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People At Work: Dignity to the Deceased and Comfort to the Living
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People At Work: Dignity to the Deceased and Comfort to the Living

Janet Barnett places flowers on a casket.

Janet Barnett places flowers on a casket. Photo by Shirley Ruhe.

Janet Barnett opens the door to greet the mourners who have arrived for a visitation at Everly-Wheatley Funeral Home on W. Braddock Road. She gives the mourner a pat on the arm. "Sometimes it's a handshake, smile, pat on the back or sometimes a hug. I try to read the family and do what would make them comfortable."

They walk by a guest book, which Barnett has placed on a stand by the door. "Feel free to sign." She guides the family to the chapel. "The casket is down there." Barnett says mostly caskets are open. “Coffee? Water? Temperature OK?"

Barnett says they have many different kinds of visitations. It may be a small group or large. "We play the kind of music they request. It could be religious music or sometimes rock and roll or the favorite artist of the deceased.”

Barnett explains the employees are well trained, and she gets briefed on the family ahead of time. But she remembers a time when she was new to this and during the service, "I said to the mourning mother of a very young woman, ‘Is there something you need?' She said to me, 'yah, Bring back my daughter.'" Barnett said she learned to say things in a different way.

"Sometimes there is laughter and joy over the person's life. But if it is a child or younger person you don't hear that as much." If they have a Thai funeral, the Thai family does a lot of things themselves "and we have a separate room for the monks if they need it. In addition to our greeting the visitors, the Thai family greets the mourners as well.

"I say 'sawatdee-kah' which I learned as a traditional greeting when I was visiting my daughter in Thailand." In addition, she explains the Thai families attend the cremations, which is not traditional for most people in this country. She says Everly -Wheatley is used to different traditions and accommodates and welcomes all.

Jennifer Charlton, a funeral director, stops by explaining the family will be there soon for an ID and she wants to be sure the room is ready for them. Charlton said there will be a cremation later and since a cremation is irreversible they want to be sure they have a positive identification.

Charlton adds that cremations are on the rise. "I think it may be because the baby boomers view it as a positive life choice to celebrate the life and then have a big party." Sometimes it turns into a family reunion, "people who haven't seen each other for a long time."

Barnett adds, "An opportunity to come together and support the bereaved."

Barnett spent 32 years in Alexandria city government, retiring as deputy director of the Department of Recreation, Parks and Cultural Activities. Then 5 and a half years as executive director of Senior Services of Alexandria. Now in addition to her part-time work as a funeral assistant, she works part-time at Synergy HomeCare, which places companions for people who want to stay in their homes but need some assistance.

"I had a change in my life 7 years ago when my husband died. I filled up every single second. It was an escape for me." She adds, "I guess it was my medicine." She met the director of Everly-Wheatley and for the last 4 years has worked part time "doing whatever they tell me — to help from placing the flowers around the casket to attending the burial service to helping guide the mourners. "These services are an event in people's lives with so many details to discuss, and you want to be sure everything goes as they expected."

Barnett says that dead bodies really don't bother her. "You get used to them in the Jewish tradition where bodies aren't embalmed but instead receive the taharah, the ritual water bath. Women do women and men do men while saying Psalms. Then you sit with the body." She says, "I want to he able to give the deceased person their dignity. They can never repay you, and that is a good thing. I have taken that to what I do here."