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Class of 2024-The Tug of War with Time

On May 17, 2024, I was honored to deliver the commencement speech to the 2024 Graduating Class of Gupton-Jones College of Funeral Service. Being asked by my alma mater to impart words of wisdom to its current graduates was a moment I will forever cherish. I wanted to share this speech with hopes that it will relate to all mortuary science graduates: past, present, and future. I hope that it provides the words of encouragement you need to continue on the path that has been paved specifically for you. In the words of Alabama's Executive Director, Ken Hammock: ONWARD!

           

 

Good morning future funeral professionals. What a journey this has been! I am honored to stand before you today to celebrate the giant sigh of relief you are finally able to take and the excitement of knowing that this challenge did not defeat you. Give yourselves a round of applause because this was no easy feat, but you did it! Judging by the crowd in this room, I think it’s safe to say that I am not the only one who is so very proud of you for starting the next stage of your career. I do want to take a moment to thank the ones who showed up to support and celebrate the success of these graduates. Believe me, your support will always be remembered so thank you for bearing through the process and showing up. Thank you to the staff of Gupton-Jones for continuing to strive for excellence in the molding of our profession’s future and for giving me the opportunity to stand here today to impart words of wisdom.


Graduates, I must confess something to you right here and right now. Those who know me can attest that this red hair means that I am blunt, too honest at times, and just a tad bit feisty. I am not a celebrity, nor am I a political figure. I don’t have a Ph.D. or own several funeral homes. I’ve only been licensed for 2 years, and, up until 2 weeks ago, I didn’t have any fancy letters to put behind my name. I’m just a simple girl, born in Mississippi, raised in Georgia, who somehow ended up in Alabama. I come from a family of farmers and teachers, so what could I possible bring to you today?

 

I hope to bring you raw and honest vulnerability with the intention of supporting you, motivating you, and being the one who tells you honestly that…no matter where you came from, what you’ve been through, or what others have/will say about you…this is your destiny. And how you decide to move forward after life’s tumultuous challenges is what is going to truly define you in whatever endeavor you pursue. You are part of one of the greatest professions out there. You are the one to see someone’s loved one for the last time. You have been gifted with the honor of performing the last great act for another human being. I hope you never forget that.

 

We hear it all the time that this profession is a calling. Every one of us in this room have been touched by death in some way or another. So why are we the ones who followed death down the path to serve others? We all know that this isn’t in the pamphlets they’d hand out at career day in high school, and if your parents are like mine, wanting to become a funeral director and embalmer was not what anyone expected to come out of your mouth at the dinner table.

That’s because this profession is not meant for just anyone. It’s a unique design that’s weaved into the souls of a select few, forming a rope meant to help lift others up the steep, rocky hills of grief. There’s a moment where you felt the tugging of the rope pulling you towards who you were meant to be. I like to call it your “why.” If you only take one thing from me today, let it be this: always remember your “why.” Why you started this journey, why you continue to show up, and why you must push through. Remembering your “why” is what’s going to get you through the hard days, the long nights, the days you feel like giving up. It will fuel your soul when others have made you feel less.


It has been 1,926 days since, unknowingly at the time, a tragedy would become my “why.” On February 8, 2019, only halfway through my pregnancy, I had to make the painful and soul-crushing decision to say goodbye to my son. Weeks prior, my husband and I at the time, were told that this child, whom we named Sawyer, had stopped growing because of a tumor that had been discovered. “A freak accident,” they called it.

 

In a journey of healing, I tried to find meaning in the pages of several grief books. After falling down the rabbit hole, one book stood out and it was about a funeral director. At that moment, something whispered, “go.” January 2020, I enrolled into Gupton-Jones mortuary program, and vowed to do this in honor of my son. In March 2020, I began working at a funeral home where my first chapel service was the last chapel service before COVID shut everything down. COVID gave me an intense crash course into funeral service often providing me 60+ hours a week. Although this journey has been difficult at times, it remains worth it.


Upon starting classes, I made a goal for myself. Although silly to some, I wanted to be Valedictorian. I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it and honor Sawyer by showing him that his mother, although broken at the time, was a woman of strength and resilience. Near the end of school, I remember having a conversation with my boss at the time. I told him that I was nervous to see if all my hard work would actually pay off. And I’ll never forget the words that came out of his mouth. “I wouldn’t get your hopes up. There’s always some guy that was just born to be a funeral director that will get it. The one who looks and acts like he was always meant to be a funeral director.”

 

Stunned was an understatement and, for a moment, I believed him. Maybe he was right. After all, I was a female. I didn’t have family in the funeral business. I’m not sure what “the look” is, but ten bucks says that I don’t look like that guy. All these thoughts swirled in my head right before I went to take comp exams, and everyone here can attest that that is the worst timing. However, I remembered my why. I remembered who I was doing it for, and that my passion was a fire that could not and would not be extinguished by any person who wasn’t there when it was forged.

 

On May 21, 2021, as I sat in my chair, shaking, waiting to hear them make the announcement, I thought, “What if I don’t get it?” But another voice quickly whispered, “But what if you do!” In those next moments, the Valedictorian was named, and it was all made clear. I, Regan Moreland, being a first generation, second career, feisty redhead, became THE Valedictorian of my class, proving that I was the woman who was born to be a funeral director.

I was named the valedictorian of my class with a 4.0 GPA. Not only that, but I also successfully passed all 7 of my comprehensive exams on the first try, passed the Georgia Law Exam on the first try, and passed both of my National Board Exams on the first try. Every single obstacle that has been thrown my way; I have overcome. Every person who said I couldn’t do it, I have proved wrong. I say all this, not to brag, but to urge you to never let someone tell you that you can’t do something. Never let fear stop you from going after what you want. You may change funeral homes 5 different times…do it. Never settle. You may fail the board exams…take them again. You may have people try to do everything in their power to break you…show them you are unbreakable. Because nobody can stand in the way of what God has planned for you. What I once saw as a punishment became a lesson. What I once saw as defeat became fuel. What I once viewed as a personal attack on me by God, I soon realized that it was a unique entry into a specialized blessing.

 

I recently read something that hit me: “If you are called to mend the brokenhearted, you are going to wrestle with a broken heart. Your calling will come with spiritual warfare and a sifting- BOTH are necessary for your mantle to be authentic, humble, and powerful. Your calling is going to crush you and that crushing won’t be easy because your assignment is not easy-you can’t minister powerfully what you haven’t walked through.” I will tell you what I always tell my families before a service: this will be the hardest walk you’ll make, but we take it one step at a time, and we take it together. Not because it’s all about me, but because I remember how isolating that path is, and even when they feel completely alone, it’s there they will find the hand of a funeral director.

 

As you enter the world of funeral service you will be told, or it will be implied, that you are at the bottom. Some might even tell you that you need to pay your dues or earn your spot. At times, you will probably second guess whether this is right for you. It’s important to remember, the challenges won’t be easy because your assignment isn’t easy, but never forget your why.

 

Being on the “bottom” doesn’t mean you aren’t destined for the top, and being a new graduate doesn’t mean you aren’t destined to rise. Remember that just because someone is loud doesn’t mean they have anything to say. Having years doesn’t mean having wisdom, just like having a title doesn’t make you a leader. Holding a license doesn’t guarantee a servant’s heart. Having the latest doesn’t always mean having the greatest and flash doesn’t always equal value. Just because they wish you well doesn’t mean they wish you success. Pay attention to those who clap while others are looking but stop once there’s no audience. Even if the spotlight seems brighter on someone else doesn’t mean that yours can’t shine just as bright.

 

A bit random, but do you remember playing tug of war when you were young? I’m not sure if you are aware, but there are legit rules and terminology for tug of war. Known as the “decisive contest,” its Greek word translates to “I Pull Through.” The goal of tug of war is simple: pull the other team past a designated marker. The secret is to exhaust and outlast your opponents through a pull/push combination. Each team usually has a “driver,” or someone who is responsible for leading the team and shouting when to use each maneuver. If the driver shouts, “Hang” this means to stand firm, dig your feet into the ground, and wait. Once the other team seems to tire, the word “Pull” signals the team to pull as hard as they can to take full advantage of the other team’s moment of weakness and gain ground.

 

If you played as a kid, you remember stepping up to look at the rope lying on the ground. Adrenaline began to take over. Your hands started to shake and sweat. You’re ready to start, but there’s a hesitation waiting for the blow of the whistle. Your mind might think: Am I strong enough for this? Is this going to hurt? Will I let my team down? Am I wearing the right shoes for this?!


Life is the greatest game of tug of war with time being your constant opponent. The bad times will feel like you’re being dragged closer and closer to the mark of defeat while the good times will feel like mountains conquered. The trick is to know when to pull and when to stand firm until it’s time to pull through. There will always be a “driver” to push you to keep going, and at times, you will have to be your own driver. When you are unsure of what to do, when you feel the rope slipping, or you feel like you’re being dragged through the mud by the ones trash talking on the sidelines, your driver will remind you to dig deep, stand firm, and don’t let go.

 

Graduates, today you have stepped up to the rope and you have firmly taken hold. You did what many couldn’t do which is step up to the challenge. Yes, going out into the profession can be daunting. You may ask yourself the same questions as you continue on-Am I strong enough? Is this going to hurt? Will I let my team down? Will I let the families down? Am I wearing the right shoes for this?

 

My wish for you is that you will let this feisty redhead be your driver for just a brief moment today. Let me tell you that you CAN do it. You ARE strong enough. I believe in YOU. Is this going to hurt? More than likely. Will you let your team down? At times, yes, but at times, they will let you down also. Am I wearing the right shoes for this? Probably not, but Epsom salt is $3.78 at Walmart. Will it be hard? Yes. But, my friends, will it be worth it? Absolutely. What if I don’t make it? But, what if you do? Jeremiah 29:11 says, “For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

 


As you leave here today, know that you will have many drivers in your life, some more encouraging than others, but even when you feel there is no one there to lead you on, never forget God is the greatest driver of all. He is always on your team, He will not abandon you, and He will be the one to wipe your brow at the end of the battle and supply you with the winning words of “well done, my good and faithful servant.”

 

Class of 2024, let me leave you with this final blessing as you go forth into the world. I hope you wake up every morning and never feel the dread of going to “work.” I hope your days are filled with hope, inspiration, and a desire to serve those who walk in your door. I hope that your coffee pot stays warm and full. May you

never forget to pack the church trucks and may your sprays stand strong in the wind without falling over. May all the doves fly off successfully and unscathed, and that the songs play without skipping. I hope your police escort arrives on time and that the military shows up for honors. I pray your aspirator hose stays connected and your extended stays make it the 6-9 month waiting period for a burial at Arlington. I pray your preacher sticks to the order of service and that the pallbearers pull their weight. May your cemetery crew dig the correct grave each time and your caskets arrive before visitation. I pray you hang on longer than a peace lily after a funeral and that the apprentice stays away from the bleach.


I pray that you never forget the reason you are here. May you never stop learning, never stop growing, and never stop serving. I pray for your peace, your protection, and your success. And when the nights are long, and the days weigh your heart down, may you always hear the driving voice reminding you to dig deep, stand firm, and don’t let go.


Gupton-Jones College of Funeral Service-Class of 2024, your time starts now. Pull!



**Cover Photo taken by Rachel Cone Photography

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May 20
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I wish I had heard this commencement address when I graduated in 1977. Everyone should have a copy for those days when it feels like the world is crushing them.

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Thank you for your kind words. Commencement Speeches should showcase the good, but my wish is to show graduates that the truth is there are hard days that feel like the end, but you are not alone nor are you a failure for feeling that. The defining moment is when you keep pushing because your purpose is bigger than your fears. Thank you for your dedication to the profession, my friend.

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