Aaron Stromberg was awaiting a plate of ribs at a Mounds View restaurant when the call came in — a fellow funeral director needed his help. He steered his van to a St. Paul apartment building, unsure exactly what he would find there.
A man was lying lifeless on the kitchen floor of his apartment. He had likely suffered a heart attack half a day earlier and hit his head on the way down.
Stromberg’s task: moving the body onto a gurney and discreetly taking it away. He and a growing cadre of behind-the-scenes specialists make a living whisking the dead where they need to go. It’s something Stromberg does up to a dozen times a day, typically responding within an hour of being beckoned.
“There’s times when we’re really running, where [the calls are] back to back to back,” said Stromberg, owner of Twin Cities Trade Service. “And you’re doing the best you can to just keep on top of it.”
The sensitive, sometimes grueling job of removing people from their place of death can generally be done only by licensed funeral directors, also called morticians, under state law. Faced with rising deaths and a shortage of funeral directors, funeral homes are increasingly leaning on morticians-for-hire such as Stromberg to remove remains while the city sleeps.
It’s one of many changes in an industry already challenged by a consumer preference for cremation — now 67% in Minnesota — and less demand for traditional funerals.
Clad in a dress shirt and tie, Stromberg got to work in the St. Paul apartment. He and the other funeral director loosely wrapped the body in a light plastic material. They lifted it onto a gurney and covered the remains with a cotton sheet.
They wheeled the body out to the elevators. The first one had someone in it, so they waited for the next one. They rolled the gurney to a van and the job was done, about 15 minutes after it began.
“I always handle every situation like I’m going to meet these people someday, somewhere else,” Stromberg said. “And I don’t ever want someone to look at me like I mishandled them.”
The handful of “trade services” businesses that do removal work in the Twin Cities have watched demand steadily rise in recent years. On average 121 people died every day in Minnesota in 2017, up from just 101 a decade earlier. The number of licensed funeral directors, meanwhile, has fallen about 12% in the past decade — which counts those who maintain a license but aren’t practicing.
Funeral homes still do many removals themselves, but directors often need assistance to stay fresh for their other work.
Kevin Waterston, general manager of the Cremation Society of Minnesota, said he’s short at least two funeral directors, and said it is particularly difficult to find people who are willing to be on call all night.
“They’ve got more options today,” Waterston said. “And they’re more in demand.” So he and others rely more on morticians-for-hire.
When the work piles up, Stromberg keeps motivated by thinking of the loved ones.
“You know there’s someone on the other end that’s mourning,” he said. “And when I leave that house, it continues for the family.”
A demanding schedule
An answering service dispatches requests to an app on Stromberg’s phone eight to 12 times a day. They typically direct him to nursing homes, private residences and hospitals — with instructions on where to take the remains. Blaine to Forest Lake. Minneapolis to Duluth. St. Paul to Minneapolis.
It’s a dizzying array of locations, but the memories stay with him.
“You never forget, as much as you try,” Stromberg said. “I can still drive by homes from 10 years ago and remember in full detail what I did.”
He catches sleep when he can during five-day shifts, often coming and going from his home in the middle of the night to deliver remains to empty funeral homes. About 20% of calls involve an embalming, a one- to two-hour process that Stromberg takes great pride in. Three other morticians on staff help him with the work.
Stromberg, 34, grew up in northern Wisconsin and lives in New Brighton with three young children and his wife, Caitlin, a mortician who also works at the business.
When he got started in 2010, Stromberg was reliably home for dinner, and he recalls giving his newborn daughter regular 1 a.m. feedings. Then 60 calls a month grew to upward of 250.
“Now with this one, I never even had a chance to get up in the middle of the night,” Stromberg said of his youngest daughter. “Because in the middle of the night, that’s when I’m gone.”
His experience is common for this niche profession. Tim Koch started a removal business out of his home in 2013.
“It was just me and one van,” he said. “So I had two cots and I just helped people. And the phone kept ringing.”
Now the Savage-based business, Metro First Call, has eight vans for removals, employs 13 licensed morticians and offers cremation and embalming.
Todd Anderson, owner of trade service Johnson-Williams in northeast Minneapolis, said three to five removals made a busy day when his father ran the business. Now, his company has some days in the winter — high season for deaths — where they do 20 removals daily.
Minnesota is more restrictive than other states about who can do a removal. It is one of just two states that require a four-year degree to become a licensed mortician. Other states also allow non-morticians to remove bodies.
Anderson worries whether the current workforce can keep up if the trends continue.
“You could only have so many people doing so many things,” he said.
‘Can’t be a robot’
Hours after the call in St. Paul, a security guard escorted Stromberg through a Shakopee hospital at 1 a.m. to retrieve a body for an organ and tissue donation. He checked the tag on the body bag against another on the deceased’s wrist to ensure that they matched before strapping the body to his cot and wheeling it away.
The job is as much about the living as the dead. At senior facilities and private homes, he meets grieving families. Stromberg has learned to read the room.
“You can’t just be a robot [saying], ‘My sympathies to you,’ ” he said. “There’s some families I’m laughing with … and then the next group you walk in and you can tell they don’t want to say anything.”
He explains to them how he puts a sheet over the body — except for the face — to ensure nothing is exposed when he removes the bed sheets. Rather than a body bag, which seems “cold” to him, he places the remains in a fiber-vinyl pouch and covers it with royal blue or burgundy blankets.
He does not handle medical examiner cases, which involve some of the most grisly deaths. But his work involves some messy situations, such as people who die on the toilet or in the bath.
“You’re able to flip a switch in your brain that allows you to do the job,” Stromberg said. “It’s like a defense mechanism, I think to keep you mentally healthy.”
He said the work has its rewards. When he moved to Minneapolis 12 years ago, he felt the industry did not focus enough on the emotional importance of removals.
“My belief was that that started the whole process,” he said. “That sets the table for you as a family to grieve and to mourn.”
After delivering the remains from Shakopee, Stromberg caught some sleep while a colleague handled two other calls. In the early morning hours, Stromberg rose to fetch a body from a group home, then traveled to a funeral home for an embalming.
When the five-day shift was over, Stromberg took five days off and spent it with his family.
“It teaches you just to take advantage of every minute you have,” he said.