The pillows have been fluffed, fresh water is ready in a drinking
glass nearby. There are rows of bottles neatly arranged on the bedside table
and someone you love is tucked under the sheets, sleeping soundly, finally. How
long will they be asleep this time? An hour? Eight? There is no telling when the
illness is terminal, and you are the caretaker. Has it been days? weeks? Years?
Doctors visits, therapy, medications, little sleep and sponge baths. It is an
honor to care for the people we love and help them when they cannot help
themselves, it is also a full-time job and exhausting. So, what happens when
this part of the job is over? Your person has died, and the hospital takes away
the bed that you have placed fresh sheets on a thousand times, cleaned up
messes with soap and bleach and lovingly snuggled with someone you love who was
sick and dying. The bottles of pills are no longer needed, some full, some half
empty. That drinking glass with the flower print sits on the night stand
silently reminding you that this person loved purple irises. So many things you
are now going to go through, the next set of tasks are listed somewhere in your
brain. Your journey through grief starts here.
Many experts have published the stages of grief that we are
supposed to go through. Like there is a pre-prescribed way to come to terms with
why your mother is no longer there for your planned Sunday brunch date, or why your
brother was found hanging in the closet when he seemed so happy, or why your
unborn child never made it through the birth canal alive. There is no formula
for getting through these events. There is no end to how people leave the world
as we know it. And there are thousands of ways that we as humans handle these
losses. It is time to put away our assumptions of how people grieve and let go of
the way a funeral is done just because that is how it has been done. People don’t
live and die in the same manner, lets celebrate who they were on our own terms,
with our own kind of celebration.
Watch out 2019, Chelsea Tolman is on the loose! I am gearing up for some exciting new content and a new look. That being said mbalmergirl will be dark for a few weeks in preparation of these new things to come. In the meantime all previous blog posts will still be available for your reading pleasure. You can also find me on instagram @thembalmergirl, facebook @mbalmergirl and twitter @chelsea_tolman, browse my website for previous interviews on podcasts, blogs, radio and TV and contact me with any questions or suggestions of things you would like to see, hear or read about at firstname.lastname@example.org or use the contact page on my website.
Thanks to everyone for following and reading my blog and to those who have/are/will read and review “Speaking of the dead”
Gillian Rodriguez is a licensed funeral director and embalmer in the state of
Texas. She has been fully licensed since 2013 and has been in the funeral
industry since 2011. She is now the aftercare director for Parting Pro, a
rapidly growing software company for funeral professionals.
How did you get into the
Funny story. I set off after high school and
earned my bachelor’s degree in Psychology in 2007- about the same time the
recession was really gearing up. Realizing one million (plus or minus) students
were graduating with my same degree every year, I decided I need to
differentiate myself. I’d previously completed internships in forensics, where
I loved the science but missed the connection with people. I’d also completed
an internship in grief counseling, where I loved working with people but missed
the hard sciences. I took time off to soul-search and really determine what I
wanted to do, and then it hit me. Funeral Directing. The challenge of it
appealed to me in a way I still can’t explain- I wanted to step into the lives
of people who needed it the most, and be their helper. Fearing my parents’
total disapproval (they were envisioning law school or another post-grad
program, I think), I sheepishly mentioned my interest. My mom grinned ear
to ear, and said it made perfect since, given my heritage. How could I have
escaped this connection? Of course, she was right. I would be the fourth-generation
funeral director/embalmer in my family, and the first woman in the succession.
So, was it family? Was it passion? Without hesitation, both.
This industry is hard. Why
do you do your job every day?
I have an inexplicable desire to approach the
hardest, worst situations in the world and act. The challenge of not only
directing, but really helping the families who needed it most, traversing this
universe of shock, grief, terror, anger, sadness, relief, happiness and joy in
their memories…and everything in-between? Yes, please. The families that are
the “hard” families, with the most complicated situations and loss?
Those are my people. The ability to reach the un-reachable is something that
drives me every day, even now.
What is your favorite part
of the job?
My job has taken me into a new challenge of
our profession- communicating with colleagues across the country about death
care technology. As the Aftercare Director for Parting Pro-the most innovative
software in the funeral profession- my job is tasked with bridging the gap
between the nostalgia and familiarity of yester-year (typewriters? carbon paper
contracts?) and the technology of the future (digital ID verification, online
arrangement experiences and digital case management). It’s no longer
sufficient to have a website that tells families to call your business. Your
website must now offer an interactive, online experience. Families can buy a
diamond ring, a car, a house and more online- why is our profession lagging in
meeting families where they need us, in their new-found online communities? You
can still be the neighborhood funeral home, while recognizing that a virtual
“neighborhood” exists, too. So my favorite part? Intellectualizing
how to take our profession into the future, with compassion, values, and
service at the forefront.
How do you balance work and
home life? What do you do for self-care?
Wait, there’s a balance? Just kidding! First,
I want to acknowledge that I didn’t pop out of mortuary school knowing about
this balance, the need for it, or how to achieve it. That was a rather painful
learning experience that took years to master. I realized I was working myself
to death for a lifestyle I could never participate in, because I was working
myself to death. Which brings me to my self-care: Saying “no.”
Sounds simple, but it’s not. Learning how to say no was, and still is how I practice
self-care. Does this mean I don’t work hard? No. It means I’m selective in the
work that I do, and relish the peace found in the quiet moments that are mine
to own. I think, as women in this profession, we often believe that we have to
work harder, smarter, better, stronger, and “more” in order to prove
our place. But it wasn’t until I realized that mentality was total bullshit and
self-destructive, that I was able to pour myself into my total life
Outside of work, what are
I’m consumed by learning. My hobbies/interests
at the moment are graduate school, where I’m earning a Master’s degree in
clinical mental health counseling. Immersing myself in intellectual stimulation
may sound like torture to some, but for me, it’s my time. It’s my mental space
to re-claim and grow my own understanding of people, their lived-in
experiences, their meanings. My focus is on applications of emotional contagion
and indirect trauma, as well as combining artificial intelligence with bereavement
counseling services online to one day, broaden accessibility to these resources
If you choose, tell us
about your family, kids, spouses, pets etc.
My family, without a doubt, is the only reason
I can do this. Any of this. When I was considering graduate school, my husband
simply looked at me and said, “I want you to have your dream.” My
son, who’s three, well…while I think the hours away from each other are hard
on us both, the hours spent together are that much more savored and treasured.
He’s my absolute sunshine (and knows it). My dogs are my other children, and
there have been many, many times I’ve cried into their soft fur at night in
total grief for the family I served. My
village deserves every ounce of credit for my professional, personal and
Tell a story about a family
you have served.
While working at an internship, I remember
serving a family of a fallen serviceman who was killed overseas. I’d never been
exposed to this level of service, had no idea what “high profile”
meant or anything to do with the ceremony and honor of that type of service. I
was completely naive, not prepared, and shadowed the entire process in my own
shock and awe. The day of the arrangements, my brother told my family he would
be deployed, and all I could envision was this family at the funeral home.
About the time I broke down, and decided that I couldn’t be a funeral
professional, I realized that if something like that were to happen to my
brother, I would want someone to take care of me, in the way I desired to care
for that family. It was more than a desire. It was a compelling need. A
determination to perfect it. My brother was deployed to South Korea and we were
blessed with his safe return. Naturally, the military perfected 99% of the
service, but the small time I had with his widow inspired me to contact The
American Widow Project, and promote their materials throughout as many funeral
homes as time would allow.
What message would you like
to give to the public about our profession?
I am human. I am not Lurch Adams. I am not a
morbidly-consumed evil-wisher, waiting to prey upon a family when tragedy
strikes and my pockets are empty. Nay, I’m a rather normal person. If you see
me in the grocery store, I’ll probably have my son, shopping for the same food
you eat. If you call me at 3 a.m., I’ll probably sound foggy for the first
three seconds because…I actually sleep. When you feel pain, I feel pain. I’ve
just learned little tricks to sustain myself long enough to get to my car and
cry the entire way home. I know how to care for you when your over-sized
sunglasses aren’t quite big enough to conceal your dissolution into grief.
Simply, I’m a person too, and I want to help.
This is the last in the Who We Are Speaking of Series for December 2018. Please submit details and contact information for your favorite funeral director to be placed in the spotlight for future series to email@example.com. Thanks!
Learn more about what your funeral professional does everyday by reading “Speaking of the dead” order your copy today!
In this post of “Who We Are Speaking Of” series I talked to Monica Torres who has been in the funeral industry since 2008. She is the founder/owner of NXT Generation Mortuary Support, LLC is a CFSP and is licensed as an AZ Funeral Director, Embalmer, Desairologist and Reconstructive Specialist. Her passion for enhancing body preparation techniques has taken the industry by storm with no signs of stopping.
Being a young female and Latina, her entrepreneurship in the
funeral industry has certainly caught all of our attention. With a background
in cosmetology she has always known she wanted to be a business owner. With the
support and encouragement of her mother she successfully completed the courses
for a mortuary science degree and didn’t stop there.
During her studies she realized that there were limitations to prep work in the embalming room, inciting her to take the instructor course in Hollywood with Dinair. She then developed an airbrush makeup course that was applicable in the prep room (funeral industry lingo for the back rooms where bodies are embalmed and prepared).
Passion and compassion has been the framework for the empire
she is creating in the funeral industry, beginning with the death of her father
when was she was just 9 months old.
After a terrible mining accident her father sustained massive
crushing head wounds and severe trauma that included his entire body, a
scenario that in most cases would make the body unviewable. However, the
embalmer in her town was able to restore her father well enough for the family,
and the town, to see him again allowing them to have a final goodbye. Over the
years, she heard over and over stories from her family about how healing it was
to be able to see her dad one last time and this sparked a flame in the little
girl who lost her father to become the trailblazer in the funeral industry that
she has become today. Monica has dedicated her career to the value of open
casket viewing, after experiencing its value first hand. She has taken advanced
courses in embalming and mixed with her cosmetology background she now teaches other
embalmers these techniques on how to reconstruct, restore and repair severe trauma,
giving grieving families a lasting and acceptable memory of their loved one.
She has been featured in Funeral Business Advisor, Noomis, The Independent, the ACCFA, Funeral
Nation and most notably American Funeral Director along with many others. You
can find these articles and more at https://www.nxtgenmortuarysupport.com/. You can also follow her on twitter at #EmbalmingTipOfTheWeek @ColdHandsHosts
been so many families that have impacted my career, but the families I have served
that have suffered the loss of an infant or unborn have sculpted my career the
most. These families are often underrepresented and underserved. Baby Angel came into my care 2.5 years ago.
Baby Angel was stillborn at full term. His mother gave birth to him in the back
bedroom of her parents house during her fathers 56th birthday party.
Over 30 family members witnessed the lifeless birth of Baby Angel. In their
grief the family did what their Mexican culture called for. Home births are
still not uncommon in Mexico and Baby Angel was bathed and dressed and passed
around to family members who all wanted the opportunity to say hello and
goodbye to this eagerly anticipated gift. After 2 days of bathing, changing
outfits for family photo opps and after all family and friends had gotten the
opportunity to see him the family finally brought him to my funeral home. I
received baby Angel in an advanced decomposed state. During the arrangements I
offered his parents one last opportunity to see him. I offered them the gift of
embalming and the compassionate care of my skilled hands. My advanced training allowed
me to restore baby Angel to a dignified and viewable state. So overjoyed with the presentation of the embalming
were they that Baby Angels parents asked to please give them more time with him
and requested a home viewing and proper funeral for all their family and
neighbors. Without hesitation they asked
to take him home in the plush baby blue casket they picked out for him. After this experience I realized the impact I
had on this family and realized that infant embalming was not a subject ever
taught in any embalming course I had attended. In loving memory of Baby Angel
and the value his viewing brought to his family I was inspired to create my new
“Embalming the Infant Death; Progressive Embalming techniques for infants and the unborn”
permission of the families I have documented over 20 cases of infant death
embalmings and look forward to sharing my new course and with other
professional embalmers in 2019. The course not only focuses on technical
embalming treatments but also touches on modern trends in the birthing industry
and the relevancy of infant services in modern day funeral home operations. Other
areas of focus are the need for infant and unborn services and how to list
these services on the GPL in a way that is sensitive to the needs of families who
have suffered the loss of an infant.
I would like
for people to know that I am actively working on what the future of embalming
is going to look like. The time for change is here and I’m very excited to be
part of that change. I believe in the healing power of open casket viewing and
the art and science of embalming and alternative methods of viewing of the
deceased. My company NXT Generation Mortuary Support was founded on the
concrete mission to support funeral homes and professionals while offering
useful and relevant information to consumers. I hope to be able to grow my
business by partnering with other like-minded companies that also offer
services and products that support our beloved industry and the families that
To reach Monica about how her courses please visit her websites contact page by clinking the link here.
“Speaking of the Dead is a well written, entertaining easy read. The subject matter is not what you find in any other book (that I have read). Chelsea writes so that we can understand her experiences and makes you laugh and cry. Great read!!”
“Very good read. This puts a different, more human touch to the profession. We all need to understand the process since we cannot run from death but for so long. Chelsea did great with this book and I look forward to more by this author.”
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.
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.
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 (firstname.lastname@example.org) 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.
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 (email@example.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.
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!
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.