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My View: It’s a great privilege to serve community

By Mitchell B. Steinhorn

In my line of work, I have the pleasure of meeting all types of people from across America. The conversations are wide-ranging and I learn a lot of things by just listening.

One of the most unique things I’ve learned from many of these meetings is how seemingly different professions share a lot of the same qualities. Over time, I realized that my professions share a lot of the same qualities.

By day I’m a funeral director. I own Amherst Memorial Chapel. My off-hours avocation is being a volunteer firefighter and emergency medical technician with the East Amherst Volunteer Fire Company. I wanted to be a fireman ever since I was 3 years old.

Over the years, I’ve come to see a direct correlation between a funeral director and firefighter.

The most obvious is that we see most people on the worst days of their life. As a funeral director, my job is helping people who have just lost a loved one. It’s probably the hardest thing we all must deal with. Compassion is the primary tool we use to help people make final decisions for their loved ones. No matter how empathetic and professional funeral directors are, the families’ range of emotions – from sad to scared to angry – makes it very challenging.

It’s much the same way for a firefighter. Whether we’re called out to help someone in a medical crisis, or arrive at the scene of a home fully engulfed in flames, the victims are scared. From my experience, this fear creates a range of emotions as well. Some people are stunned and in shock. Some are agitated. Some are thankful you’re there. And some, well let’s just say they’re not happy you’re spraying water in their home even after you explain you must do it to extinguish the flames.

It’s difficult to help people on their worst day. But I must say it is one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done in my life.

After seeing the association between the jobs a funeral director and firefighter do, I did a little research and found some historical similarities as well.

It was quite common for people to wear two hats in any particular town. For example, the first civilian ambulance service in the United States was established by the Commercial Hospital in Cincinnati in 1865. The horse and wagon doubled as the town’s hearse.

The first automobile ambulance was established in Chicago in 1899 at Michael Reese Hospital. But in the early 20th century, automobiles weren’t widely available. That meant official ambulance services were rare, especially in small rural areas. So, hearses were regularly used as ambulances. They were large enough to carry a body, making the car ideal for transporting patients in medical emergencies. Funeral homes often had their own ambulance services with funeral directors as the drivers.

However, as EMS became official, fewer funeral homes offered the service because directors wouldn’t have time to get the proper licensing to drive an ambulance.

During that same era, funeral directors were some of the most prominent citizens in any city. Because of the nature of their job, they came in contact with just about everyone in their town. Also, they often played a prominent role in the fire department. Because most funeral directors had a business background, they were asked to oversee fundraisers for the volunteer fire departments.

Today, both funeral directors’ and firefighters’ service models are very similar. It’s all about community. Each has a primary duty to assist its community in life-and-death situations. Each one is vital to the people who live there.

It’s an honor to serve both.

Mitchell B. Steinhorn, of Amherst, is a funeral director and volunteer firefighter.
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