D12193814A9549FA97F64D0D0B827AE2This series is meant to highlight beautiful funeral directors. Too many times we see and hear the media focus on the horrible things that happen in the funeral industry. I am here to prove that there is more good in our industry than bad. Every story in this series is written by the directors themselves.

Dennis K. Wesley

Dennis is the business owner of Funeral Directors First Call. He has been in the funeral industry for 26 years serving many independent and corporate firms with support services. He began his career in a small-town funeral home doing 150 calls a year. He owned a seasonal business and always had an interest in the funeral industry. He has been married for 31 years to Bobbie and has a 25-year-old daughter Tori. He is really into older cars, photography and enjoying great bands.

From Dennis:

I think that the service we provide is like what a priest does for his congregation. We are called upon to do a scared task of helping the loved ones get through a horrible time. I have a desire to help people and there is no better way than funeral service. Helping families get through the worst few days possibly of their lives.

I think all funeral professionals probably work way too many hours. I honestly have a problem with knowing when to stop and go home. I am very involved in my church and volunteer in many charities around Baltimore. That helps me relax and get up for the next call.

Years ago I was working for the medical examiner’s office and received a suicide call on Christmas morning 2006. I arrived to find a 9-year-old little girl who had hung herself. She had been abused by her stepdad and had begged her mother to make him stop. I can still remember getting her down and I was determined not to put her in a body bag. I had the mother come down and I let her say goodbye. I then proceeded to carry her lifeless body up the stairs and I turned my head and the stepfather was holding her little sister consoling her. That was a moment in my career that I saw the good and the bad of our industry. People don’t realize what we have to deal with on a daily basis. My Christmas will never be the same.

The funeral profession is not full of rich men and women who drive fancy Cadillac and Lincoln automobiles. We are everyday people who devote their life to serving the dead and their families. We are secretaries, lawn mowers, priest, counselors, police officers, painters, make-up artist, surgeons and everything else. We do all types of jobs in our duties as funeral professionals.

If you know of a funeral director who would fit in this series please send me an email (mbalmergirl@gmail.com) with who the person is and contact information. This series is planned to run each week in December but I may run another series again in the future.

Don’t forget to claim your copy of “Speaking of the dead”. For a limited time the kindle version in $2.99 paperback is $13.99. What a perfect gift for Christmas for you or someone you know. Click here to get your copy.

Bonnie Dalberg Ansley

This series is meant to highlight beautiful funeral directors. Too many times we see and hear the media focus on the horrible things that happen in the funeral industry. I am here to prove that there is more good in our industry than bad. Every story in this series is written by the directors themselves.

Bonnie Dalberg Ansley

Bonnie began working in the funeral industry in 2006. Her titles have included funeral director assistant, office manager, embalmer, funeral director, décor specialist and manager. Currently she holds a funeral director and embalmer license in Georgia.

How did you get into the industry?

At the age of 22, I lived in Augusta, Georgia working multiple jobs while majoring in biochemistry.  My father had suffered from chest pains while mowing the yard.  After resting inside a bit, he was taken to the local VA hospital and was told he was in the middle of a heart attack and needed an emergency triple bypass.  The surgery went well, but infection soon set in – his entire body had lost all it’s natural color, the open incision on his chest had turned green and purple and I naturally thought he was going to die.  I’ve encountered death before with classmates, a SIDS baby from my mother’s daycare and even extended family, but up to this point, never that close to heart.  I was devastated and thought “What do I do?  Who do I turn to?  What will happen when he dies?”  Thankfully, he recovered, but the impact of the trauma was so deep.  When he was strong enough, I made the decision that I wanted to be the one to take care of my dad.  I want to be the one to take care of everyone I loved and make sure they are taken care of the right way.  I moved to Atlanta within weeks to attend Gupton Jones and the rest is history.

This industry is hard, why do you do your job every day?

Because I make a difference in this world.  I work with intense passion and give my full talents and drive to each family I serve.  I see it on their faces, I hear it in their voices and I feel it when they embrace me.

What is your favorite part of the job?

My favorite part are the moments when I can take heartache and refocus it towards something positive.  For example, a family is riddled with anxiety and fear the first time that they enter their visitation room.  In their minds, they are expecting a dimly lit room filled with antique furniture and their loved one without any life in them.  What if, instead, the doors opened to reveal a room filled with that person’s joy?  A vignette against that wall overflowing with Elvis paraphernalia, and over there, a mannequin showcasing a vintage 50’s style dress, her favorite color can be found everywhere from backdrops to artwork to up lighting.  “Love Me Tender” is playing in the background and as they move closer to her, she’s dressed not in her Sunday best, but rather what people were used to seeing – jeans, a sweatshirt and her infamous fire engine red lipstick.  Now this… this is mom and she would’ve loved this.  Every attention to detail has been made for the family.  A framed photo of her family’s business is on display; there are Elvis ornaments to celebrate not only her love of “The King” but also her love of Christmas… this is all done without the family having to haul her personal belongings to the funeral home or any cumbersome work involved.  It was something created from someone who truly listened to the family and was able to capture enough of their loved one’s happiness into aesthetics that affect all their senses – taste (red velvet cupcakes to match her fiery personality and red lipstick), sight (all the visuals tastefully on display), sound (uplifting music), touch (holding the Elvis keepsakes in memory of “her”) and smell (Christmas tree air fresheners were placed inconspicuously around the room to fill the air with that crisp tree smell).

How do you balance work and home life, what do you do for self-care?

Self-care is something that I have struggled with throughout my whole career.  Life is an ever-changing journey and I am currently refocusing on my physical health at the moment.  I am down 32 lbs and counting.

Outside of work what are your hobbies/interests?

General merriment – eating, drinking, dancing or karaoke with good people and an uber driver when the night is over.

Tell us about your family, kids, spouses, pets etc.

My family is not traditional, but then again, whose is anymore?  My immediate family consists of my husband, Kyle, my fat little Chihuahua, Vlad, my german shepherd mix, Greta, and exotic “sea creatures” throughout the house.  I have so many people that are mutually considered family and it continues to grow.  I would trust my life to so many others and for that, I am blessed.

Tell a story about a family you have served, or body prepared that was especially significant to you personally

I remember serving a small family – there was the deceased and his wife.  The gentleman worked for Coca-Cola for decades and lived, breathed and of course, drank, Coca-Cola.  Everything was personalized in that Bonnie fashion where we focused on his love and passions.  I and the staff wore Coca-Cola clothing instead of suits, there was Coca-Cola paraphernalia everywhere that the public was present and at the very end of the service, I passed out cokes and diet cokes so that everyone could toast to this amazing man as I played the original 1971 commercial of “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke.”  The wife was grateful to experience so much love for her husband in an unexpected place, she has since continued to stay in touch with me.

What message would you like to give to the public about our profession?

The public image of a funeral director is terribly misguided.  We do not make six figures, I mean, I do drive a Cadillac…hearse that is and then my Nissan home.  We are not all the vampiric, pale men in a dusty suit hiding in the shadows – hello, I’m a perky, Asian American female in her mid 30’s.  We do not manipulate defenseless widows into overspending for an elaborate service.  I listen to what my family’s wants are.  After all, they are the ones in charge and I am only here to offer solutions.  I don’t care if someone is spending $1,000 or $10,000 – they deserve the same treatment and respect from me and that is what I provide.  Funeral directors wear many hats, but I assure you, con artist is not one of them.

If you know of a beautiful funeral director who would fit in this series please send me an email (mbalmergirl@gmail.com) with who the person is and contact information. This series is planned to run each week in December but I may run another series again in the future.

Don’t forget to claim your copy of “Speaking of the dead”. For a limited time the kindle version in $2.99 paperback is $13.99. What a perfect gift for Christmas for you or someone you know. Click here to get your copy.

The media rarely paints a pretty picture of the funeral industry. One bad story very truly affects how the public sees the entire bunch. I love giving the world a small glimpse of the wonderful things we do and how we love to do them. We are not money hungry. Death does not bring us riches and fame. We treasure the simple thank you card like we were handed a million dollars. Our industry requires us to sacrifice and we chose the industry we work in. Our reward is the comfort that we give to the families we serve. There are many funeral directors in the world and all of us have some kind of passion for helping others and I wanted the world to know that, which is why I wrote a book about it.
Families experiences with funeral homes and funeral directors aren’t supposed to be easy, someone you love has died. We understand the tragedy you are faced with and the anger, and grief and sadness you are carrying. Yet we continue to help because we can. We are equipped to be bombarded with questions, cynicism, even anger. The stories I hear about family members who have had a terrible experience with a funeral director, may all be very true, but we do our best in the worst situations… every day.
The next time you hear troubling story regarding the funeral industry, remember the thousands who didn’t do those things, remember the caring and loving people sacrificing for you every day and every night and be glad that we are here and that we are your neighbors.
I love hearing from you, my readers, about how my stories have affected you. Writing these personal stories can be a challenge for me because I remember them, I remember the faces and the death. For the month of December, I will be taking a break from my usual personal stories of serving families and focusing on other great funeral directors that I know. Their stories are important, and I want the world to know them.

In most Western and Westernized cultures, the reality of death is a subject that we avoid because it makes us uncomfortable.  Even participants in religions that celebrate death as a release to a paradisiacal realm will avoid talking about or facing the death experience, unless it’s through the lens of their religious beliefs.  The rest of us tap dance around the subject, enjoying death-related fiction involving vampires, zombies, and serial killers, while we recoil in mind-numbing horror at the thought of being in the same room with a corpse.  Chelsea Tolman is a funeral director, mortician, and embalmer with over 15 years of experience.  In her book, “Speaking of the dead”, she attempts to provide the balm that allows us to engage in the real world of death’s circumstances and give us a peek behind the curtain at what it’s like to be a professional in the death industry.

This book is a collection of Chelsea’s recounted stories that illustrate the unique perspective of being a professional in the death industry.  She covers a wide range of emotions and circumstances from light hilarity to deep sadness and grief.

Chelsea also takes the time to celebrate the diversity of cultures, describing in intimate detail the way some religions and nationalities treat their dead.  All get equal respect, including the careful corpse wrappings of the Bhai, the pronated wailing women of the Far East], the colorful dancers of Africa, and the grass skirts of the Tongans.  She expertly weaves these stories of culture in with the experience of grief and loss to reveal how we all share the basic human essence of missing our dead.

Finally, “Speaking of the dead” serves as Chelsea’s heartfelt attempt to show to the world that the experience of caring for one’s dead is one that should be embraced and cherished, rather than avoided and feared as it largely is at present.  She details the loving care she gives to the bodies and how she encourages the loved ones to participate and catalyze their own progress at closure.  The tenderness she shows in wrapping infants in blankets, smoothing an old man’s hair, or applying a young woman’s make-up invites you to step over the gap from macabre avoidance to emotional acceptance and understand that death is simply another part of the human experience that we should all embrace.

Have you ever been so tied up in an emotion you can’t explain that you are close to tears, want to run as fast as you can all while feeling like a nap is a good idea? Well that is me today! The time has come for me to introduce my finished book “Speaking of the dead”. Can you believe it?!

One year ago I started this journey. So many of you have been reading my blog and giving me incredible feedback which I have enjoyed reading. You have waited for it, asked for it and now… your patience has paid off! “Speaking of the dead” Is now available on kindle! It will be available on Barnes and Noble and Nook Ereader in the next 72 hours and the print version should be ready for purchasing in the next couple of days!  This is real folks, this is happening!

Click to buy now

Thank you to all of my supporters and followers, I am so grateful for your encouragement and excitement. I could not have done it with you!

This week I am sharing a couple of cool interviews I had the honor of being a part of for Halloween.

Great conversation I had with Chris and Kristina Holifield from I Am Salt Lake Podcast. If you aren’t already you should subscribe to their podcast, these are two super cool people and their podcasts are always interesting.

Episode 353 – Chelsea Tolman, Salt Lake City Mortician

Fun, lighthearted chat with Kristian Anderson and Steven Labrum with SLC Culture on 1280 The Zone. Listen on Sunday mornings for interesting topics and fun banter.

SLC Culture – October 28th, 2018 – Chelsea Tolman

In all the years of being a mortician, I have never seen a ghost, at least I don’t think I have. The subject of ghosts can be tricky. Did I see or hear something? Maybe I did, maybe I didn’t. Far too often people think that ghosts crowd around the mortuary and set up residency. I believe that if there are such things as ghosts they would be hanging out where they were most comfortable in life, at their home for instance, or their favorite places to vacation, or even where they died. This makes more sense than swarming inside a mortuary, a place that they have probably never visited before, and around people they have never met. There is an argument that ghosts may stay with their body until it’s buried, sure, why not? But, wherever a spirit, ghost or haunt ends up, I assure you I do not see them at the mortuary, or do I?

I lived in an apartment above a small mom and pop mortuary. It was a really big space. There were three bedrooms and two full bathrooms that branched off a long and narrow hallway. There was a huge living room with 1970’s faux wood laminate flooring and dirty cream-colored walls. In the living room were huge windows overlooking the parking lot and the garages beyond. There was a small dining room that jutted out of the kitchen area that came complete with olive green appliances and gold specked cream countertops. The kitchen cabinets and cupboards had been painted over so many times that most of the didn’t close properly, laden with so many layers of paint. The apartment had plenty of room to share with other people but I had the whole thing to myself, all alone.

There were ghost stories from previous employees who had lived in the apartment. There was supposed to be a small boy, that was mean and a trickster, who lived in the “blue room” (a small room painted the color of deep ocean, it was currently being used for storage). There was also a story of a woman in a white dress that walked up and down the hallway that led to the bedrooms and bathrooms. Bah! I had no concerns that these supposed spirits were fixtures in this space. I do believe that the setting was ripe for these types of experiences though, apartment above a funeral home, dark hallway, dimly lit rooms and dark paint, these things lend to the perception of “otherworldly” things. I imagine the previous residents, who were also all alone during long dark nights, heard the squeaks creeks of an old building in the late hours and let their imagination see things that weren’t really there. So, of course I dismissed the stories and settled in to the apartment.

To prove my point that there were no ghosts hanging about, I decided to inspect the blue room, the one I was told to avoid. It was such a dingy place. The overhead light didn’t work, so I plugged in a lamp near the back corner that immediately gave off an eerie glow, throwing weird shadows into the angles of the room. Even with the light reflecting off of the walls, it just wasn’t enough light to penetrate the deep darkness that hovered in there. Mismatched furniture piled in various places and dusty boxes filled with old invoices and papers painted a scene for the perfect ghost story. The walls had holes from pictures that had hung on them from previous years and dings and scratches from people moving furniture around and not being careful. Dotting the portions of the deep blue painted walls not covered by stacked furniture and boxes were childishly-drawn stick figures in pencil and marker along-side names and dates that were meaningless to me.

I can see where the stories had come from, the dark color, the dinginess, the shadows. It was a creepy room and cold, colder than the rest of the apartment. After spending some time in this room alone, I was satisfied that the stories were unfounded, I turned off the lamp and walked out but kept the door slightly ajar, just to prove that I wasn’t afraid. Inky black was all you could see through the slightly opened door (even in the middle of the day, the light simply could not break through the darkness in there) and every time I walked passed the open door, I could feel the cold air seeping out into the hallway. After a few days I made the choice to close the door to keep the cold in and ignore the room all together.

I love cemeteries. I love taking pictures of cemeteries. I cherished looking at the various statues, especially ones that were darkened in places from rain and sun. I collected pictures of headstones that had ironic last names like Grave or Head. One night I decided to start printing these pictures to make room on my camera. I had previously set up my office in the small dining room. On the table I had a computer tower attached to a monitor, not like the monitors we have now but the big heavy monitors that you had to carry with both arms while leaning back to balance the weight. I also had a typewriter, a pile of folders and various papers and a printer.

As the printer warmed up, I loaded the tray with photo paper and then began to transfer my photos from my camera to the computer, placing the ones I wanted to print into a separate folder. The printer was terribly slow at printing so once it had whirred into action, I headed out to the grocery store to avoid the painful wait of watching it produce one agonizing line at a time.

When I got back to the apartment, I walked into the kitchen and saw that my cemetery pictures were scattered about the dining room. Some were left on the tray and were turned around and upside down like someone had picked them up, rifled through them and just dumped them back in the tray. I panicked for a minute like maybe someone was in the apartment. I looked towards the living room, then looked down the hallway but I didn’t investigate any further than that, I was confident that no one was there and there was some other reason this happened. I attributed the mess to a gust of wind created when I came home and opened the door from the outside. I knew that this was not really possible though, since the exterior door was down a hall that branched off of the main hallway and much too far from the kitchen for a gust to reach, but that was the only rational explanation I could think of. There was no one that would have come into the apartment, it was late evening, the sun already set making it dark outside. No one bothers a mortuary in the darkness unless you worked there. I started the task of picking up my prints off of the floor and loving the way they turned out, imagining what type of frames I would get and which walls they would hang on. As I was looking them over, I noticed fingerprints? Right along the edges of the papers (front and back!). It was like someone with ink on their fingers had held them and left their prints on the glossy paper. They were undoubtedly fingerprints, the lands and grooves clearly showing where the fingertips had grasped the edges. I had no explanation for this. I really didn’t know what to think. I couldn’t imagine anyone who would have come in to the apartment just to check out my pictures, and if someone did, why on earth would they scatter the pages and most curious why would their hands have ink on them?! I was baffled.

In my reverie of examining this phenomenon, I absently turned around toward the hallway, papers in hand and looked down the hallway again and there she was. At the very back of the hall was a woman in a white dress. I saw her clearly, she was looking right at me. I froze. As I watched her she slowly she started making her way towards me, not walking really, more like floating. I quickly looked down for one more glance at my fingerprinted papers and when I looked back up, she was gone! She had just vanished. In those few seconds that I saw this woman in white, unmistakably floating towards me, I attributed the fingerprints to something other than human hands. Did she pick up my papers, then scatter them about?

Most people describe the experience of seeing a ghost as scary, disturbing, the air was cold, the adrenaline rushed through their body. Not for me. It was more like she was just curious. Her demeanor wasn’t threatening, in fact I wished she would come back. I stood, holding my pictures theorizing about what I had just seen. I still don’t have an explanation, I cannot attribute this experience to a sheet hanging from a doorway or over tiredness or lack of food or too much alcohol. I question myself even now, did I really see this woman who looked right at me? How was it that she was even in my apartment, floating down the hallway near the bedroom that I slept in. Still baffled, I shook off the experience and continued to pick up my prints then placed them neatly in a pile on the table. During my time living in that apartment, when the darkness of night had settled over the building, I would occasionally look down the hallway. I never expected to see her again and somehow, I knew that I wouldn’t. We had our moment and that was enough.

Sadly, I no longer have these prints, they were lost along with many things during the years of moving and exes. So, are there spirits, ghosts or haunts wandering around in the mortuaries? I have seen no evidence of that, or have I?

Just a short story this week as I am still working on the final pieces to publish my book. And good news, it should be available for pre-order in December!! Stay tuned and thank you for your patience. 

Most people have a routine when first coming to work in the morning. Start the coffee maker, transfer the phones, fire up the computer. My routine at this one particular funeral home was to walk through the back entrance, enter the embalming room and look at the deceased who had been received throughout the night. At this firm it was customary, after embalming, to place the body on a portable table and drape a sheet over them from head to toe. As I walked up to each table, I would pull back the sheets one by one, look at their faces, stroke a head or pat an arm, then cover them back up. It was comforting getting to know each of these people who in the coming days would be dressed, cosmetized, casketed and funeralized. In these moments, I learned their names, had small one-sided conversations with them and hoped things would go smoothly for their families’ sake. If there were people that I myself had gone to receive during the witching hour, it made it even more personal. It was important to me to know them and have a sense of them before the families came in to make arrangements.

One morning, I made my way to the embalming room, like always, and started pulling back sheets to say my hello’s. I pulled a particular sheet back, and suddenly, the body sat straight up into a sitting position and the person shouted “Good morning!”

OK, breathe…a…minute… I thought to myself and as the adrenaline rushed through my veins, I recognized my coworker laughing hysterically at me from his sitting position on the table. Mind you we kept a clean and tidy house there, but all I could think was “Gross!”

So, for those of you who are not intimately familiar with the dead, they do not sit up, they do not breathe, or blink, or yell “Good Morning”. What they do is lie on a table and wait for someone to move them. They may moan a little as the air trapped air in their lungs escapes through their lips, or maybe give a tiny sigh but short of a real zombie apocalypse, the dead do not move on their own, or yell words, or wake up. I know disappointing huh? However, that is the way it is.

So, back to silly coworkers scaring me almost to death. I myself have never lain on a table just to scare a coworker and this was the first in a string of pop up sheets until I learned to look for signs of life and play a trick of my own, a little cold water anyone?!

During my morning ritual of walking into the embalming room familiarizing myself with the dead who had been brought in during the night, I was hit by a feeling of what I can only describe as trouble. It was a palpable feeling, like something drifting through the air and it felt like it was coming from a man lying on a table nearest the entrance door.  I would have guessed him to be in his late sixties. He had a head full of salt and pepper hair, combed straight back and over his ears. He had a full beard and mustache neatly groomed and somehow, he looked angry. He had a tight expression, his eyes seemed strained and his lips were pursed. Laying at his feet were the clothes he would be dressed in for his funeral, overalls and a green and plaid long-sleeved shirt. I was taken back a bit by the overwhelming feeling that I should just leave him alone. So, I looked him over and read his toe tag but did not pat his head or arm like I normally would with our newly attained guests, I felt that he would not welcome the gesture.

On occasion my coworkers at this firm would pretend to leave for the day and then when they knew I was cleaning the building, alone, with the darkness closing around the building, they would sneak back in through a rear door and turn off lights, or turn them on, move things that I had already put away or open and close doors. I never knew if I was just really tired or if these jokers were hiding about, trying to scare me.

One night as I was cleaning the building after a late-night visitation. I had just started vacuuming the main hallway. It was covered in dark carpet and was long and wide and down each side was a series of doors that led to the viewing rooms. As I began vacuuming at one end of the hallway, I thought I heard a shout. I stopped for a second, dismissed it as the sound of the vacuum and continued. Then I heard the shout again, it sounded like “Stop it!” So, I turned the vacuum off and called out “Hello?” Silence. I called out again,” Hello, is somebody there?” Nothing. It had been a long day, I was tired, and wanted to go home, so I turned the vacuum back on, only to again here “Stop it!” Only this time there was a little more force behind the words. Now irritated, I turned off the vacuum, again, and went to search the building while calling out “Who’s there?” I checked all of the rooms, walked through the back hallways, I turned on all the lights to see if I catch a coworker hiding in a corner, but only found empty rooms and silence. I just wanted to finish my chores and go home, and I was getting angry.

As I walked into the embalming room, there was the man I had seen earlier. I don’t know if he was ever angry in life, but he definitely had a feeling around him that was harsh. I asked him if he had yelled at me and when he didn’t answer, I giggled at myself for expecting a dead man to talk. I turned off the light and left the room.

As I walked back through the hallways to continue my tasks, some of the lights I know I had previously turned on were now off. This made me think for sure that it was my coworkers, so I started calling their cell phones to see if I could hear ringing from a corner and catch my joker. Everyone I called answered their phone, there was no one else was in the building. Baffled and irritated, I went back to my vacuum and turned the switch on, then as clear as ever I heard “Stop it!”, the voice sounded as if the person was standing right in front of me! That was it, I was done, this was too weird. I left the vacuum where it was, turned off all the lights and made my way out of the building. On my way out, I spoke to the angry man again. I told him to rest in peace but guaranteed him that I would be back in the morning to finish the rest of the vacuuming and he would just have to deal with it! And if it was him.  He was not the only one who was angry that night!

I was informed of a husband and wife who were killed together in a car accident and our mortuary got the call. The couple had gone for a drive. Maybe they were going to the grocery store, maybe to see a movie, I didn’t know the details. What I did know was that somehow, they didn’t or couldn’t stop their car fast enough while driving behind a semi-truck. As a result, they ended up underneath the back end of the rig, ultimately shearing off the top of their car. Neither of them survived.

This would be my first opportunity to see, in real life and on the job, the destruction that motor vehicle accidents can have on a body and on their surviving family members. I remember the words of the director that I was working with. He explained that I was welcome to observe the couple, but I didn’t have to, there would always be others. He warned me that both bodies had been greatly damaged from the accident and this could be just too much for a young funeral assistant in the beginning days on the job. I hesitated for only a second before I assured him that I wanted this experience now. I felt this was like a rite of passage, preparing me for my career ahead. With a small nod he turned and beckoned me to follow.

I followed the funeral director down the long hallway in the back of the mortuary toward the garage where the couple lay waiting. The team that went to receive the husband and wife had only just gotten back and while they had removed them from the transport vehicle, they not yet been taken the pair inside the building. As we walked I couldn’t help but imagine what this would look like. In my young mind, influenced by TV shows and movies, I imagined the worst scenario possible. I had no idea what an accident this bad really did to a body and no real-life experience to compare it to.

The director opened the door to immediately reveal two cots sitting side-by-side, lying on each was an occupant enclosed in a thick black body bag, like the ones you see in crime TV shows. Surrounding the couple against the walls of the space were shelves that accompany any funeral homes garage. Ledges lined with boxes holding signs, water, towels and décor for the seasons. A tool box caught my eye reminding me of the things we were constantly fixing around the funeral home like loose door knobs and loose toilet handles. In the center of the garage stood a body lift (a device designed to assist lifting the deceased from tables into caskets). The room smelled slightly of exhaust fumes from the cars recently driven. The hearse and the flower van were parked on the opposite side of the room, silently witnessing what happens to people when vehicles are not driven carefully.

The image of the cots alone was enough to invoke just how tragic the situation was. Side-by-side they married each other, side-by-side they raised children together and side-by-side they got into their car that day. Now, side-by-side they lay on cots in the garage of a mortuary.

We walked to the cot closest to us and the director carefully unzipped the thick bag while I stood a few steps away. I slowly stepped closer to see the man lying inside, looking for blood and tissue and gruesome accident things. There was no way to identify him through facial features.  The man was wearing dark blue jeans and a shirt of red and blue plaid, all of which were soiled. Scattered about his head and what was visible of his clothing were bits of road debris, glass and shards of broken car pieces. He looked like he had been created out of wax and cosmetics like a movie prop for a horror film, he just didn’t look real. What hit me first though was his wallet, lying on his belly it was encased in a sealed plastic bag that had biohazard printed in red over the top. It probably held his driver’s license, credit cards, and memberships passes, never to be used again. There was a handful of change that I imagined, like most men he kept in his pocket and jingled absently while standing in conversation, a set of keys that at one time resided in a bowl on the counter in their home or hung on a hook next to the door, patiently waiting for the next drive to the grocery store. In that moment my heart sank as I realized that his children had just lost both of their parents, without warning and without getting to say goodbye.

Years after this experience, I bought a house in a small town in the South that reminded me of this couple. The house had been owned by a husband and wife who had also died in a car accident together. The children they left behind did all they could to get through their pain and loss yet ultimately could not bring themselves to clear out the house that they grew up in. It was just too painful. On my first walkthrough, it looked just like someone had left unexpectedly and never came back. Tiny house shoes sat next to the door patiently waiting their owners return. A shelf of cookbooks in the kitchen held instructions for meals and treats for family gatherings. Each room had its own tale of previous use. A sewing machine whispered that there was hemming left undone, closets full of clothes never again to be worn by their intended owner. The house had sat empty of life long enough for the cobwebs and moisture of the South to take up residence. The air was thick and moldy, and it was dim due to lack of electricity, the only light was what came through the windows which were covered in cobwebs and dust. So naturally, my thoughts went to this first couple I had experienced accidental death with. Lying next to each other on cots in black body bags surrounded by garage things, nestled amongst their belongings that they had taken with them that day and their children who were left with a only a house full of memories.

Tragedy is a necessary part of this job. When people ask me questions of how I handle these situations every day, my mind almost always drifts to this couple. The children were never going to see their parents again. They had to trust the doctor that their parents were dead, they had to trust that the funeral director had the right bodies and they had to deal with other family members, friends and a lifetime of remembrances that they were not yet ready to dismantle and sell to a stranger. So, it shouldn’t be how I could handle these things, the question should be how could I not? The families who survive the death of a loved one, always have it worse than I.

I was not involved in making the arrangements for this couple, but I was present when they were laid to rest. It was a chilly fall day and we were surrounded by huge trees half covered in orange and red leaves that dotted the cemetery beyond our blue funeral tent signifying the end of one season and preparing for the next. Surrounded by their children this husband and wife, just like they did in life, will for all eternity be side-by-side.