Oversharing undertaker goes viral
LOTS OF businesses turn to social media to build their brand.
But sixth-generation mortician Caleb Wilde is in the business of dead bodies. So when he posts his perspective on Facebook and Twitter, some people get all twitchy.
That's because Wilde's perspective is, well, a bit wild.
In November, the Parkesburg, Chester County, undertaker tweeted: "As a mortician, I always tie the shoelaces together of the dead. Cause if there is ever a zombie apocalypse, it will be hilarious."
The joke went viral, getting retweeted more than 6,000 times.
It also prompted a call to the borough police department. "He [the caller] actually thought we were doing that," Wilde marveled.
Despite the detractors, Wilde's online commentary has won him an avid following and national acclaim for shining light on a dark subject with posts both hilarious and heartfelt.
His Facebook page, where he reposts his blog, "Confessions of a Funeral Director," gets 600,000 to 1 million hits a week. He has more than 17,000 Twitter followers. And he's talked about death and dying everywhere from 20/20 and NBC News to Time magazine and the Huffington Post.
He makes no money from it, refusing advertising offers.
"Funeral directors are too often seen as opportunists who are looking to take advantage of people in their weakest moments. I am not one of those funeral directors . . . this website exists [so that] people can share freely and honestly without fear of ulterior motives or profiteering," he writes on his site, www.calebwilde.com
His mission is simple:
"I want to start a conversation about death," Wilde said. "A main part of our humanity is our mortality. Death makes us realize how precious and fleeting life is and how much each day is a gift."
Casket hide & seek
Death has been in Wilde's life longer than he can remember.
He grew up playing hide and seek in the casket room of his family's funeral home in Parkesburg, the only mortuary in this rural burg of 3,600. By 16, he was mowing its lawn, parking cars during services and accompanying relatives on calls to pick up bodies.
Death has always been the core of family lore. The first Wildes were cabinetmakers who made their first caskets around 1850. Wilde's grandfather Thaddeus, who was born in the funeral home, was embalming bodies by age 12. Wilde's mother and father were like their community's own Romeo and Juliet; when they married, their families ran competing funeral homes.
But Wilde didn't want to follow his ancestors into the family business.
"The act of rebellion for a funeral director is to seek something that's surrounded by life," he said.
For Wilde, that meant the ministry. He'd discovered God as a teenager and spent his college years at Lancaster Bible College and Biblical Seminary in Hatfield, Montgomery County, picking up bachelor's and master's degrees in Bible and theology.
He worked as a missionary in Madagascar before he returned home and reconsidered a future in funerals.
"I couldn't make it financially in the ministry. Unless you have a big church backing you, you run out of money," he said.
At first, Wilde wasn't especially thrilled with his new profession, especially the smells and undefinable "presence" of death - things that still chill him now.
But with each drive to pick up a body and every conversation with a grieving family, his commitment to his new career grew.
"I don't believe in a 'calling,' " said Wilde, now 32. "I never had a eureka moment where I knew this is what I was meant to do."
Instead, he gradually realized the need he and his family fill. When his funeral home handled two children and their grandparents who were killed in a fire eight years ago, Wilde collapsed and was briefly hospitalized from physical and emotional exhaustion. Against doctors' orders, he went to work the funeral the next day.
"You continually see need, and you see that you're here to fulfill that need, so you do," he said. "Terms like honor and so forth kind of apply."
He added: "In many small towns, the center of the community is not the church, the community center or the school. It's the funeral home. This is the bonding center; this is where we show our grief, where we come together, where community is created.
"It's who I am now," he said.
Death is a grim business.
Wilde takes antidepressants and openly talks about the depression he suspects many others in the business struggle with secretly.
Writing, he says, is his therapy.
When he started a blog three years ago, he wrote about theology.
"That didn't work," he said. "People weren't too interested in reading 1,000 words on death. It's just too heavy."
Concise comedy was the way to hook readers, he said. He renamed his blog "Confessions of a Funeral Director" and began tweeting his musings. (His Twitter bio: "I'm the last person to let you down.")
Death in 140 characters was more palatable to "death virgins," as Wilde calls people who have little or no experience with death and dying.
"We want to take death in pieces, small pieces, anything bigger is too big to handle," he said.
Besides zombie jokes and photos of pimped-out hearses, Wilde also aims to "shed light on an industry that for the most part is cast in shadows."
That means essays on topics like funeral director "burnout and compassion fatigue," funeral etiquette (including a post defending funeral "selfies"), consumer rights (like "Do Funeral Homes Charge Too Much for their Services?) and a "You Want to Be a Mortician? 21 Tips" post.
It also means occasional misfires, like the time Wilde tweeted a picture of an anal/vaginal plug, which some embalmers use to stopper bodily fluids, with the words "This is your last screw."
"That's the scary thing with social media: You put something out there, thinking no one will see it, and then it goes viral and that sorta of defines your platform and what people think of you," Wilde said. "But you have to continually push boundaries."
His grandfather is not a fan and refuses to read it since souring on a post Wilde wrote about how he hoped his dog would be saved in evangelist Harold Camping's predicted rapture.
But his father, Bill Wilde, believes his son has brought positive attention both to their funeral parlor and the business generally.
"There's always going to be somebody who disagrees with you, no matter what you say," Bill Wilde said of his son's naysayers.
And Wilde's social media work caught the attention of the National Funeral Directors Association: He's been invited to speak at their October convention in Tennessee.
"Caleb Wilde is someone who has done very creative things in social media to market for his funeral home and the industry," association spokeswoman Jessica Koth said. "We believe he has a lot he can teach other funeral professionals."
The funeral business is a 24/7 job.
From 2 a.m. calls for body pickups to interrupted family outings, Wilde has grown accustomed to an erratic schedule.
So it'd seem that Wilde has little spare time for social media, let alone anything else.
Instead, the married father of one is completing an online postgraduate program on death, religion and culture. He aims to eventually get a doctorate degree and teach topics relating to death and dying at a collegiate level.
Immersed in death, Wilde has had plenty of time to ponder his own.
He wants a "green burial" - no embalming, caskets or vaults.
He aims one day to open his own green cemetery in or around Parkesburg. He thinks it's the future of the funeral business.
Environmental concerns and rising costs will drive many to consider green burials, he predicted. But for him, it's his conviction that funerals have become such a big business that they've added to the public's distaste for death.
If that sounds a bit self-defeating for an undertaker, Wilde doesn't mind.
"I think the value of having a good relationship with death is more important than this archaic industry surviving," Wilde said.
Plus, he'll have his green cemetery.
And his Twitter wit.
"My dream is to have some interaction with Stephen Colbert," he said. "If that ever happens, I'll just retire. I'll die happy."
On Twitter: @DanaDiFilippo