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.

Before I tell this story, I want you all to know that the majority of people I meet take way too much stock in Hollywood’s versions of dead bodies and what they do, or do not do, in the days before they are buried or cremated. I have had people tell me about the bodies that sit straight up, “ I saw it with my own eyes!” Or watched a woman in a casket breathe, or blink, or twitch a finger, or whatever their eyes told them happened. It’s true that our minds decide what we see, that the dead are not dead, there was a mistake and they are still breathing just really slowly, “Just like in that show I saw” people have told me. I have been brought back into a room where the family frantically asks me to call a doctor because so and so opened their eyes for split second, or their mouth twitched “I swear I saw it”. I don’t mean to make light of these situations because it’s traumatic and sad. The truth, is unless you are around the dead all day, our minds are trained to see a person sleeping. Sleeping people twitch and breath and move, combine that normalcy with the yearning for the person to still be alive and hope to not have to handle the loss in the coming days and years can assuredly create false impressions of movement. It is heart wrenching and I have to calmly explain to the family that they are seeing things that are not there and assure them that their deepest wish is not going to come true.

The hardest of these moments for me was a young girl who lost her mother unexpectedly. She was probably early thirties and an only child. She had not been close to her mother in recent years and there was a ton of unresolved anger and sadness that turned to guilt when she died. The daughter was unmarried, and her father estranged, there was no other family to support her.

When she came in to see her mother’s body, she brought with her four of her friends for support, one of them a hospice nurse. I walked them into the large viewing room, the lights were slightly dimmed, and the woman lay on a table covered to her shoulders with a sheet. The daughter was rightly upset, and emotion overtook her as the girls stepped up to the body. I felt the daughter had all the support she needed so I stepped out into the hallway to give them time alone, letting one of her friends know that I was right outside the door if they needed anything.

It took less than a minute for one of the girls to burst through the door into the hallway practically yelling, “Call 911, she is still alive!” and “Call a doctor quick!” I have to say that I was only surprised because one of these girls was a hospice nurse. She should know that dead bodies don’t come back to life funeral homes. Yet, this is what happened, and the girls were most assuredly feeding off of each other’s frantic energy.

I calmly walked her back into the room and listened as they all told me the same story of an eye twitch. I thought it best to look the woman over again myself in an effort to look like I was investigating the situation, but she was just as still as before, not at all twitchy. I turned around and addressed the girls while standing next to the dead woman explaining to them what they were or, more accurately, were not seeing. To give context, the woman had not been embalmed, there would not be a service and she was to be cremated later that day.

I remember the daughter as if it happened yesterday. She turned to me with clear, bright blue tear filled and hopeful eyes as she argued that maybe the doctors got it wrong “Can you please just call?” she pleaded. My heart ached for her. Her pain was real and tangible. She argued where had seen a show where a dead person was only in a coma that made them appear dead and then later came back to life. So, after more explanation of the trickery of our eyes and helping them understand the real, hard truth, the girls finally calmed down. The daughter slumped her shoulders and hung her head in resignation and I asked her friends to come into the hallway with me and leave the daughter to have a final conversation with her mom and hopefully resolve some of the guilt that she will undoubtedly struggle with for the rest of her life.

“Doo Wop”

High school. A place of judgement, cliques, and where the popular mix with the unpopular. All must all interact together though, living and dreaming in the same space. It is the stage set for the best and the worst experiences in life.

He was a jock, a football player and he wanted to be my boyfriend. He was cute, but I was sure that his only reason for wanting to date me was that someone made him a bet. You know the story, jock hits up the geeky girl and gets her in bed only to get kudos from his other jock friends. And he was relentless! Always hanging around, always trying to tell me how pretty I was. And it pissed me off! Why would this guy, who could have any girl in the school, want to have anything to do with me? I blew him off. He kept it up. Then, finally I told him we could be hang out. I was sure that he would get bored and move on, there were too many other girls that were much easier to get than me. And so, we dated, and he stuck around. After some months of dating, I was starting to feel like maybe he was for real, maybe he did like me, maybe this could be a thing.

One night me and a couple of my friends went out cruising the strip. This was the thing every high school kid in Las Vegas did on the weekends. We drove up one side of the road lined with casinos and fast food restaurants, made a U-turn and then drove back down the other side of the road lined with different casinos and fast food restaurants.  We repeated this over and over again, occasionally stopping for food or to say hello to other people in cars in parking lots. The only point of this was to be seen in your car, waving at the people you knew in other cars and then go home.

Suddenly we were flagged down by a truck full of girls. Neither me or my friends knew who they were but decided to pull over anyway. As we pulled into a Wendy’s parking lot and a girl jumped out from the back of the truck before it even stopped and immediately stormed right towards, me looking like she was ready to fight. Her body hunched with purpose, fists balled up and long blonde hair swinging at her back to the momentum of her steps. I had been in fights before, it seemed to be my curse. Some girl doesn’t like me for whatever reason and the ONLY resolution, of course, is to try and beat me up. Well, I did not know this girl and had no idea what she wanted, so I braced myself for whatever crazy she was bringing with her. As she approached she was screaming something unintelligible. She raised her arms from her sides periodically and as she got closer to me in-between her strange rant I did catch her saying something about a fiancé? Which just deepened the mystery of the whole thing. Once she got close to me I asked her what the problem was and that I didn’t know her or her fiancé. Then she said his name. It was him! My boyfriend, this guy that told me I hung the moon, that spent all of his free time with me! The girl was from another high school and as I tried to wrap my head around this news, I could only guess that he thought the two of us would never meet or ever find out about each other. The girl finally calmed down when she realized I really had no idea he had been dating someone else. We talked it out and accepted that we were both being played. She told me that they had been dating for two years and had plans to marry after high school. I told her not to worry, the creep would never hang out with me again. As we talked she visibly went from a raging maniac with flailing arms and chest puffed out to a defeated young teenage girl, shoulders slumped, arms limp, heartbroken and crushed. We each said our peace and then went our separate ways.

That night I was staying at a friend’s house. We got to her house and changed into pajamas. Then sat together on her trundle bed. We had the lights in the room turned off but had candles burning on a dresser which reflected light off of the walls and ceiling giving the room a soft, calming glow. We talked about all that had happened. To show my age this was the era of En Vogue, a girl band that was really popular and always on the radio. They had a hit song called “My lovin’” (You’re never gonna get it). The chorus of that song has a line where they say “Ooooh, bop”, which to us sounded more like “Doo Wop” and was terribly similar to Mr. “I need a girlfriend from every school” ‘s last name. So, we played the song and happily sang it inserting his last name into the chorus laughing and giggling like teen girls do. I had moments of angry rants about being betrayed and I had moments of real sadness at losing my boyfriend.

As we were talking and singing and laughing, the phone rang. It was one of those clear plastic phones where the guts inside were covered in bright neon colors and lit up so when you had the phone on silent you still knew you had a phone call and your parents would never hear it. I think every teen girl had one during the 90’s. My friend answered the phone and low and behold, it was Mr. Doo Wop wanting to talk to me which, of course, I refused at first. After he pleaded a bit with my friend, I finally agreed to get on the phone thinking I knew what would happen. He would give a slick “I am sorry, it’s really only you, she means nothing to me speech followed with “we are good right?”. This is what I imagined. But it was nothing like that. He did say that he was sorry, but he needed me to understand his side, he sounded desperate and anxious. He told me that the other girl was controlling and wouldn’t let him break up with her, serious eye-roll here. Then he said that the girl had actually broken up with him that night and he needed to talk to somebody and he said that talking to me always made him feel better. I was feeling indignant and jaded that he had the gall to ask me to help him through his own sorrow of getting caught despite the fact that internally I wanted to help and talk him through this. My response to him was that he would get no sympathy from me and I promptly hung up the phone. He called a few more times begging to talk to me but refused and didn’t talk to him again.

I am an empath. I feel other people’s feels and he was in real pain. He was so distressed and clearly didn’t know how to handle it. At that moment though, I didn’t care. In that moment I knew that there would never be a relationship between us, I felt that in a few days he would go back to her and they would make-up and life would continue the same way it had before as if all of this had never happened. I was so very wrong.

It was the weekend, so my friend and I stayed up late that night going over all of things that had occurred. We did finally doze off planning to sleep all of the next day as teens do on the weekend. Instead, we awoke to the ringing of the brightly colored phone. My friend answered, and I stayed right where I was, pulling the covers tighter to my chin, nothing good could come from a phone call this early in the morning. I listened to the one side of the conversation that I could hear and before my friend hung up the phone I was already sitting up and knew that “Doo Wop” was dead. Not that I “knew knew” because no one had told me yet, but I knew because I heard the desperation in his voice the night before. The pleading, not that I would take him back, but that by talking to him I could somehow give him comfort. He had been found by his younger brother who was a toddler at the time. The child had gone to wake him up for breakfast and found him lifeless lying on his bed, he had shot himself in the head with a shotgun, an image no one should see, especially a toddler.

The day of the funeral my friends and I found our seats. “Doo Wop” had been cremated and his urn was tastefully displayed at the front of the chapel. I saw his mother and his other girlfriend “fiancé” sitting in the front row. As we waited for the funeral to start we heard gasps coming from behind us. I turned around and to mine and everyone else’s surprise, there he was! Walking down the aisle, whole and unharmed. In complete shock, me and most of the crowd watched this man walk to where his mother was sitting, he bent down, gave her a hug and then sat next to her on the pew. What was happening? Was this a joke? I turned my head in all directions to get a look at the crowd around me. Some were talking to each other in whispers, some looking around confused like me and some sitting quietly with no reaction at all. If this was a joke, it wasn’t funny. After talking with some of the people near us, my friends and I learned that the man who had just walked down the aisle was actually Doo Wop’s older brother. I was still stunned. That moment of thinking he wasn’t dead and that this whole thing was just a joke gave me a hell of an adrenaline rush. The crowd finally settled down and it was time to start the service. Several people got up to the pulpit and said such wonderful things about him. And he was wonderful and so young. He had a kind heart and loved his family. His death was a real tragedy and affected many students at the school. I can only imagine what his family was going through.

I don’t remember the funeral, I don’t remember what happened after the funeral. I will always remember the phone call. The plea for help. Not because he was upset over a girlfriend matter but that there was clearly something else going on. And I had ignored it. I don’t blame myself for not talking to him that night, there was no way I could have known what was going to happen. I do however hope that if I ever recognize that same desperation for help, that I will take a moment, follow my gut and listen.

Her hands were clutched in front of her making small nervous motions as she walked. She was slightly bent from age like something heavy weighed upon her shoulders and her feet shuffled along the carpet. Her head was down, her eyes focused on the floor and she never looked up as she walked seeming to be nervous of what was to come and why she was here. She was surrounded by her children who, whether on purpose or not, ringed her protectively as they all entered the funeral home. As I walked towards them I adjusted my suit and checked that my buttons on my jacket were closed, always wanting to look professional and capable. I observed the group for signs of defensiveness, fear, sadness, or any of the other “feels” that are typical of people who have just experienced a death. She came across as nervous and in need of comfort and support, her family around her were shielding and wary.

I greeted her first, extending my sympathies that the death of her husband was the reason we were meeting. I stretched out my hand with the intent of holding hers for just a moment and hopefully create some sense of ease that is needed in these instances, but she quickly recoiled both hands to her chest and sank into her crowd of defenders, still never looking up but in a mighty voice she demanded, “Who are you?!” I took a small respectful step back and answered, “I am your funeral director.” In response she looked up into my eyes and with a glare belying her previously nervous stature said, “Well, I … don’t … like … you.” Proving that sometimes I am wrong in my assessment of people.

In hindsight, moments such as these can be comical. But the distress experienced while they are occurring is real and painful. Some people fear the mortuary and the funeral director, choosing to believe that we are out to get their money and steal their loved one’s body parts.  They choose to be cocooned in a world where death doesn’t exist for them. I admit, this is the easier way – until someone dies. Then, it becomes a trauma that no one should have to experience. It is hard to watch someone internally wrestling with what they perceived wasn’t even possible to the reality that it has happened and now they are living a nightmare.

In an attempt to take the hostility out of her comment and show her that I did not take her remark personally, I answered with a friendly smile and said “Of course, I understand.” I made my introductions to the rest of the family who were silently mouthing to me “I’m sorry.” I waved them off, assuring them that it was fine and then spoke to them all as a whole as to what they should expect while they were there with me. I then asked them all to follow me and turned around to lead them to the room where we would be spending the next hour or so together. As I walked away I heard the widow say “I don’t trust her, let’s get someone else.”

Comments like these usually come from being in pain and in shock and not knowing what to do with these emotions. It can’t be taken personally. I knew at this moment that it wouldn’t matter who her funeral director is, she would feel the same about any of us. So, understanding this, I continued walking away, acting as if I didn’t hear her.

During the time we spent together making arrangements, most of the questions I asked the widow were ignored by her and had to be repeated by a family member. I would ask a question, a family member would echo my question to her, and only then would the widow give an answer. She was determined to show me who was boss, and I was obliged to let her think she was in control. This went on during the entire arrangement. The family would give each other side glances, roll their eyes and sometimes even giggle at the absurdity of how their mother was behaving. At one point the daughter asked her mother “Why don’t you just answer the lady?” and again she said, “I don’t like her.” And so, we continued the ask twice, answer once regime. Which made me also giggle internally at the widow’s resolve to be difficult.

When it was time for them to leave I walked them to the door and said goodbye, addressing the widow by name. I heard her grunt and mumble something I couldn’t make out as she ignored me and walked out the front door. Her daughter stayed behind to apologize for her mother’s behavior which I could only respond with that she was in grief and scared and sad and her behavior was nothing for them to worry about. The daughter was truly embarrassed. I assured her that I was not offended and with a smile I told her that her mother has great personality. She gave me a big smile, thanked me again and left to join her family in the parking lot.

As a funeral director, I am subject to see all kinds of emotions. Sad, angry, numb, these are all things I expect from families during the time I interact with them. I didn’t feel threatened by the widow’s behavior, I felt sad for her pain. And to be honest it does make me giggle a little when sweet little old ladies are rude, as it belies the behavior we expect from our elders.

The next time I saw the widow was when the family came in for a private family viewing. I had the man dressed and in his casket. I made sure his shirt was pressed and tie was straight. As the family walked into the lobby, I addressed the widow again, making sure that this time I stayed at a distance and didn’t reach for her hand. She looked at me but said nothing. I greeted the rest of the family with hugs and walked them to the door where I had their father’s body ready and waiting for their arrival. I talked them through what they would see once I opened the door, where the casket was located, what flowers had arrived and that they should take as much time as they needed, and that the room was theirs for however long they stayed.

I opened the door and allowed the family to walk in first. I stepped in behind them watching how the widow reacted to seeing her husband for the first time since his death. She walked up to the casket and placed a hand on his chest, her head was bowed forward and she was quickly surrounded by her children with their arms around her shoulders. I walked out of the room and quietly closed the door behind me.

The widow never fully warmed up to me, but she at least stopped being rude. She allowed me to direct her husband’s funeral and burial. Her children were no longer apologetic but grateful that I handled the situation so well and accomplished creating a memorable funeral for their father.

My hope for the widow is that she found a way to calm her inner turmoil and grasp the joy that her children and grandchildren will bring her as she learns to survive without her husband. I will continue to love the families I serve no matter how they act towards me.

We ended up getting several calls that week from people requesting funeral services. More calls than usual. I had just started working at this funeral home and the director who hired me decided this was the week he was going on vacation. Leaving me as the only funeral director available. We had some staff that would work part-time at night for viewings but no one else in the company could handle a call from start to finish.

The calls seemed to always come early in the morning 12:00am, 2:00am, 4:00am. Every night, morning, afternoon and evening I was picking up the dead, embalming the dead, meeting with their families and directing their funerals. In the midst of all of this I was calling the clergy, the cemeteries, the casket companies, writing the obituaries, dressing deceased, placing them in caskets, curling hair, applying makeup, arranging flowers, designing programs, vacuuming, mopping, and washing the fleet… if this has you exhausted, well, I have saved you from all of the other behind the scenes craziness that takes place to make a funeral happen. It takes people to accomplish all of these tasks when arranging several funerals at once, yet this week, it was only me.

I did have one extra set of hands though. The administrator of the office would help me place a casket on the church trucks (the wheeled device that the casket would sit on during visitations and funerals). She answered all of the phone calls, relayed messages for me and she printed the memorial folders as they were approved by the family. So, it wasn’t all dire… eye roll firmly inserted here, not because I didn’t appreciate or need the help, it just felt ridiculous that a firm had no other backup to cover things when staff was this low.

I love all of the things that I do in this industry of caring for the dead and their families. I enjoy going out at night and picking up the dead. I enjoy meeting with the families and arranging the details of a funeral. I enjoy dressing people and I enjoy multi-tasking all of the many things a funeral director usually juggles. This week tested my limits.

The drive from my house to the funeral home was a solid twenty minutes. There was hardly ever traffic through these back roads either day or night. Winding, curving roads of dirt that passed through cow pastures and at times were lined with huge trees that made wonderful canopies over the roads. So, even at twenty minutes the drive wasn’t bad, and in comparison, to the forty-five-minute drive through city streets to my previous job, this drive was enjoyable. Yet, during this week it was like the Indy 500! Back and forth at all times of night and day, long hours preparing the dead, making phone calls, meeting with families. I would head home hoping for a calm night and much needed rest, only to get the phone call that I was needed back for something. Back and forth and back and forth. I knew this road. I knew this road like the back of my hand. Then one day while driving, it was mid-day, maybe noon or so, I watched as a bunny darted in front of my car from the side of the road and I could not stop fast enough. I hit him, or her. I killed him/her and there was nothing I could do about it. I had never hit any living thing before now and I was crushed! A terrible lesson about driving cautiously on country roads. During this crazy week of hell, sleeping little and eating almost nothing, I still made these trips. I would try and sneak home for some rest in my own bed and to shower and to eat. The demands piled high and I kept on the with the wild schedule.

Then one night, it was well after dark, well after the town had gone to sleep. I headed home once again. I was driving my silver Ford Taurus. A beast of a car yet it took the curves smoothly and glided gently over the bumpy parts of the road, which was very comfortable and soothing and I was fighting to stay awake. I knew my route well, but I was exhausted, and I realized my eyes were closing, I was almost wishing for an old clunky car with bad shocks to keep me jostled awake. I opened the car windows hoping the cold, fresh air would give me the small boost I needed to get home safely. I then turned on the radio when I thought maybe I had fallen asleep for a moment, loud, blaring music, something I had to pay attention to. I shook my head from time to time to rattle by thoughts and clear the sleepiness temporarily.

The thing about driving on long country roads is that the dangers of killing a bunny is really the least of your worries. I remember looking up ahead of me at one point and even with my headlights on high beam, it seemed that there was no more road. Yet, there was movement, something fast! Still I couldn’t decipher what it was. With my blurred and foggy brain, I blinked hard to clear my eyes and finally realized that crossing the road in front of me was moving train! I slammed on the brakes and skid to a stop on the dirt road only just before ramming myself into the guard gate and the speeding boxes of pure metal just beyond. I sat dazed in my car, dust flying into the open windows, only then did I noticed the bright red flashing lights of the guard arms warning me of the danger ahead. Sitting there in my car, the dust cloud slowly dissipating around me and rock music blaring in my ears, I looked ahead at the moving train cars speeding across the road. I almost rammed myself into a moving train! I was so tired, I could not even see blaring red flashing lights in the darkness. I turned the radio off and put my car in park. I could hear the rumble of the train as it sped past, I could hear the screech as the metal wheels rolled along the metal rails and I realized just how close I had come to being the newest customer of a funeral home. And when would my body be discovered? It was late at night, there would be no passersby to find me for hours. No one would know I was missing since my schedule couldn’t dictate when I should arrive at home or work. It was a sobering moment. And it was very, very real.

I was ten minutes from home and I knew in that moment that if I got a call to come back, I would have to refuse, they would have to figure it out without me tonight. The train passed, and the guard arms lifted, the bright red flashing lights blinked out and I was left with only my headlights in the dark. The countryside was again still and quiet other than rustling trees, chirping crickets and the distant rumble of the train traveling happily away. I called my mother, knowing she may be the only person in the world awake at this hour and had her talk to me until I was home and safe. The next day I called the funeral home I worked at previously asking for my old job back, which they granted me with open arms. I will work, I will work hard but never again will I work so hard that I find myself almost wrecked on the side of a moving train.

The office is buzzing. All of us worker bees are busy getting ready for the funeral about to happen. One black suit rushes to the video recorder and makes sure it’s pointed in the right direction and turned on. Another black suit rushes around the fleet of cars with a damp towel scrubbing the water spots left from the drive-through car wash. The family is arriving, and part time staff opens the door, ushering them into the lobby to await me, the funeral director.

In the back rooms I hear the family talking in hushed tones and imagine them nervously pulling on their skirts and adjusting their suit jackets, waiting for me to take them in the room where their loved one is lying in a casket. I walk through a door from the back hallway into that room to check one more time that everything is in place and ready for the family to enter. Once I am satisfied, I walk to a door that opens to another hallway connected to the lobby and greet the group as I gently close the door behind me. We give each other hugs and greetings there in the lobby and I can see the tension in their necks, the hesitation in their movements and the tiny quiver in their voices. They are certainly imagining what lay behind that door, wondering what they are about to walk in to.

During the last few days, the family has made many trips to the funeral home and delivered all of the things that we asked them to provide to get ready for today. They have brought us clothing, pictures, quilts and awards. They have proofed memorial folders and funeral programs. They may have even come in yesterday and visited with the deceased before she was dressed and placed in the casket. But, today is the day. It is the day that there will be no more visits, no more fussing over which picture should go on which piece of printed material. No more writing speeches, eulogies or obituaries. Today the casket will be closed. Today when they leave me their loved one will be buried, and they will have to go home with all of the things they had just delivered and all of the flowers that people have sent.

So now we stand at the door to the viewing room. The family gathered and waiting, me in my suit with hands clasped in front of me. I take a moment to explain what things look like behind the door. Where the casket is positioned, how many flowers were sent and how they are arranged around the room. I add descriptions like how the casket flowers match the red in her dress and the beautician did an excellent job on her hair. And then with the slightest hesitation, fingers crossed that they will be happy with the job I did, I turn the knob on the door and open it fully, then stand aside to allow the family to enter.

The reactions are very different but at the same time predictable. Many walk in with hands clasped with another family member, walking straight to their loved one and grasping at the reality that she is dead, and today is her funeral. Some hesitate and stand in the doorway, blocking those behind them as they see the casket then quickly veer their eyes to everything else around the room, one hand on their lips, the other wrapped around their belly, cautiously taking it all in. Others, enter slowly but steady, taking their time to look around the room but always moving toward the casket. There are some family members who bull-rush their way in, pretending like they have done this like a thousand times before and they are not afraid, knocking down anyone standing in their way, using bravado as a defense of their real terror or grief of what lay beyond the threshold.

As I stand to the side and let the family enter, I watch them and their individual reactions and behaviors. I have gotten to know these people over the last few days. We have had laughs together and cries and debates over the cost of things. There has been arguments over which dress to put her in, the color of her nail polish and the style of her hair. But today, and this moment, is telling. How the family members each react gives me a look through the chink in their armor. Mostly they forget I am there and the unabashed reactions of grief or awe or relief are revealed in these moments, because today is the last day they get with her.

Today it does not matter that she’s wearing the dress that her sister selected and not the one that her granddaughter actually wanted her dressed in. The conversations over what mentions to include in the obituary are over. The concerns about the cost of the casket or deciding how many programs to order have been settled. All of these other things are behind us and unimportant. Right now, today, she is the focus. She is beautiful in her casket, in her dress, hair coiffed, make up perfect, and nails painted. Right now it is only about her and the memories she left them. Her pumpkin pies at Thanksgiving, her hugs when you scraped a knee, her gentle way of explaining why that boy was no good for you and why a college education is important. Memories of her scolding you because you came home late, or lovingly bandaging your knee after a fall. All of this followed with a warm chocolate chip cookies or a bowl of vanilla ice cream. Nothing is more important than these things today, what she left as a legacy. Not the rush of people of the previous days filled with phone calls, little sleep, errands and shopping because now… now it is today.