FARGO — When Marty Baumgartner peered into his future at his high school graduation, a million uncertainties stared back.
The son of a farmer, he didn’t feel called to spend his days in a field. But what he did feel was the spark of something that had started at church while performing worship music at funerals.
“I would see these funeral directors and workers come in, and it planted a seed. I wondered, ‘How does all this work?’ ” he says. “Then in college, I thought maybe I’d take a look at it.”
To get through school, he took a part-time job mowing lawns and washing cars for a local funeral home. Now, some 20 years later, he’s still passionate about what he does as a funeral director, seeing it more as ministry than job.
And despite being, in his words, a “boring Lutheran,” Baumgartner says that undoubtedly, his faith has been a compelling force in his work.
“It’s what can get me up and out of bed in the mornings to come here and face the tragedies and losses,” he says, “to go to the scene of the accident and all those unbelievably sad things.”
Jeff Nathan, executive director of the North Dakota Funeral Directors Association, says the faith and funeral-business parallel hasn’t been widely discussed within the profession, but it’s a fitting pairing.
Families in need of funeral services are often going through “one of the worst experiences they’ve ever endured,” he says, and though funeral workers don’t impart their beliefs onto anyone, belief in God can help them address those delicate situations.
But it can also make the job more challenging at times, he says, especially when working with those without belief in a life beyond this one — a belief that, when there, can help in coping with death.
“We in the funeral profession have searched out different ways to fulfill the needs of everyone,” he offers, “including those people who want something less traditional, but to still do that it in a way that is dignified.”
Pat Lynch of Detroit, former president of the National Funeral Directors Association and 43-year veteran of the funeral business, says even though official statistics drawing the correlation between funeral professionals and faith lack, most funeral directors he’s known have been connected to organized religion.
At the same time, those being served who are attached to an organized religion “seems to be diminishing.”
Faith can be deepened, he says, through experiencing “the transformative healing that faith provides to people in grief and loss.”
He also sees faith at play in the very fact that so many who have experienced a death in the family still summon the energy to show up at the funeral home even hours later. “That tells me that God is assisting. Otherwise, people would be immobilized through their grief.”
At the University of Minnesota, where Baumgartner studied mortuary science, coursework included learning about beliefs and burial practices of a variety of religions.
“I’ve done Jewish and Muslim funerals,” Baumgartner says, “and I feel extremely respectful of those traditions and take great pride in helping meet those needs.”
The Rev. Sonja Kjar, who works with Baumgartner as a grief-support coordinator at Boulger Funeral Home, agrees that all clients deserve to be approached with tenderness and compassion.
“It’s all about meeting people where they’re at,” she says, “and if we meet them with compassion and care, that is God at work in our mercy and in companioning with them.”
Kjar, a part-time pastor at Bethlehem Lutheran Church, says we humans spend much of our lives trying either to live with loss or run from it. “There’s loss all around, whether it’s death, disappointment or dreams not coming to fruition.”
Her own story of loss began in her teen years, when dealing with undiagnosed anxiety, which led to depression. In her late 20s, she finally found help through medicine. “God didn’t fix it necessarily, but was God present with me in it? Absolutely,” she says.
Other losses followed — a miscarriage, a suicide in her extended family, and watching others deal with loss through her work as a pastor. But Kjar found, and still finds, hope in hearing others’ stories, even when there are no clear answers.
“Part of what I love about this job is that I see faith in a deeper, broader way,” Kjar says. “So when people are talking about what’s most important to them, whether it’s the people in their lives or what they’re passionate about, those are all spiritual kinds of things.”
Even if they don’t attach religious words to them, she adds, “They’re still dealing with those deeper meaning-of-life questions.”
And at THE bottom of the questions, faith can stir, moving one toward hope.
“I cannot envision someone coming into this profession, this job, this career and not having a faith foundation,” Baumgartner says. “I don’t know how they would do it — or last — seeing what we see on a daily basis and just shrugging, saying, ‘That’s the end. This is it.’ Maybe some could, but I could not.”
Faith, Kjar says, also helps them see more clearly the dignity of those seeking their services and their loved ones as well.
But that’s only the starting point, the bare minimum, Baumgartner adds. “You can see in that vessel that the spirit is gone. … And it’s so important that that vessel is treated with dignity and respect, because that vessel held a soul.”
“Yes,” Kjar says. “It held that person’s personhood — who they are, not just what they looked like …”
“When we see tragedies, I don’t look at that and believe that God caused it,” Baumgartner concludes. “When I look at the ambulance that showed up, the people who were there, the neighbors of that family stepping into that; that’s where I see God.”
[For the sake of having a repository for my newspaper columns and articles, I reprint them here, with permission, a week after their run date. The preceding ran in The Forum newspaper on Nov. 14, 2015.]