It was a drizzly day, big fluffy clouds with varying shades of gray swirled overhead. The humidity hung in the air whispering of the storm that was threatening to overtake the city. It was mid-afternoon when I received a phone call to pick up a deceased man from the Medical Examiner’s (ME) office, so I jumped in the funeral home van and hit the road. Once I arrived at the ME’s office I backed the van into a small alleyway that ended with a railing and ramp that led to a large metal door. I rang a bell next to the metal door and a staff member escorted me with my cot inside to retrieve the deceased man. The staff member and I chatted and bantered back and forth, talking about what cases he had seen lately, I talked about the families I was currently serving. He then retrieved the man from a back room, and I proceeded to check the name on the tag attached to the man’s foot, verifying it was the right person. We transferred the man onto my cot and I left the building just like I had countless times before.

After getting my passenger safely into the back of the van, I climb into the driver’s seat and hit the road again. It only took a few minutes and I was on the freeway headed back to the mortuary. The clouds were ominous. Darker than before. Then, as I was driving it started to hail and the wind became angrier, so much so that I had to keep a tight grip on the steering wheel to prevent the van from careening into another lane. There wasn’t a lot of traffic on the freeway, but every car was slowing down due to the severe weather conditions. The hail stones became bigger and bounced off the windshield with so much force that I feared it would crack the glass. The wind had become so strong at this point that almost all of the traffic was moving at a crawl as the drivers struggled to keep control of their cars. This scenario is incredibly difficult to explain if you haven’t ever experienced it. I was surrounded by a black and brown haze as the wind picked up dust and debris from the streets and hurled it around like an angry child throwing an epic temper tantrum. The hail stones crashed and smashed with incredible energy.

At this point I was thinking that I had to get off the freeway and under some cover. As I neared the next overpass it became apparent that I was not getting off the freeway any time soon. The cars that were ahead of me had stopped under the overpass for protection and blocked any other cars from getting passed. I was stuck! Cars stopped in front of me and cars now stopped behind me, my only option was to put the van in park and climb in the back of the van away from the windows and wait it out. It was just me and the man I was charged with keeping safe hunkered down with nowhere else to go.

The baseball sized hailstones hit the van, threatening to break the windows and punch through the seemingly thin metal that protected me and my passenger. The sound was deafening, the booms echoed in the cramped metal space. The wind bullied the van, pushing it from side to side seeming to try and knock us over. I talked to the dead man lying on the cot next to me. I told him I would do whatever it took to get him back to the mortuary safe so that his family didn’t have to experience any more trauma than they already had. In my head I thought about what I would have to say to them if by chance we were thrown over and the body was injured. I was mentally preparing myself for the possible hours of reconstruction I would be faced with if this whole thing went badly. I would do what I had to do to assure the family could say goodbye to a complete and whole person. As these thoughts and scenarios swam around in my head, the wind slowly lost its rage and calmed. The hail storm abated, and the clouds parted. How long had it been? a minute, an hour? I am not sure. The storm had passed, well not so much a storm but a tornado that had run amok around the city and seriously close to the freeway I had been trapped on.

Through this entire ordeal, there was not one crack in the windshield, not one dent in the metal of the van and the man that I had picked up from the ME’s office was safe and unscathed. I was able to present him to his family unharmed.

This was the 2008 tornado that ripped through Atlanta and tore open Georgia dome! 30 people were injured and one person was killed. The video below is my father telling the story during one of my book readings.

“Behind these doors is the most sacred room in the building. It is where loved ones come to be prepared for the most difficult event in a family’s life. Those that work behind these doors pledge to each family a never-ending commitment of respect and service to those that place their trust in us.”

-Author unknown. 

      In mortuary college, every student is pledged to care for the deceased with respect and treat the families with integrity. I remember standing with my graduating class, adorned in my robes and tasseled hat, repeating each word of the oath written below. After all my classmates and I had gone through in class, the testing, the long days and nights, the testing, so many subjects we needed to learn to get to this day and did I mention the testing! We said each word together with family and friends in the crowd, watching and listening to what we promised to do. I couldn’t have been prouder of our profession, that we were required to take such an oath to do our job. There is a reason that families trust us, we have an incredibly important role in handling people and the deceased. Real things. Important things. One little white lie will always turn into a chain of other lies which destroys trust and reputation. One unwashed instrument carrying a disease can be carelessly tracked home.

We are the ones who will do the jobs not many others can or will do. We are the ones who care about you before we have ever met you.  We are the last responders, and more recently I have heard us described as ninjas. We are your funeral directors.

Funeral Service Oath

 “I do solemnly swear by that which I hold most sacred;

That I shall be loyal to the Funeral Service Profession and just and generous to its members; That I shall not let the constant relationship and familiarity with death give me cause to yield to carelessness or to violate my obligation to society or to the dignity of my profession. 

That I shall obey the Civil Laws. That I shall not divulge professional confidences; And that I shall be faithful to those who have placed their trust in me.

 While I continue to keep this oath unviolated, may it be granted to me to enjoy honor in my life and in my profession; and may I be respected by all people for all time.”

You’ve lost someone to death. A person that you knew, loved and talked to is no longer there. The grief is crippling, food turns to ash in your mouth, you are unable to move, function, smile. Will you ever laugh again?

I have been there for hundreds of families and talked them through the emotions they are feeling just trying to find a way to convey to them that it is normal to be angry, sad, numb, even happy. I myself have experienced that total grief that comes with a devastating loss.

Grief is real for everybody, it is normal, it is tangible. You can feel it, taste it and hate it. So how do you embrace it? A question I get quite frequently from families is, “When will this pain end?” The only true answer to that question is that it won’t. But, you will learn to survive with it. The more you embrace the ache and hurt the more you learn to live despite it.

It is currently Springtime and I awoke this morning realizing that this time of year is the perfect analogy to living with grief. Where I live, during the winter months, we get lots of snow. This creates many challenges. It can be a challenge to get up in the morning and have to scrape the ice off your car in the freezing cold. It can be a challenge to then drive on slush laden roads where the simple turn of a wheel or fast brake, whether by you or someone else, can send your car into a seemingly uncontrollable skid. Grief is like that. There are times when just getting out of bed is a task too difficult to achieve and driving on slushy roads is similar to the unpredictability of interacting with the world, you almost never know what might trigger an attack of horrible grief rendering you almost incapable of functioning. In those moments, remember that spring is coming. Even when you feel so heavy that simply putting one foot in front of the other does not seem possible, you will again feel the sunshine after a long winter. It’s like when the snow has melted and flowers with their bursts of color are just starting to peek through the dead grass and weeds. You will start to have days where you feel whole and complete and find joy in being. Of course, reality will come back just like the snow and the rain during springtime but again the sun will shine and more and more color will start to burst forth and your heart will lighten.

Just like in nature there is a natural ebb and flow to grief. The clouds will part briefly allowing for a few deep breaths and then the gloom settles in again. When this happens remember that the sun will find its way through the clouds and give you moments of respite. The long winters and springtime seasons will always present themselves, you cannot escape it. However, even in the darkest hours, in the worst moments of trying to get through a day, an hour or a minute, your best defense of cloudy, snowy days is try to remember the Spring.

I have such a great life. An amazing and supportive husband. A beautiful and gentle autistic step-son. An old dog who has been by my side for so many years. I am fortunate in that every struggle, me and my family faces, I know that we will survive and thrive on a real and epic level.

It is the weekend and I am supposed to be working right now. I am sitting at my desk with piles of paper all around. I should be filing the stacks and entering data into the software. My to do list includes arranging mailing lists, creating advertising material, organizing phone calls for the next week and preparing to interview potential employees. Yet… instead I sit. Still and quiet, loving the sounds around me. My husband and my niece, who are in the adjacent room, are talking through the best strategies to handle the myriad of situations they are facing in a video game. My step-son is in the room next to me traversing through his own maze of imaginative worlds while muttering recollected phrases out loud. Vash (the old dog) is lying on the floor sleeping soundly, and at the moment, seemingly free from the ache of inflamed joints and the trembling internal pain that afflict the aging.

The dishwasher is running, the laundry is in various states of being washed, dried or folded. Between household chores and running a business, nothing is ever finished, there is always something to be done. Yet right now, this moment is more important than anything else I could be doing.

Life events cannot be anticipated and can turn our simple everyday routines upside down. You never know when an accident may occur resulting in a major disruption to a peaceful weekend, month, year. I have lived long enough to know that it takes only a minute for life to turn into chaos and tragedy. So instead of working right now, I am soaking up the little moments of my perfect life that I vow, will never be taken for granted.

The season was changing, it was fall. Orange and yellow leaves scattered the ground. Some leaves still clung to the trees in pure defiance of being replaced by newer, greener leaves in the spring. The air was crisp, the grass was turning brown and crunchy. It was the perfect season for a graveside service. The woman who passed away had pre-arranged all of her services prior to her death. She was to be embalmed and have a night of viewing at the mortuary then the next day be transported to a cemetery in a neighboring town for a graveside and burial.  

During the arrangement meeting with the children we finalized all of the details, set the time for viewing and when we would meet at the cemetery. The children left and I busied myself with ordering the casket and vault and notified the cemetery of our plans so they could dig the grave. I then called the clergy to coordinate when to meet at the cemetery, he let me know that he was not able to make the trip but would be at the viewing to say a few words to the family. This is not unusual with services that are out of town, the clergy sometimes have other obligations and are not able to travel for a service. Often in these cases the funeral director will step in and say a few words in lieu of the clergy. I notified the children and offered to step in which they readily agreed and were grateful for the offer. At no time during any of our interactions did the children indicate what was to happen the day of the graveside.

The viewing went as planned. Family and friends came and visited. Nothing was out of the ordinary. Once the viewing ended I allowed the children some private time with their mother before I closed the casket for the last time. They said their goodbyes and left the building.

The next day, I arrived at the funeral home early. I placed the casket in the hearse along with a register book, tissues and lap quilts. Then I got on the road for the long trip. It was about a three-hour drive through winding country roads lined with trees, the bright fall colors were a welcome backdrop. I arrived at the cemetery early in order to get everything ready and then waited for the children to arrive. During these times I enjoy scoping out surrounding headstones looking for unique sayings or try and find the oldest headstone in the area. As I wandered around I noticed it was getting close to the time for the graveside and had not yet seen or heard from the children. Still I waited, I knew it was a long drive and they would have had to get up pretty early to make it there in time and they had been up late the night before for the viewing, so I waited.

It was ten minutes past time for the graveside and still no sign of the children. I called the son to ask about their ETA. He didn’t answer so I left a message. I then called the daughter, she didn’t answer so I also left her a message. Then sat in a chair under the tent and continued to wait. At twenty minutes past time for the graveside I was still the only person there, aside from the cemetery crew waiting nearby. Finally, the son called me back. He told me that no one in the family would be there, no one had enough money for gas for that long of a trip and they all had to work today. I was shocked! Not once did any of the children give me an indication that they would not be there. After a moment of silence, I was thinking of how to respond to that, I finally asked the son how he would like me to proceed. He told me to just say a few words and then have his mother buried. They would make a trip to the cemetery at a later date. We both hung up.

I stood there in the cemetery looking towards the cemetery crew awaiting my signal. I looked at the tent and the chairs perfectly aligned with folded blankets set on each one for the family to sit in comfort. It was quiet there, aside from a few rustling leaves as light wisps of wind carried them around the headstones. I turned my head and looked back at the hearse with the waiting casket and its passenger awaiting pall bearers to carry it to the grave opening.

It was the perfect kind of day and the perfect set up for a graveside service. I swallowed hard in disappointment and walked to the waiting cemetery crew. I explained the situation, stressing that there would be no one to help carry the casket to the grave. The crew jumped into action and called in additional coworkers, then they stepped out of their truck and followed me over to the hearse. The additional men showed up and we all carried the woman to her final resting place. Then, to my surprise all the crew stood in a line near the casket in a ready and waiting position and one of them gave me a little nod. I understood that they would be the fill in mourners for the little service I had planned. I said my few words and read a poem I had found, then took a picture of the crew standing there behind the casket. I was so touched by the cemetery crews’ actions, they were so willing to step in and stand as mourners, it was truly heartwarming. I thanked them all and let them finish the burial.

Once I got back to the funeral home, I printed the pictures along with the speech and poem I had read and put it all in the mail for the children. If they couldn’t be there in person, at least they would know that their mother was memorialized properly.

In hindsight, maybe I could have been clearer with the children about the expectation that they would meet me at the cemetery, prompting the discussion about their lack of gas money. I would have happily provided a hearse at no charge to assure they could attend the graveside. While they were happy with the pictures and copy of the speech, I still feel the situation could have been avoided had we communicated better. And, although it worked out, I wonder how many times this has happened that the cemetery crew were so prepared to step in and attend the service of woman they never met.

Are you looking for something to do this Saturday? Well, look no more, come see me at Weller Book works in Trolley Square in Salt Lake City for a reading and signing session starting at 7:00pm!

I recognize that ultimately this is kind of a sad story, the connection between these two hearts is real and so I decided to share anyway.

I knocked firmly on the wooden door. It was an ordinary wooden door to an ordinary house in an ordinary neighborhood. As I patiently waited I checked to make sure I had buttoned my black suit jacket and that my pressed black pants were clean and free of lint. I cradled a clipboard in my arm and looked over the information written on it one more time so that I could address the family by name. As the door opened a middle age man stood in my view. He was wearing jeans and a t-shirt and looked tired, it was almost midnight. The blackness outside was stark against the light spilling from the now open doorway. I introduced myself as the funeral director with the mortuary and asked about the person whose name I had been given and written on my clipboard.

I was invited into the home and the door was closed behind me. I entered a cozy living room where two women sat a couch together, the couch was cream with mint green stripes. The man who invited me in walked passed me and sat on a recliner with the same pattern as the couch. I made my introductions again and inquired after their names and relation to the woman that I would be leaving with. They were all her children. As we talked I took a seat on a wooden chair near the group and looked around the room. Family pictures were carefully placed on a mantle. A side table held a tall white lamp and stack of papers. Then I got down to the reason I was there. To take their mothers body back to the mortuary with me.

They talked about her a little and told me how she had held everyone in the family together and her passing was going to be an adjustment. She had been ill for some time with cancer and even though her death was expected it was hitting them hard. I inquired about their father and was told that he was not handling her death well, that he was in his room sleeping. After gathering some details I had the family take me to where their mother was located. We walked down a small hallway and entered a room to our left. The room was dimly lit. There was the smell of illness, if you haven’t ever experienced this before it is like a mixture of bleached linens and medication. There were two beds in the room parallel to each other. One was a twin bed pressed against the far wall and the other a hospital bed located just near the doorway where we were standing. There was a nightstand next to the hospital bed covered in pill bottles, tissues and a partially empty water bottle. I took everything in and realized that both beds were occupied by still and silent forms. I walked up to the hospital bed where the woman lay and assessed her position and how best to move her without disturbing the other occupant of the room. The twin bed held a man curled up in the blankets facing the far wall with his back to us, not moving. I gathered that this was her husband and he was doing his best to ignore what was going on in the hospital bed next to him.

The children and I took our leave and I waited until we were back in the living room to address the situation. I asked, “Is that your father?” and “Does he want to leave the room before I bring the cot into the house?” They assured me that he would want to stay where he was and to proceed as normal. I walked out of the house to get my coworker waiting by the van and unload the cot. As we walked back to the house I explained to him what we were walking into and how we would proceed. Everything went as planned. We successfully transferred the woman into our care and left as the children stood in the open doorway of the house watching us drive away.

About a week later I received another first call (when we are first notified of a death), it was the same address and the same family name. Of course my thoughts went to the curled up man in the bed on the far side of that dimly lit room. I entered through the same wooden doorway, spoke to the same children and walked down the same small hallway into the same room. The form in the twin bed was just as still as he had been a week ago. The hospital bed had been removed but everything else in that room was the same. As the children and I left the room and walked down the hallway towards the living room for a second time I asked, “Had he also been ill?” the answer was no, he just stopped moving after their mother died. He wouldn’t eat or drink, he just gave up.

This scenario happens more often than most people would think. A person can die of literal heartbreak. I read an article once that explained when people are that connected, the survivor is so distraught that their heart reacts just like they were having a heart attack. It is actually called “Broken heart syndrome”. I for one find this terribly romantic, that a love between two people is so deep that when one dies the other simply cannot live without them. It seems like more and more people give up on love once it gets difficult, but these stories give me hope that there is still lots of love out there and couples are making it work through the good times and the bad. I hope this for all of you this Valentine’s day. Struggle through the hard times and make it last until death do you part.

“I love you without knowing how, or when, or from where. I love you simply, without problems or pride: I love you in this way because I do not know any other way of loving but this, in which there is no I or you, so intimate that your hand upon my chest is my hand, so intimate that when I fall asleep your eyes close.” 
― Pablo Neruda, 100 Love Sonnets

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 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”

See you in a few weeks!

Chelsea Tolman

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.

Gillian Rodriguez

How did you get into the industry (family/passion)?

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 experience. 

Outside of work, what are your hobbies/interests?

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 for all. 

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 academic successes. 

Funeral directors must balance work and home life, that includes pumping for breast milk while at work in-between serving families.

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 Thanks!

Learn more about what your funeral professional does everyday by reading “Speaking of the dead” order your copy today!

Book cover "Speaking of the dead" by Chelsea Tolman

An in-depth look through the eyes of a mortician during the most emotional time in people’s lives. Walk in Chelsea’s footsteps during heartbreaking, unpleasant and sometimes funny events that happens when dealing with the dead and their families.

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).

Monica at the Fountain National Academy of Professional Embalming Skills taking the 5D advanced II Post Mortem Reconstructive Surgery course

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.

Monica impacting the NXT Generation of funeral professionals with her FADE program in Charleston, SC  at the Order of the Golden Rule Young Professionals Conference

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 You can also follow her on twitter at #EmbalmingTipOfTheWeek @ColdHandsHosts

From Monica

There have 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 course.

 “Embalming the Infant Death; Progressive Embalming techniques for infants and the unborn”

With legal 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 need us.

To reach Monica about how her courses please visit her websites contact page by clinking the link here.

Have you ordered you copy of “Speaking of the dead”?

Amazon reviews:

“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.”