“The worst thing you can ever do is get used to death, the minute you feel you get too detached or even attached, it’s time to move on. But it is hard to quit.” –Mortician Orlando Vanterpool

POSTED: 01/27/12 2:38 PM

Orlando K.K Vanterpool.

By: Torana Granston

What started out as a lingering curiosity into the world of the dead is now reaping big rewards for thirty four year old mortician Orlando Vanterpool. With dual functions as director and embalmer at the Emerald Funeral Home in Cayhill, Vanterpool admits that working with corpses changed his outlook on life. “It’s amazing how you learn to appreciate life in this business. I live for today, I believe in enjoying it while I’m here. Life is fragile and unnecessary stress and burdens just make it shorter. It is my motto that yesterday is gone, today will take care of itself and you can’t stop tomorrow, so it’s not worth it to stress.”
The mysterious has always fascinated Vanterpool who believes that people often reject the unfamiliar and the unexplained. They sometimes find creative ways of hiding the truth about some of life’s natural cycles as well. He expels the notion that all funeral directors are morbid, old, inherit the job from their parents and spend all day surrounded by dead bodies.
Erupting into fits of uncontrollable laughter at times, he reminisces about childhood days spent living in fear after sneaking a peek at people’s remains at funerals. He would be haunted by the thrill of seeing this strange phenomenon while dreading the possibility of dead people coming after him, especially at nights. “I was scared of dead people as a child and I realized that as I got older the fear was unnecessary. It was just because of all of those old folk tales and the taboo in the society. Urban legends make us believe all kinds of things but now I know that it is just a mindset.”
A product of a single parent home, Vanterpool grew up in Colebay and attended the Lionel Connor School before moving on to Milton Peters College. “I would not say that we were poor nor rich either but my mom worked hard to rear us and my grandmother also contributed to my upbringing.”
He spent two years working part-time at the funeral home and then decided to make an investment in himself by enrolling at the Gupton- Jones College of Funeral Service in Decatur, Atlanta. It was there that he learnt to perfect the craft by studying public health, business management, social sciences, legal, ethical and regulatory frameworks and liberal arts.
Today, Vanterpool is a licensed funeral director in Atlanta and national board representative, holding an Associate of Applied Science Degree in Funeral Services. But it took a lot of determination; he was one of the faithful few who made it through. “A lot of the people started the course but at least 60 percent of them never successfully completed it. They realize it is not easy and decide to drop out.” The month of February will mark ten years since he became a licensed mortician.
Our culture’s misconceptions have blurred the reality of what the funeral industry actually is. Usually it’s because we’re too afraid to ask what they really do. With an outgoing, energetic and affable personality, Vanterpool gave us a fresh understanding on working in the funeral industry. He said that Emerald Funeral Home tries to move away from the traditional mournful rite of passage opting instead to “celebrate” a person’ s life by planting a tree, lighting a candle or personalizing the ceremony. “We take care of everything, from the storage and preparation of the body to uplifting the death certificates. You take pleasure in knowing that you have helped a family through their grieving process. They are often pleased with your work and this can be biggest reward from the experience.”
He is quick to caution though that not everyone is cut out to work with cadavers. “You have to be called to do this. It is a hard, difficult and intense thing to do. You deal with a lot of conflicting emotions and also people’s grief, but I have learnt to handle it.” He explained that it has been statically proven that almost 80 percent of morticians are alcoholics. He has however refused to become another statistic by separating his personal and professional life.
From the days of his first client, the child who died in 1999 along with the patriarch of Afoo Group of companies when a fireworks display went awry, Vanterpool has become seasoned in the art of embalming, body reconstruction and cremation. The embalming process is a reverse cycle which replaces the body’s blood with chemicals. These chemicals help to preserve corpse from rapid decomposition. We could not resist the urge to ask the father of two to give a step by step description of how embalming is done. He quickly denies us the opportunity, explaining that the mortician’s ode would not permit it. “Upon graduating you take a mortician’s oath to maintain certain secrets, what we do here is very private and sacred. The outside world will never be able to experience all of it.”
But for all the joy it brings Vanterpool in living his passion daily, he does not hesitate in pointedly stating that he hopes that his children do not follow his footsteps. “I would not recommend that my kids join this field because it consumes your life and you have to learn to deal with many emotions, you have to listen to everyone’s problem and no one listen’s to yours.”
Over the years the funeral industry in St.Maarten has undergone rapid changes. Focus has shifted to increasing service levels and young, energetic professionals are replacing older folks in the field. “I would never encourage a young person to join this without researching this field for a few years. It’s more than the nice cars, fancy suits and five course dinners, behind the scenes it takes a lot of work,” Vanterpool insists. Approximately 10 students per year apply to do work-study at the funeral home.
The funeral director has observed that persons between ages 35 and 50 are dying more often with an estimated death rate of one person dying every two days here. He attributes most of it to the lack of concern for one’s personal health and wellbeing. “We have a fear of going to the doctor; frequent checkups can help you identify problem areas quickly before they become complicated. It also prolongs the inevitable. This is a concern of mine especially since I have buried a lot of my friends over the last few years.”
Globally, funerals rank among the most expensive purchases many consumers will ever make. A traditional funeral, including a casket and vault costs thousands of dollars, although “extras” like flowers, obituary notices, acknowledgment cards or limousines are also worked into packages. Death may not be the only discomfort but also the fact that some people equate the amount of money that is spent on a funeral with the value of a person’s life. They end up overspending to reflect their feelings for the deceased. Morticians agree that this is a lucrative business but it can only grow when you put your heart into it. But then again, there are those who believe that morticians are heartless or coldhearted to put it mildly. Vanterpool disagrees; he insists that you must have a passion for what you do. “You have to love taking care of people when they are living and when they are dead. The worst thing you can ever do is get used to death, the minute you feel you get too detach or even attached, it’s time to move on. But it is hard to quit.”
Post mortems are also conducted at the Emerald Funeral Home. The establishment has plans of remodeling its facilities and introducing a boutique to truly offer all in one services. Based on his level of education and exposure, Vanterpool believes that his business gives every person the very best. “I have observed that within some Caribbean countries that I travel to they are still way behind. We get remains from overseas that are totally beneath our standards. People need to understand that over the years there are a lot of new methods, new diseases and new technology to make your job easier and if you don’t embrace them you will be left behind,” he adds.
Morticians are trained to always remain focused when attending to their subjects. There is very little tolerance for mistakes because many of them cannot be reversed. Body reconstruction for example of a nose, eye socket or limb is a slow, grueling, intense process to make wax as life-like as possible. The profession also poses tremendous health risks for workers you are surrounded by chemicals and bacteria regularly. The lingering scent of burnt or partly decomposed body becomes a part of the life of a mortician.
But for all the standards in the industry, Vanterpool says that one of the biggest blunders for morticians is overlooking a person’s personality. “If you prepare a person with your own image, it doesn’t always turn out well.” For now, he hopes that he will never have to hear the bereaved expressing their displeasure with words such as “that doesn’t look like mommy”, “why is he so white”, or “that’s not my child!”

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Comments (1)

 

  1. lydia says:

    i admire vanterpool. i will never get used to death. each death of my loved ones takes a bit of myself with them