I Continued to Work as a Funeral Director Even During Cancer Treatment



Emily Burnett

Emily Burnett was diagnosed with stage 3 colorectal cancer in 2019, but the funeral director at Memphis Funeral Home & Memorial Gardens didn't let treatment keep her from working. It was important to Burnett to continue to care for families while doctors were caring for her. Here, she explains why.

It’s been more than a year since I rang the bell at the West Cancer Center here in Memphis, Tennessee, marking the end of a long and arduous road.

Through radiation treatments, chemotherapy and surgery, I retained my duties as a funeral director at Memphis Funeral Home & Memorial Gardens. Though it was one of the most challenging times in my life, it was one of the most rewarding times of my career.

During treatment, the families I served were kind, caring and compassionate toward my illness, which was my source of strength.

Treatment, as many know, can be difficult, exhausting and unavoidable. Thankfully, the love and support of family, friends and client families kept me going.

From their kind letters and phone calls to the homemade blue blanket that kept me warm during surgery, it was all so encouraging. In fact, a client family was by my side when I rang the bell back in February.

But I will always remember the family of Russ LeMaster, a dedicated husband who loved everything science and chemistry, especially the periodic table of elements.

Big Bang Theory funeral

Russ was an avid fan of the show The Big Bang Theory, which inspired his unique celebration of life. The letters and phone calls of support I received during treatment motivated me to plan the perfect service for Russ and his family.

Big Bang Theory funeral

The small details and creativity meant the world to them. Spelling his name with letters from the periodic table, having Big Bang Theory cookies and a homemade out-of-order elevator went above and beyond what Russ’s family had imagined. It hardly looked like a funeral, which is exactly how he would have wanted it.

Big Bang Theory Table Decor

After a few hugs and some tears, I knew I had made a difference. And at that moment, all my worries about my illness melted away. The only thing I focused on was Russ and his family.

During treatment, I was also lucky enough to befriend a mother and her family after showing them a small act of kindness beyond the funeral home. This particular family lived out of town and were concerned their daughter’s niche would go without flowers until they returned. So I set flowers out on her birthday, Veterans Day, Mother’s Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Each time I made sure to send the family a photo, putting their minds at ease. Later, I would find out that they couldn’t believe someone they just met would do something so caring and compassionate.

Though I'd never met the mother in person at that point, she made an effort to meet me in Memphis, where she presented me with a beautiful, blue (for colon cancer awareness), hand-crocheted throw blanket—the very same that kept me warm during my surgery. To this day, she still checks up on me, and I still take flowers to her daughter.

Through it all—the treatments, radiation and surgery—I became a better funeral director.

Being able to help someone who may never be able to pay you back is one of the many reasons I chose this profession. But when families show the same small acts of kindness in return, it can be an inspirational and lifesaving gesture. They certainly were for me.

If you know someone who's fighting cancer, I invite you to share my story. They may find it inspirational to know there's someone else who faced a life-threatening diagnosis and found strength in helping others.