Lessons for Funeral Service Professionals from the Appalachian Trail

The Appalachian Trail runs through the mountains of Tennessee about 20 miles from my home. Known to the hikers as the “A.T.”, it spans nearly 2,200 miles from northern Georgia to Maine and touches 14 states. Because each hiker has their own pace, it takes an average of four to six months to complete the entire hike. Every year, more than 3,000 hikers attempt this feat, which is referred to as a "thru-hike" of the A.T. Only about 25% of them are successful.

Recently, I have been fascinated with the idea of hiking the entire A.T. Because I won’t be able to do it anytime soon, I must pacify my A.T. obsession by reading articles and following YouTube channels of hikers who are attempting the trek. As you might imagine, this is a special breed of people who have developed a specific set of rules and terminology.

While learning about this unique community, I've realized that funeral service professionals can relate to many of the concepts connected to the trail. Regardless of whether you have hiking experience (or even strong interest in the activity), here's how I think the meanings behind these terms offer lessons for a fulfilling and sustainable career in funeral service.

Appalachian Trail (A.T.) Terms for Funeral Professionals


About the term: “Tramily” is a term that refers to your “Trail Family.” It is not uncommon to hike with some of the same people for weeks or months despite not knowing one another before beginning the trek.

How it applies to funeral service: Similarly, funeral professionals often feel that their coworkers are like family. The challenging situations you have endured with them have bonded you together in a special way. Your funeral home “tramily” has seen you at your best and your worst. These relationships are not to be taken for granted.

“Trail Magic” and “Trail Angels”

About the terms: When all your food, shelter and clothing are loaded on your back, there is little room for luxuries. Extra food and beverages are especially treasured. These special unforeseen gifts are called “trail magic,” and the people who provide them are referred to as “trail angels.” Trail magic could be as small as a few candy bars left alongside a trail or as elaborate as a free taco feast hosted at a spot where the trail crosses through a town.

How they apply to funeral service: Funeral professionals also have their own “angels,” such as:

  • The member of the clergy who will provide a service on short notice without knowing the family.
  • The community members who set aside a plate of food for you to make sure you get something to eat.
  • The hairdresser and makeup artist who do their jobs at odd hours on short notice.

These “trail angels” in the funeral service profession are all those people who help make your job just a little easier. Be on the lookout for “trail magic” in your world and be sure to let your supporters know how much you appreciate them.

“Zero” and “Nero”

About the terms: There are many factors that must come together for a successful thru-hike spanning several months, but one of the most important factors is pacing yourself. A common mistake occurs when hikers begin the A.T. with fresh legs and lots of excitement. They know that their journey is long and want to make significant progress – so they hike about as far as they can each day. This strategy quickly backfires, and they find themselves exhausted and injured.

Experienced hikers know that there is a huge difference between 100% for the day and 100% effort over several months and more than 2,000 miles. That’s why they have “zeros” and “neros.” A “zero” is a zero-mile day. This is usually a day spent in a town along the trail getting resupplied with food, resting your feet and enjoying a hot shower. Similarly, a “nero” is a near-zero day where you go only a short distance to help recharge and recover even though you could have gone further. Successful hikers understand you are much more likely to survive the daily grind when you make rest and recovery a priority.

How they apply to funeral service: Unfortunately, the pandemic forced funeral professionals to operate at 100% (or more) for long periods of time. But there is a big difference in how much effort you can sustain for a day versus a career. I worry that many funeral professionals have been forced to work at “emergency levels” for so long that it has come to be the expected level of effort. But that is the equivalent of hiking 20 miles each of your first three days on the trail, and then burning out before you reach mile 100. A reasonable pace is one that is sustainable over the long term. Furthermore, a reasonable pace includes “light days” and time off.

TAkeaways for long-term success

Like me, you probably don’t have several months to take off and hike the Appalachian Trail. But we can all benefit from some of the strategies of thru-hikers:

  • Value your “tramily” – your work family will have your back and keep you sane.
  • Keep your eyes open for “trail magic,” and thank any “trail angels” you are come across.
  • Remember the difference between what you can accomplish in a day compared to what is sustainable over several months. Be sure to take “zeros” and “neros” to help renew yourself.

After all, being mindful of the journey is the only way we can stay on the path.

For more stories and insights written especially for funeral professionals, I invite you to join the free Finding Resilience email program. Each week, I share practical advice about preventing funeral professional burnout, from prioritizing goals for your funeral home business to finding work-life balance and much more.

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