Dignity in Death

Genevieve-headshot

Genevieve Keeney-President of the National Museum of Funeral History
Photo Courtesy of the Museum

Little Genevieve Keeney’s curiosity focused frequently on death and dying. Her mother, a bit incredulous, encouraged her questions. Fearless at age seven, Genevieve never lost her fascination with how we care for our loved ones during death.

Genevieve thought about medical school but money for additional education was scarce. So, instead she joined the Army. While in the military she worked in the medical field managing life and death situations. Her basic medical training led to a career path as a Non-Commissioned Officer and Senior Medic.

When she left the Army after 12 years, she researched what offered decent pay, fit her skills, and matched her interests. Smart lady!  Her new, part time job at the Veterans Administration Medical Center steered her to become an expert in palliative care, helping patients and families during their final chapter in life.  Returning to college became reality. She completed a Masters in Science in Non-Profit Organizational Management in 2015. Long hours and hard work are a way of life for her.

Originally wanting to be a coroner, her studies and profound experience led her to become a funeral director. During her studies for the license, she volunteered at the nearby National Museum of Funeral History. The staff recognized her diligence and passion for helping with whatever needed to be accomplished.

Soon after she began her volunteer work, Museum leaders decided to build a small tribute to the passing of the Popes. The plan started small but when others saw Genevieve’s creative talent in helping with the project, they hired her full time, beginning in 2007. She has a gift for creating thought provoking exhibits that support the Museum’s mission and make an often difficult subject more tolerable for visitors. She has truly helped take the museum to the next level, helping grow awareness, change perception and increase attendance. Innovation and willingness to speak with diplomacy suggest the perfect match for her talents. Her quiet demeanor and empathy on the job soothes the souls of her listeners. Yet, when she needs to be direct, watch out!

Whether speaking to a group of children about death and dying or working with the issues that confront the Board of Directors, her communication skills aid in her countless duties. The newest special exhibit she created, in remembrance of the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 tragedy, offers memorial books signed by a grieving nation and pictures drawn and colored by children to honor those who perished that fateful day.

When I interviewed her, we talked some about Halloween. The main goal at the Museum is to honor the compassion and dedication of the funeral services industry, enlighten visitors on one of man’s oldest cultural rituals and celebrate the heritage of the funeral services industry. The museum takes great care to present information in a respectful and tasteful way. Genevieve is not a big fan of people who disrespect the customs of others. She assures the Halloween displays, like the annual family-friendly Haunted House, epitomize, not ridicule or mock, the unique ways others celebrate the end of life.

When you visit the museum, you may see her wandering throughout the facility, making sure the exhibits and displays are well-lit and shiny clean or talking with the gift shop manager, where all items are tastefully displayed; she might even be leading a tour or visiting with museum goers. She tries to circulate but much of her time is devoted to speaking and coordinating events. She also still holds her job at the local veterans’ hospital. I loved her comment, “I continue to work at the VA where I am honored when I hold the hand of a dying Veteran. I get to use all of my skills every day, both at the VA and the Museum. Who would have thought when I was young, I’d be a part of such an elegant, thoughtful career?”

I, too, am honored to meet and write about this gifted lady. Marathon runner, mother, new grandma, and lifelong learner—she understands the joy of life and preserves dignity in death.

A big thanks to Monica Rhoades and Genevieve Keeney for their assistance with this article.