First day

At the time I started the journey toward being a funeral director, a funeral director was still widely considered a man’s profession, especially in the South, and the lanky lurch stereotype is what most people thought of when driving by a funeral home. I am none of those. I stand 5 feet tall and am average weight for my height. From the time I started classes (lots of females in my class by the way) I was looking for a job in a funeral home. Pay didn’t matter, hours didn’t matter, the job didn’t matter; I just wanted to work in a funeral home cleaning, painting, washing I didn’t care. Not surprisingly I didn’t get any calls back. I hand delivered every resume, shook hands with every manager, funeral director and secretary attached to every funeral home I could possible get to in a reasonable amount of driving time, still nothing. This didn’t matter, I was going to be a funeral director and someone was going to hire me for any job. I appealed to one of my classmates who was working at a funeral home ideally located between home and school. I had spoken to the manager there and was told nothing was available only to find out later that he was actually was looking for help. So between my classmate and one of the directors already working at the location and my follow up calls every day, he finally relented and hired me as an assistant but I would only work if they needed me. I was hired at funeral home!  After all the paperwork was filled out and the name badge ordered, you could not find me without my phone on my hip waiting for that call that I needed to vacuum something. Nothing. I would check the battery in my phone, have someone call my phone to make sure it was working. Still, nothing. So after some time and lots of frustration, I resumed to making daily calls to see when I could come in and help.

 

 

Finally I got the call, one of the funeral directors asked me to help him over the weekend with a funeral! So I made sure my suit was pressed and shoes were shined, I found the most professional shirt in my closet and I swear I did not sleep a wink. I got to the funeral home well before starting time and was given a little tour and some basic instructions of what I was going to be doing. There was going to be some set up and pre cleaning I would be observing how the others ran a funeral. This funeral was for the Chinese man who left behind a wife and children. They wanted a traditional Chinese service, which is not, by American standards, traditional. I learned quickly with that one funeral, that grief is expressed differently for everybody. I also realized that what I was learning at school was not necessarily what I was going to experience in the real world. The subject matter was totally relevant, yet the difference between reading the books and standing in the middle of organized mayhem was really incredible. The cultural differences in funeral customs is pretty vast and terribly amazing. As I was given instructions on how to set up the table that would hold the dollars of pretend money to burn and set the baskets for family and friends to leave envelopes and letters for the family, I felt like everything was in slow motion. I absorbed everything I was told and watched very carefully to what the other funeral attendants and the director were doing. I looked for details like straightening the tablecloth, picking up the candy wrapper off of the floor, emptying the trashcans and then it happened, this pivotal moment in understanding what I was doing and understanding that I had made it this far is so much more than just figuring out what to do for a career. It was an amazing epiphany that it can be done, dreams and passions can be realized and acted upon. Angry as a teenager, lost and confused in all my school years, feeling like I had no identity.  In that moment I knew I was important and I could make a difference in a big way. Knowing that the family of this man had no idea who I was, that this was my first experience and I was proud to pick up the trash, hand wash the fleet and wipe down the bathrooms. I still contributed to their experience in saying goodbye to this important person in their life.

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About Chelsea Tolman