Sammy Oakey

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If you happen to be visiting the Roanoke Valley in the next couple of months and you, well, die, today’s Quaz Q&A is perfect for you.

Actually, scratch that. Today’s Quaz Q&A isn’t perfect for you, because you’ll be dead. And dead people don’t arrange funerals. But print it out and keep it in your back pocket. Just in case.

Sammy Oakey is the president of Oakey Funeral Service and Crematory. But, more than that, he’s a representative of the fifth generation of his family to run the business. Which means, while Oakey isn’t dead, he knows death. And mourning. And suffering. And embalming fluid. And the smells and sounds of lifeless bodies. He also happens to be on Twitter—which is where I found him during my semi-regular “Why am I so terrified by the inevitability of death?” freak-outs. I asked if he’d be up for the Quaz, and now here we are. Full of life, talking death.

You can visit the funeral service’s website here, and follow Sammy on Twitter here.

Sammy Oakey, Quaz No. 206, let’s talk death …

JEFF PEARLMAN: Sammy, so I have to start with a simple question: How does working in death impact’s one perspective on death? Does it make you more comfortable than the average person? Does it change how you view mortality?

SAMMY OAKEY: I truly believe that instead of making one caustic or callous about death, working in a funeral home increases one’s sensitivity to the dead. Not only do you find yourself treating the decedents with more respect and dignity, but your interactions with the family members of said decedents can’t help but grow more positive and helpful. My Christian faith has been enhanced by working at Oakey’s, which has led me to have no fear of the afterlife. I do, however, still fear the pain that is often associated with dying. I find that I value my family and friends more than a non-funeral worker, mainly because I realize that our life can be snuffed out in an instant.

J.P.: You’re the fifth generation of Oakeys to work in the funeral/crematory business. How did this happen? Meaning, why this, of all fields, for the Oakeys? Did you know this was your future? Or, as a teen, were you like, “I wanna be a dentist!”

S.O.: Ha! Up until I was about 17 or 18, I wanted to be a reporter or a veterinarian! I needed a job in high school for date/gas money and found that it was much easier to ask my dad for one than to ask at my local McDonald’s or supermarket. From the time I came on board at my family business at the age of 15, I did not see myself making it a career until I was a senior in high school. It was then that I saw our profession as a type of ministry, one that helps people during the worst time in their lives.

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J.P.: I’m terrified by death. I mean, I’ll wake up some nights, in a cold sweat, haunted by the awful reality that I’ll cease to exist. Tell me why it’s stupid to have such fears? Or wise? Or neither? And do you ever have them?

S.O.: While not trying to be overly ministerial, I really credit my Christian faith with my ability to not worry about where I will be “going” after I pass away. I know where I am going! I do not believe that it is stupid to have fears about dying, though. It is such an irreversible thing, I think it’s good that you and others realize how final death is. Once you come to the realization that sleepless nights will not change the fact that you are going to die, it will be a refreshing catharsis.

J.P.: What’s the process? Someone dies, the funeral is with Oakey’s. So … what happens from there?

S.O.: It depends on what the family wants. Often, they want an immediate cremation with no service or visitation. If that’s what the next of kin asks for, its what we do. Often though, a family will want visitation and a funeral. This necessitates that we embalm the body, cosmetize the body and ask the family to select a casket and outer burial container. We need clothing for the body, too. During the arrangement conference, we take information for the death certificate, obituary, social security, veterans data and discuss the financial information. We also brainstorm about ways that we can memorialize the loved one. I tell every family that we want to take the focus off of the death and place it on the decedent’s life. The toughest times are when a family views for the first time, when they view for the last time (before we close the casket), and when/if Taps is played at the cemetery on a trumpet.

J.P.: What can you tell us about dead bodies that most folks probably don’t know? Textures? Noises? Fluids?

S.O.: Occasionally during the embalming process, a decedent will slightly move his/her finger or hand. This is just from the embalming fluid (mixed with cold water) flowing into a still-warm body. Once I heard a body make an “Ohhhhhhhhhhhh” sound as we moved him from our cot onto our embalming table. I later found out this was from air leaving the lungs, but it sure scared the heck out of me at the time!

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J.P.: What’s the saddest story from your career? The happiest?

S.O.: Any time we handle an infant or child would be the saddest, by far. The worst was when we had the funeral for Cole Thomas, who drowned at Smith Mountain Lake outside of Roanoke. He was about 4-years old, and snuck out of the family’s lake house while everyone was napping. He walked to the dock, fell or jumped into the water, and was found about an hour later. My own son was about the same age, and I can remember sobbing during the funeral at St. Andrew’s Catholic Church. They had put a book into the casket (Where the Wild Things Are) that was also one of my son’s favorite books. Man, that was sad. Packed house.

Funniest thing would be when we had a funeral for a guy who died, who had said “Hey, man!” to everyone during his life. He even had a HEY MAN license tag, which the family affixed to the front of his casket! The family had arranged to have When the Saints Go Marching In played as we rolled the casket out at the end of the funeral. On top of that, the wife started dancing some wild dance as she followed the casket out. Everyone was smiling!

J.P.: Here’s a weird one: I’m sure you’ve uttered the phrase, “I’m sorry for your loss” about 17,000 times in your career. But after doing this for so long, and partaking in so many rituals, do you REALLY feel sorrow when someone dies? I don’t mean to imply you lack empathy, but after all these years on the job, can you still feel sadness over the death of a stranger? Or is it another dead person on another Tuesday?

S.O.: It honestly just seems like the right thing to say, but I truly am sorry that someone has lost a loved one. There are so many things that you can say that a family might get mad at, that “I’m sorry” is a nice and safe phrase that will not get you in trouble. I will not deny that my “sorry level” can fluctuate wildly, depending on my mood and how the family has treated me and my staff. It is still impossible to see tears rolling down a cheek, however, and not have some level of empathy for the mourner.

J.P.: I don’t really want a funeral for myself. Let me die and everyone else should move on. No fuss, no mess. Why am I wrong about this?

S.O.: You are being selfish and only thinking about yourself, Jeff. A funeral is truly for the living, and to deprive your loved ones of the chance to be on the receiving end of kind words from your friends would be mean. Remember how Charlie Brown would say “Good grief”? There is such a thing as “good grief,” and survivors need to go through it in order to heal from a loss. That grief involves planning and attending some type of service for the decedent. Families often find funerals and visitations a great place to learn about stories of their loved ones from friends that they barely know.

J.P.: Have you ever had any creepy experiences? Have you ever felt the presence of someone who died? Ever hear weird noises in the dark room? Ever wonder, “Is that dude really dead?”

S.O.: I have never heard or seen any type of paranormal activity in all my years at Oakey’s. That’s not to say I have never been scared while here. Usually the fright came from coworkers playing jokes/tricks on me, but it would occasionally come from being around some mean or rough family members in our facility. The scariest deaths I was ever involved with were two separate murder/suicides (one where I was only the second person on the scene) and a motorcyclist who died in an accident and was decapitated. When I went to pick him up, his helmet was still on the severed head. I also get queasy when I have to handle “decamps”—bodies that have started decomposing. Horrible odor, appearance, and usually maggots.

J.P.: I have a problem. I was very close with my grandma. She died in 1999, and was buried in New York. I don’t like visiting her grave because when I go, I don’t picture her as my grandma and have warm memories. I picture her below the ground, bones and decay. Is there a solution to this? Is that a common issue?

S.O.: Maybe not a solution after all these years, but it would help to know that the spirit of the kindly lady who was your grandma is not under the ground. Depending on her faith, she is in heaven. My dad had the same problem in 1981 when my mom died, though. I walked into his bedroom one night about a week or two after the funeral, and he was crying (only time I ever saw it) and upset because he said his wife was “in that cold, hard ground.” So you are not alone. Be like the preacher who inadvertently said at a graveside funeral, “What we have here is the shell. The nut has gone to heaven.”

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• What are the major misconceptions people have about your business?: That we are rich! Also that there are a lot of necrophyliacs in our profession and we push high-priced products on consumers.

• Rank in order (favorite to least): Trident gum, Steve Bartkowski, freshly baked bread, mouse pads, The Addams Family, Wilma Flintstone, Ross Lynch, Ella Fitzgerald, Air Jordans, Anchorman: Bread, gum, Anchorman, The Addams Family, Bartkowski, Wilma, Air Jordans, mouse pads, and Ella. Not familiar with Ross Lynch.

• One question you would ask Daniel Radcliffe were he here right now?: Heard of him, but never seen any Harry Potter movies or any of his other stuff.

• Life after death—believe it or not?: Absolutely. One goes to Heaven or Hell right after that last breath. Do not believe in reincarnation, either.

• Do you think Sony should have simply released The Interview without delay?: Yes. It became a comedy of errors.

• Five reasons one should make Roanoke his/her next vacation destination?: Blue Ridge Parkway cuts right thru Roanoke, Appalachian Trail goes right around Roanoke, 23 miles of greenways in our valley that mostly parallel the Roanoke River, incredible railway heritage and museums, and the view from Mill Mountain, home of the world’s largest man-made star.

• Top five death-related movies of your lifetime?: Big Chill, Stand By Me, My Girl, Beetlejuice, and Weekend at Bernie’s.

• In 30 words or less, your take on “Six Feet Under”: Pretty well done. A bit sensationalistic concerning the deaths, though. Excellent and rich characters.

• Who would you rather take on a two-week vacation: O.J. Simpson, a dead body or that really loud woman from Dance Moms?: Never seen “Dance Moms” (but hate loudmouths), and not into hauling bodies on vacation, so I guess it’s O.J. and me!

• I can’t get rid of my wrist wart. Any advice?: I’ve still got a scar from 20 years ago when I had one. My dermatologist tried freezing, burning and scraping that wart off. Wart finally went away, but now I am left with a hairless area on my wrist about the size of a dime!