Recently I started a series on my blog called Learning From Leaders. A leader’s job is to never stop learning. One way we continue to learn is to learn from other leaders, especially those who have unique stories that need to be shared. See the first [LFL] post in the series with Chris Horst here.
In seminary, you meet all sorts of unique people. One of my favorite people I met in seminary was Caleb Wilde. During our time through seminary, we sat next to each other and suffered (yes, the operative word is suffered) through many classes together. Caleb was a full-time employee of a funeral home – a sixth generation funeral home director – and a part-time seminar student.
Here is his story.
Caleb, a sixth generation funeral home director and a seminary graduate. No doubt, that is a unique mix. Tell us how you arrived at the funeral home business and how you arrived at pursuing theological education.
When I was young, while all the other kids were drawing fireman, astronauts, princesses, and basketball players for their “What I Want to Be When I Grow Up” posters in elementary school, I was drawing a missionary. As soon as I graduated high school, I entered YWAM with plans of becoming a vocational missionary.
And then I left. At the age of 20, I left missions.
Except for me — the one who had wanted to be a missionary from elementary school on up — I felt God was calling me into the one place I never wanted to be, back behind enemy lines, working with Death. After years of identity struggle, I’ve learned that I can be both a funeral director and a missionary. It’s out of this realization that I’ve been both a full-time, licensed funeral director and part-time student for the past couple years.
I have fond memories of sitting next to you in seminary class and at the first break of class I would ask, “So, what did you do today?” You had some crazy stories. To allow people to see a glimpse of your ‘average week,’ tell us a few parts of your job and lifestyle from the past seven days.
I think our IM’s were the only thing that got me through a laborious history of hermeneutics class. As to my week … this past Saturday, the 25th was my first day off in 21 days. I was on call for 24 hours out of each of those 21 days. This past week I didn’t have any night calls (thank God [or maybe I should be thanking Death?] for little graces). We had four funerals this past week. I picked up all the four bodies on my own and I helped embalm two of them. In some sense, the funeral industry is very much like ministry in that there’s an often unhealthy concoction of regular and irregular work hours.
How does your work in a funeral home and your seminary education mix – or do they?
We funeral directors work alongside four principal tyrants – Death, Mystery, Fear and Religion. We have a twisted, mutualistic relationship with these Powers, as they provide us with a living and then they take us in the end.
As a paid observer of the effects of Death and a director of those it leaves behind, I’ve noticed that paradoxically, Death and its associate Suffering allow those their cold fingers touch to be human again. We try so hard to escape our humanity – to feel self-reliant, independent, painless, almost indestructible and god-like – that we fail to remember just how fragile and childlike we are.
Death changes that. It makes us accept what we have been denying. It makes us like frightened children who look for the comfort and the “it’s-going-to-be-okay” embrace of our parents.
And yet, during death, when we look for the embrace from our heavenly Parent, we often receive only silence. We’ve been trained – especially in seminary — to speak about God, and then the great silencer takes our words away.
I live at the crossroads of silence between this world and the next. In some sense, I live the life of Holy Saturday. I live in the silence and doubt between this world and the next, where faith is either extinguished or enlivened by mystery.
How are the theological concepts we learned in seminary such as salvation, heaven, hell and suffering been influenced by your profession – and vice versa?
I’ve built my understanding of God around suffering, pain and death. It’s a local theology, one that has been greatly informed by the God as Suffering Servant motif. God as powerful, God as sovereign, etc. simply doesn’t’ work when one is surrounded by tragedy as a matter of vocation.
Death in America is a fascinating study in and of itself. There was a course in college offered by the psychology department called “Death in America” that regretfully I did not take. I feel it would have given me a greater understanding as a pastor as to how people think about death. With hundreds if not thousands of funerals you have been a part of, what have you experienced as major themes in the psyche of Americans regarding death?
Death has become too industrialized. We’ve abdicated our positions as chief caregivers for our dying loved ones to the professionals … to the nurses, to the doctors and, yes, to the funeral directors. Too many Americans sit back and let the pros take charge, which – I would say — is a major theme in the psyche of Americans regarding death. As a result of this abdication, death has become more and more alien to our experience and so with that alienation comes increased unfamiliarity and fear.
You write a lot on your blog about your experiences with death and dying (some funny, others profound and still others unbelievable at times). Why do you write?
There’s been much exploration of the relationship between death and the humanities (psychology, anthropology, etc), but little exploration between death and divinity. I’ve wanted explore that niche. Death, though, is a topic that has little experts; not for want of exploration, but for a lack of uniformity. Each individual produces their own form of death experience. So the blog is not only a place where I explore the relationship of death and God, but it’s a platform where others – who have experienced bereavement – can share their experiences.
One of the connections we have is that both of us are adoptive fathers. It was incredibly meaningful to follow along with you all in your recently adoption adventure. Tell us about you and Nicole and your adoption journey.
Nicole and I are the parents of our five month old Jeremiah. We have been married for 10 years and have been unable to conceive.
Most would assume that we would have played the part of the redemptive Jesus. The Jesus who swooped down in the life of this little boy and rescued him from a potential life of difficulty. His biological father out of the picture. His biological mother fighting to provide for herself.
And we – the 30 something, financially stable, mature Christian couple – swooped down to take him into our Christian family. Most would think we were the redemptive Jesus. But most would be wrong. Nicki and I were the poor and broken Jesus. The Jesus in the jail. We were the homeless Jesus. The whore Jesus. The Jesus on the street corner begging for money.
We were the least of these.
In this situation, we weren’t the Jesus who gave all, we were the Jesus who received all. We were the ones who couldn’t provide for ourselves. We were the ones who needed the redemptive Jesus to come in and make us whole. We were the couple who couldn’t conceive.
“For I was broken and infertile and you gave me your son. Whatever you did for one of the least of these, you did it me.”
We were able to be Jesus – not in our giving – but in our receiving.
So, what’s next for you?
This fall I hope to earn a certificate in Thanatology (the study of death). After that, I’m looking to enter a Ph.D. program and explore the connection between death and God. I also hope to self-publish a book within the next year that’s currently called, “Confessions of a Funeral Director: How Death has Buried My Ideas about God.”
To learn more about Caleb and his unique “Holy Saturday” life, check out his blog Confessions of a Funeral Home Director here.