the morning, our daughter Margaret, who was 16 years old, got the phone call. She answered the phone because it was up in her room and came to get us. She said, “Someone is calling from New Jersey about Jeanne.” Ever since then 3 o’clock in the morning is a hard time.

She and her husband were invited to his brother’s [wedding] in New Jersey. It was June 20th - Father’s Day - when we found out that she was gone. Before they went I said, “You don’t know that family that well,” because she didn’t. They hadn’t gone out that long. She said, “I think I’m going to go.” It brought back a dream I had about 3 or 4 months prior to the day that she died. I had a vivid dream that two people were coming up to the house where we lived to tell me that [Jeanne] had died in an automobile accident. At the time that I dreamt it - and this was before I knew anything about the grief process - I just put it aside. I thought, “Oh, I don’t even want to talk about it!” But something inside of me [clicked] when she said she was going on this trip. We kept saying, “Oh, y’all are going to be gone for Father’s Day weekend.” We tried to dissuade her; it was just a gut feeling.

At the time [when she died] it was excruciating pain. When we got the phone call from the emergency room they said the driver died. Then we talked to Mark, her husband, and he said, “They did a pregnancy test and know… um… oh and by the way, we were married a few weeks ago.” Later that same day we also got a letter from her... that day! I’m getting chills... the letter started, “Dear Mom and Dad, I’m happier than I’ve ever been.” And that...whoah, the tears just flowed. She signed it, “I love you,” which we were not accustomed to saying. Not just “Love” but “I love you.” Those were her last words. So that’s one thing that’s changed [for us]. You take the moment to appreciate what you have and show it...say it. That really made a difference in our recovery.

Gerry and I attended sessions on the subject of death and dying and the importance of expressing feelings. People were speculating, ”How are y’all doing as husband and wife? We heard people get divorced” [after the death of a child]. But we said, “Oh no, we had a good marriage before, and it’s still strong. Because we’ve got each other.” That’s what he said. He said, “If it hadn’t been for you, I would have…” [gestures].

At the time, we were practicing Catholics. So the fact that she had gotten married, not in the church, you know... we had all kinds of irrational thinking going on. We had a Mass and the priest didn’t know her that well. That’s often the case, that the minister doesn’t know the person. The Catholic Church, they’re not into eulogizing that much. They want you to focus on the hereafter. Anyway, he gave a little sermon, and he had confused her with someone else. It was a disaster. And the funeral itself, the director who had made the arrangements, we connected with him. He was very sensitive and empathic and was just perfect. But [on the day of the funeral] he wasn’t there. There was somebody who substituted for him, because it was his weekend off. That other person didn’t know us, didn’t know all that we had shared about Jeanne. So when I went to work [in the funeral industry] I told that story, and I said, “Whenever y'all make an arrangement, if you’re not going to be there, for the actual funeral, you need to tell the family.” This is another thing that made me decide to be a funeral director: I’m sitting in the chapel - we got escorted in, to the front row. It was packed; I mean it was jammed. But the two rows behind us were empty. People hung back, and you know, you want people to come close and hug you. So, after that, I said, “I can do better than this!”

Gerry had been teaching at UNO since 1961, and I stayed home. I was a “stay-at-home mom.” I had a Bachelor’s degree in Early Childhood Education. It was two years after Jeanne died and I got to thinking about the grief process. I thought, “I’ve got to study this to see if I’m going crazy,” which… y’know, I was. I was 42 years old. I asked U.N.O. if they had such a thing as a grief counselling [program]. They didn’t. So I sort of developed my own curriculum, taking psychology and taking a death and dying course which discussed emotional healthcare [when someone dies]. But the degree was in a general counseling program. I finished and got my Master’s when I was 45. Never too late!

After I graduated I had a part-time job as a counselor with a friend who had a program in death and dying that we created ourselves. She and I started an office and we had some workshops and support groups for people who were struggling with the suicide of a child.

[I started to think that] the best place [to practice grief counseling] would be through the funeral homes. I did some research to see if they had licensed professional grief counselors at funeral homes. There were very few around the country. I proposed it to funeral parlors and I think I got around 200 responses. One was from Leitz-Eagan, and the man happened to be the President of the Embalmers and Funeral Directors Board. He was interested. That was my first job [in the industry] - at Leitz-Eagan, as a Grief Counselor.

The job description was to counsel the grieving families if they needed it, if they chose to have it, and also to start a support group. The other thing was to give lectures or workshops for the families who needed to learn more about the grief process. So I set [all that] up. After about a year, the owner of the funeral home, who [coincidentally] later became my son-in-law, said, “Look, to warrant your salary you need to become a funeral director so you can do other things, like make the arrangements.” So that involved a one-year internship, school, studying, and taking the test. But I didn't do embalming.

One of my first assignments was to present the ashes when there was a cremation. They call them cremains - you know the euphemisms they use! By the way, about euphemisms - and I digress - this is a death-denying society as I’m sure you’re well aware. This gets us in trouble as far as the grief process goes. Gerry, my husband. keeps me laughing; he’s got a great sense of humor. When people say, “So-and-so passed,” he jokes, “Well maybe if they’d have punted they would have made it!” (laughs) But it is detrimental because one of the first things in the grief process to resolve is to accept the reality [of death]. Saying the word ‘died’ - the big ‘D-word’ - is very helpful.

One of my first experiences as a grief counselor at the funeral home [involved my] presenting… we’ll call her “Mrs. Jones,” her husband’s ashes. I was fresh out of graduate school and when she came into the office I had a little urn with her husband’s ashes in it and she said, “Would you like to know what I’m going do with them?” I said, “Yes Ma’am.” And she said, “ I’m going to sprinkle them in the driveway and run over that S.O.B. every day” (giggles) and I said, “Oh! OK…. that’s a little bit of anger there.” That was one of my first [revelations]. Death brings up everything; all these different issues! You can’t assume anything.

One of the difficulties [in this line of work] is that it was a man’s industry at the time. That was in the late 80’s, early 90’s. It was predominantly men… and then a woman director! Oh man; how about that!? People gave me a hard time. I did have the ear of my son-in-law (he wasn’t my son-in-law then… but eventually became) but I had to put up with the men and their traditions of directing a funeral, arranging a funeral. They wouldn’t listen to a woman. And I had the education. Now, it’s reversed. I think it was 70/30 [men/women] then, now it’s the opposite.

After seven or eight years at the funeral home, Delgado Community College, which was the only funeral director/embalming school in the state, needed a director. I wanted to teach a grief counseling course to prospective funeral directors, so they would understand the grief process. I was [recommended for the job]. I [directed the mortuary] program at Delgado, and [worked to get] us accredited. I had multiple contacts with funeral directors around the country. I taught not only bereavement counseling, but also the history of funeral service. We taught about the history of embalming, which started in the Civil War. I stayed there from 1990-2002 and then I retired from that and went into private practice again.

[When I started with grief counseling] I had definite opinions about viewing, because of my experience in my personal life, and after reading about the importance of giving the bereaved choices and involvement. After Jeanne died, the hostess at the funeral home asked, “Are you going to have an open casket?” I said, “My son-in-law is making the arrangements.” She said, “Well, we have an option to view.” I was hesitant because you think of all these things people say, like, “You want to remember them alive” or, “Was she mutilated?” She said, “Well, it’s your only chance and you won’t have it again.” That convinced me.

We did have a viewing, but with certain people - just some of the family. Then [my son-in-law] decided he wanted a closed casket at the funeral because she didn’t look as beautiful as she was in life, which I agree. I didn’t agree on the closed casket but I had to let him…. My mother did not get to see her, which later on convinced me of the importance of the choice in the matter. Because my mother - I think it was a year later - my mother would say, “Are you sure that was her [in the coffin]?” and I thought, “Oh my God.” So I said, “Yeah, it was her.” Then her best friend, who did not view her, asked, “Was she badly mutilated?” And I said, “No not at all.” Your mind goes in all kinds of directions.

Charlie Eagan, my Funeral Director son-in-law, bought into my view. He was one of the few that accepted [the importance of viewing the body]. [One day] he came asking for advice in a case, it was a motorcycle accident and the body was burned, charred… unrecognizable. The mother wanted to see [her son]. He said, “What do I do?” And I said, “There are two reasons why you should let her have her way; but prepare her for what she’s going to see. The first is that if you deny her that privilege you can get sued. The second is that it’s her choice.” That’s the key, it’s her choice. She was very grateful. She could identify him from some kind of tattoo. And she said, “Thank you, that is my son.”

[Another thing] that bugs me is when funeral homes have rules about people not watching the actual burial. That was the experience I had with Jeanne’s funeral, before I knew all of this. The burial was in an outdoor mausoleum. The priest did the prayers at the graveside, and the funeral director shuffled us off and said, “Well you can come back later, after we do what we have to do.” My mother said, “What are they going to do?!”

That really got me on my high horse at the beginning. Whenever I did funerals I encouraged the family to stay and watch. I usually stay. We just had a very dear friend of ours die a couple of weeks ago. They did the same thing then. But I told the family, “I’ll stay and make sure that everything’s done properly.” And I took pictures so they could see that it was.

[When] I went into private practice after having worked at the funeral home and one of my clients had a daughter who died by hanging herself, by suicide. She came to me a few weeks later and said that when she got to the place [her daughter] was still in the spot where she had died but the police wouldn't let her see her daughter. They said “No, you can’t see this; it’s too traumatic.” They were judging what was traumatic for her and she said she kicked and screamed and hollered and they just would not allow it. All these years later she just kept thinking that it was not her daughter. That’s another example, to me, of the importance of viewing.

Now, on the other hand...people who refuse...who say, “No, I don’t need to see them,” maybe because they were with them when they died...or like in the Jewish faith where they have to bury within 24 hours…[then] the family, they accept. By the way, in my personal observation, the Jewish religion, they do grieve well. They grieve well and they have a reputation of “resolving” within a shorter period of time because of how they grieve, and their traditions and rituals. Rituals are so important. That’s what I've come to believe.

[Embalming used to be] a necessity to get the bodies back. I can see the pros and cons. Jewish people don’t believe in it; it’s dust to dust and immediate, with a coffin that’s biodegradable. The traditions and the beliefs direct everything, all the behaviors. Beliefs and traditions. I can see why the Black community would want embalming. When you’re doing a funeral, I say, “Personalize, personalize, personalize.” Give people the choice; the option. Some cultures dig the graves and literally bury the dead [by hand]. I keep using the Jewish as an example. They actually put mud on the coffin. What’s important is participating; actually doing something.

One other thing - when people say one type of loss is worse than another… I say it depends. I say, I wouldn’t use the word “worse” because pain is pain, and if you have a loss that is excruciating and very painful for you, then that’s the worst for you. People say, “Oh, you had a child that died, and I say, well, that was the worst for me but it may not be the worst for you. You can use the words “more complicated” or “more complex” but I wouldn’t say “worse.” And, on the other end of the spectrum, I wouldn’t minimize any death, or the importance of grieving. Some people say, if a dog dies… “Oh, it’s only a pet.” No. Because this dog - or a horse in the case of one of our grandchildren, could have been a best friend. So you never minimize.

Janice and Gerry Bodet holding a photo of daughter Jeanne

Janice and Gerry give us a tour of the memorial garden they've created

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