At 18, Greg Miller was working at Schneider and Sullivan Funeral Home in San Mateo while attending San Francisco State University. He answered calls at night until one day the funeral director asked him to drive the limousine during services. Working in a funeral home, he fast realized that people who are grieving simply need someone who cares.
"At a young age, I thought, this is a great job: Someone is going to pay me to be nice to other human beings," Miller said. Clean-shaven, Miller smells like peppermints and his pocket kerchief matches his gold tie.
It took Miller seven years working at the funeral home in San Mateo, a stint selling insurance, another job changing tires and then serving in the Vietnam War to realize running a funeral home was his calling. He returned to mortuary school to receive his embalmer's license. Then he took over the funeral home on Kelly Avenue. Miller and his brother Chris have run Miller-Dutra Coastside Chapel for the past 30 years.
"When you go tell your family you want to be a funeral director it's not like they jump up and down," he said. Miller takes tremendous pride in what he does but freely admits he "doesn't do hair very well."
As the years passed, Miller had a unique vantage point at the community funeral home and he's seen Coastsiders during their most trying times. The Miller brothers sat down with the Review's Lily Bixler and Greg Miller described the day-to-day logistics of being a funeral home director, how the industry has evolved and America's relationship with death.
What would you say is the hardest part of the job?
When I began, I think it was taking care of children after they died. Then I began to understand that folks that have been together - husbands and wives - for 50 or 60 years, their grief was similar to a parent who'd lost young children.
Also, I've been in this town 30 years, so one of the hardest parts is I know so many people and consider them friends, and it's becoming harder and harder when their relatives die or some of them die. It's just hard. I'm just like anybody else. If I had the power, nothing would happen to any of these people and they'd live until they were very old.
I went back to college and took classes on gerontology and death and dying to try to help me understand what people were really going though. I feel that I was doing really well sitting down with families, but there comes a time when you realize someone has probably studied the effect of grief. So I looked into it to find out what I should really be doing to help people. I knew I was coming from a place of caring, but what I didn't want to do was tell people something that made sense to me but really wasn't right. So I went back to school and that worked out really well.
And how do you emotionally handle being around so much death?
I think for me some of it is a faith issue. It's the idea that, hopefully, there is something better than this waiting for all of us. Our mother died when she was relatively young -she probably died when she was around my age and I'm in my 60s. I think what you learn is that people who have some kind of an idea, rather than having no hope for anything, (do better with death). One of the saddest funerals I ever had was some folks who really thought this person's death was the end, the absolute end. Everything that was said at this person's funeral was negative because no one could understand why. It was so sad to be there and listen to them, and there was no hope. It was like, "Wow, this person died too young."
Do you feel at the end of the day, you have to unwind and process what you've experienced during the day or is it all engrained in your lifestyle?
One of the things that's oftentimes helpful are the families themselves. It's a sad time for people, but it's not a time when they've lost hope. They have their own beliefs - they are often the ones that are helping me feel OK.
Do you find that most of the people you work with believe in some kind of afterlife?
Yes, they do. They have some kind of faith in something. I don't think they see death as just the end.
How has the business changed over the years?
I think at one point people really had no idea that they could come to the funeral home and ask the funeral director's help in what kind of service they will have. What would you suggest or what does someone with my faith usually do?
That's why I went back to school, so I could get people to tell me what they want. It's like you can take a funeral and make it relative to the person who's dying, but the truth is that the healing that's supposed to be going on is for the family and the friends. That's one of the things that's changed: We have more families who choose cremation as a final disposition, rather than burial. I'd say it's now probably half and half.
And how much cremation did you handle in the past?
Very little. When I was starting and before that, hardly anyone was cremated. It just wasn't done. Funeral directors have always offered that as a disposition, but people just didn't do that.
Do you have any sense of what happened over the last 20 or 30 years that's led to more cremations?
More and more people decided that was a disposition they'd like to take, and I think as more people are comfortable with that, more and more people join. I'm sure that's the way it was before with having a funeral - that's what they were comfortable with and so that's what they did. Now people are very comfortable with cremation.
I think we're much more aware now of what people are going through and we understand more of the things we can do for them.
The idea is to make a person look as much like the family remembered them, right?
A lot of times people say, "Mom looked so terrible in the hospital, so we just want the casket to be closed." I try to go along with that and not force anything on people. But the reality is, oftentimes, for the families who've allowed us to go in and fix up their relative, it's so comforting to them to see the relative because, you know, they don't look like they did in the hospital.
Do you usually work on people immediately after they pass?
In the old days we used to do that. As soon as we picked someone up, we'd start taking care of them. We thought the results would be much, much better. But for years now there's been a law where we can't embalm without permission. Before, we could just do it. We didn't' necessarily charge people if they didn't want it, but we just did it because we could. We thought the results would be much better that way.
When you're dealing with families that have never experienced death before, how do you help them through the process?
You want to make them comfortable so they'll be able to talk to you, and you want to let them know that you're here to help them. You sort of feel them out to see what it is they want and if they don't know you give them all the choices they have ... it's OK to do whatever they want to do. My brother and I have always approached this like there's nothing that we won't do for you. We never want to tell people no.
Do you think America's relationship with death is healthy? Has it changed over the years?
I think there are some ethnic groups that do really, really well with death because they involve their children from an early age, so they get to know that this is just a part of life and some day they are going to die. I'd say most people seem to be able to deal with it and have a healthy enough attitude. There are going to be people who don't and you wish there was something that could be done for them.
(America's relationship with death) has certainly changed. When I first started 37 years ago, people dealt with death by having more funerals. Then the cremation societies came into existence and basically their approach was funerals aren't fun, they aren't enjoyable, so why do it? Have your loved one cremated. For people who have a hard time at funerals, that was kind of a nice, easy way of dealing with it. Then, after a while, the same cremation societies realized it wasn't good to be telling people not to do it. Because it's not fun wasn't a good approach. They needed something to memorialize their loved one.
I think it's better now because most people find some need to memorialize and have a service and recognize that someone's dead. There are still some people that choose not to do that and it's fine.
How would you categorize the importance of memorializing? It's kind of this ancient thing that people have been doing for so long, and sometimes with traditions we do things without thinking of the importance.
In the old days, funerals were (standard) - we're going to take care of your mom, we're going to embalm her, dress her, do her hair and put her in a casket. Then the minister is going to come and do something and then we'll go the cemetery. Now people understand there's so much more they can do. Let's say we're having a cremation first and then having a memorial service. Now it's like, where are we going to do this? I went to a memorial service for a friend of mine and it was in her home. People brought food to share. People shared stories. There were lots of pictures and albums out, so you could see this person's life. So you could start to get a sense of what's available.