When I heard someone say you had experience with mortuary science, I couldn’t help but want to interview you! It’s not something you hear about every day. Please, tell me how you got involved in this often misunderstood field.
Mortuary science kind of fell into my lap, because my cousin is a mortician. When I moved back from Texas, I was living in Rochester, working at the Mayo Clinic. I knew I wanted to get closer to family, which is an hour north of there. I saw she [my cousin] was looking for help with groundskeeping and office management, so I told her I’d come work with her part-time. Once I started working there, she showed me the other sides of mortuary science. Originally, I was going to go to the U for mortuary science, which is the program she completed. She was going to start up a funeral home and a cremation service hoping that we could run together.
I love it, I do, but my true passion in the medical field is emergency medicine.This last week, I accepted a position at HCMC in the emergency department. I’ll be there, doing my EMS course starting in June, and this fall, I’ll be going back to school to be a paramedic.
Congratulations! Before we get to your future career, I’d like to understand more about what you do with your cousin currently, and how it inspired your transition.
I strictly work at a cemetery, so we don’t do anything with the funeral home. I’m not a licensed funeral director, like my cousin. Every other Friday, I drive. We do pick-ups. If we get a call in the middle of the night, we’ll stay at the funeral home, and we’ll drive to whatever location to pick up people who have passed away in nursing homes, in the hospital, or at home. If a medical examiner or the police get involved, we won’t get involved until they have cleared the body for removal. It was actually doing this that made me want to be on the emergency side of medicine. Instead of being the last person called, I wanted to be the first person called. I wanted to be the first person who could try to give them their last moments.
When I was working as a PCA at Mayo, you would see patients when they arrived at the hospital, but so many things had happened by then. Sometimes the person had passed away. Sometimes they were intubated or had IVs. It’s a curiosity of “What’s the first thing they saw?’
You’re often in situations, currently, when you can’t be there for those final moments. Can you describe what it’s like to be on the scene when you go to do pick-ups?
If there’s more than one person in the house, the funeral director will take the next-of-kin or power of attorney aside and talk about everything that’s happening. At that time, I am in the room preparing the deceased for transportation – cleaning up, changing clothes, and getting ready to transfer to the gurney. If there’s a larger group of people, I will sometimes sit down with the family and tell them what they can expect in the process. It’s difficult, and unfortunately I’ve become.. conditioned to it. I have to remember that, “This is not a script. These people don’t see this every day.” You have to be a bit vulnerable with them, so they don’t think that you’re so cold. You don’t know if they saw the person pass, or if they were there for the passing, or what their relationship was with the person. It’s never easy.
I couldn’t handle that, so thank you for being that person for us. How do people react when you tell them about your work?
It’s usually, “That’s… interesting,” or “morbid” or “freaky.” It’s not always the best reaction, because people always think of death in a bad way. And I did too, until I started working in it. Death is never a good thing, and the majority of the time, you don’t experience a “good death” or a “peaceful passing.” Working in the medical field, the majority of people outside of a hospital or nursing home don’t pass peacefully. Any disease is not peaceful. I’ve seen loved ones pass away from cancer, Alzheimers, and heart attacks.
Even though a heart attack is fast in most people’s minds, that first 10 minutes is not fast. My grandma… We came home from a hockey game, and she said she was having a stomachache, and she had a heart attack on the kitchen floor. It’s one of those moments where you do everything in your power to bring them back, and you can’t always save them. You have to know that you did your best. That’s the mentality you have to have when you talk to families. You have to reassure them that they did their best and that this process is out of their hands.
People think you’re on a different spectrum, and that you do it because it interests you. It’s not even that. I just have a passion for helping people, knowing that I’m going to be able to make someone smile today.
When I went through that process of losing her… When you’re doing CPR on your loved one…
Wait – you actually performed CPR on her?
Yes, as my cousin called 911 my grandpa and I took turns rotations through rounds of CPR. I mean, she raised us. We lived in her backyard in a trailer house for 8 years, and we eventually built a house in the field across the street from her. When I came out, she called me and told me, “I love you no matter what.” When I got married in 2015, we were at her house, and there’s a photo that appears to have a reflection of her looking down on us from her bedroom window.
She would be so proud of you, Cody. I know she loved being there for you that day. And I know she’d be proud of your selfless work.
I’d like to know how you’re going to continue to be there for others. You’re about to become a paramedic, where you’ll be dealing with the living and in more dynamic situations. What do you foresee as your greatest challenge as you start?
It’s that initial chaos. It’s the ability to give the coping skills that someone can handle, in the moment of trauma. From the trauma that I’ve experienced, I know that you can’t talk someone out of what they’ve just experienced.
I’ve never been on scene; I’ve always been waiting for that person to arrive. Yet, it’s something I’m excited about. I’ve done lots of therapy myself in the past, and I look forward to being able to pass along those coping mechanisms to the patients and families. It’s almost a reassurance to myself that I did learn something, that I have come leaps and bounds, and now I can help someone else try to make that initial shock a little less. I can register an emotion you are likely feeling in that moment, and it’s a little bridge I can give you to help you connect your emotions and behaviors, so you can try to cope with the situation.
I think it’s going to give you a well-rounded perspective of humanity. Just as it takes a special person to deal with death, it’s equally important to help someone deal with suffering in the moment. Your kindness touches those around you – and me today. I only hope that when I, or any of our readers, find themselves in a critical situation, there will be another Cody to help us.
Josh Elmore (he/him), singer and member of our small ensemble OutLoud!, created Humans of TCGMC in 2018. He graduated from Carleton College with a B.A. in Linguistics and has since worked in sales, higher education, and, most recently, as a bilingual insurance agent (Spanish). Endlessly curious, he has dabbled in improv theater, stand-up comedy, sword fighting, the cello, and modeling for fantasy-themed photo shoots.