On this month's Special Page:

Minnesota licensed Funeral Director Victor M. Sweeney takes the "mystery" out of what his job entails.


JG Faherty
James Longmore
Nancy Kilpatrick
Kathe Koja
Joe R. Lansdale


Victor M. Sweeney is a licensed mortician living in Warren, Minnesota. He has been featured in several videos produced by WIRED Magazine, answering questions from Twitter about death and funerals. His first appearance (at 18 million views as of this writing) was the most-viewed video of 2021 across all of Conde Nast's brands. He has an amazing wife, four wild children, and a BS in Mortuary Science from the University of Minnesota.

See the WIRED video of Mr. Sweeney comparing reality to TV and film dead body scenes HERE


The above photos: Left, caskets offered in Mr. Sweeney's funeral home; and Right, a tombstone designed by him.


by Victor M. Sweeney

I am a licensed mortician.

I have thirteen years of mortuary experience under my belt, and a serious case of impostor syndrome. How can I, as just some guy living out here in the remotest corner of Minnesota, speak for an entire profession?

As it turns out, it isn't so hard. I'm always “myself,” and I've continued to be that, even after becoming internet-famous. I work my usual job. I still go home for lunch. I tuck my four kids in bed every night (when I'm not up working on a body). I also take pains to answer the various messages that are emailed to my work, sent on facebook, or mailed to my office. My “celebrity,” if you want to call it that, is small- and I am grateful. People ask for my advice or stories from my profession for the very reason, I suppose, that I am just a regular person. I have no real agenda to drive.

I don't really believe my so-called “fame” gives me a soapbox, but if it did, I would use it to talk about Tradition.

My profession tends to thrive on Tradition. Whether it is doing “what we've always done,” or coming up with a new tradition of sorts, ceremony is all tied to family history in one way or another. The journalist/author G.K. Chesterton said that “Tradition is the democracy of the dead;” that we who are alive and walking around have a debt to those that have gone before us to carry on in ways similar to what was handed-down to them. This doesn't mean that we do everything exactly the same as our grandparents, but I think there is value in connecting current practice to the past.

Sometimes the mundane reflects onto the greater truth. As an example, I never understood the value of having a hot lunch after a funeral. I have lined up countless meals in my years as a funeral director, but always thought it was just a remnant of days gone by. Maybe when Ole Olson (remember I live in Minnesota) died in 1920, a church-basement potluck was just the thing for his twelve kids and their families. Today, surely, it isn't relevant- I told myself.

But I've had a change of heart on funeral luncheons. When my best friend died at his own hand a few years ago, I was involved with planning his funeral. You get this a lot as a funeral director: if someone you know dies, chances are you'll be asked to help in some way or another. For my buddy, I had to explain some very difficult things to his folks, I gave his eulogy, and helped carry him to the graveside. After his funeral was all said and done, after I had delivered my speech about my best friend and ugly-cried for a good 45 minutes during the service and committal, we all processed down to the church basement, kicking the snow from the cemetery off of our shoes as we descended. Upon coming into the warmth and smelling classic Lutheran scalloped potatoes and ham, I was somehow brought a little peace. I then was able to sit with my friends and his family, share stories, and fill a mostly-empty stomach which (as it turned out) eased my heartache just a little.

Funeral lunch had its purpose after all! It wasn't done for some reason lost to time, or done “because it's what we do,” but it was done because it actually helps a person. Not a lot, mind you, but it helped enough to get me through. It provided some physical sustenance when I was emotionally spent. That is its value.

I use this as an example for the value of Tradition because I saw it firsthand. I will admit that I was prejudiced against what I saw as a silly ritual based on food: food that not one of us really likes (Have you had Lutheran scalloped potatoes and ham before? It's nothing special, believe me.). But as it turned out I, a Catholic who is all about Tradition on Sundays, failed to see the value of Tradition happening hundreds of times right in front of me in church social halls all around my service area.

When it comes to Tradition and funerals I will always err on the side of Tradition. We don't have to do things just like great-grandma did, but we should at least consider having a gathering. And maybe that gathering should have a recognizable structure. And even if the gathering is not “traditional” in the religious way, having something as simple as a gathering can link us to tradition. Providing a place where loved ones can gather, share stories, listen to some of the deceased's favorite songs, hear a message that we can take home and use to heal heartache: all these things were important to our predecessors and I have to believe they can be important to us that are walking around today.

Like me, maybe we don't always know exactly why we do things like we do them around death and funerals. If my man, G.K. Chesterton might teach one more thing in this little essay, it is the related principle of “Chesterton's Fence.” In 1929 G.K. wrote, by way of an example, that the new owner of a property ought not tear down a fence that's there until he knows why it was put up. More generally, we ought not drastically change something until we know why we do it in the first place. We should know the facts. Do we do a thing because the “fence keeps something good in?” Or do we do a thing because it “keeps something bad out.” These are big questions that I don't always have answers to. Part of my job is imparting what I know while also learning a lot along the way. Every family has a different tradition which maps on, in some way, to Tradition as a whole. The trick is finding that Tradition while also serving the family at-hand when they want something new.

So while I might offer my own insight to millions on the internet, I'm still here in Warren, Minnesota parsing out how to best serve any given family. And while I have done some unconventional things in my career thus far (like having a custom firework built containing a person's cremated remains), it all still seems to come back to Tradition in the end (the “fireworks show” was part of a larger gathering with family, friends, and food).

Funerals are a mysterious things to most people. I think that is primarily why the WIRED videos have hit such a large audience. People are curious about what the heck goes on behind the scenes. It is a peculiar profession I am in. We provide a service that isn't thought about regularly despite being inevitable- and that can be scary. Not knowing what to do, or being out-of-touch with our family traditions, can lead people to try and run away from the funeral. No doubt, I want to avoid it myself some days. But having a grasp on Tradition can de-mystify death and funerals in a way. Knowing what we have always done around death, and why, provides a blueprint from which someone like me can work.

And I guess that is my takeaway here: For whatever societal changes may come, my profession will be here to help families and friends make funeral services happen. I have already seen changes in the profession in my own brief career: I do not expect it to stand still, and I welcome the challenges ahead. But if we (myself included) can understand our Traditions, we can definitely know how to go forward. Hopping over Chesterton's Fence or going through the gate, as long as we know why we do what we have done, I'll happily lead the way.