In the movies when they show scenes with bodies long dead, they are almost always blackened corpses with mouths agape, giving expressions of horror. Scenes of white teeth gleaming against dark, desiccated skin. They have patches of wispy, white or gray hair that mottle the scalp and their limbs are stiffened in unnatural poses with bony fingers seemingly grasping at what could have been desperation in their final moments. The actors walk up to the scene with handkerchiefs held over their mouths to stifle the acrid smell of advanced decomposition. The rooms are almost always dimly lit and dirty with flies swarming the space, signifying new generations of maggots. Almost always there is dripping water somewhere adding to the musty environment creating a sense of disrepair and dirty living conditions as if this is the only environment where people die alone.

While this may be true in some cases, it isn’t always. People die alone in normal, clean and bright homes with pictures of the people they loved all around and yet still alone. I marvel when we come into a situation where the sick are left unchecked because family members have jobs or have moved far away. So many shut out the burden of the elderly, forgetting that hopes and dreams don’t dim with age. The role of a funeral director is not to judge. We don’t know the details of family dynamics. We walk into what seems to be a terrible situation only to learn things that we didn’t previously know, things aren’t  always what they seem.

I pulled up to an apartment complex in my van and was greeted by the police. They explained that the woman I was there to receive had been dead for several days. Another case of abandonment is what I imagined. Finally, my coworker arrived and we followed the policemen up to the apartment. As we entered, the space was bright and cheerful. Upon walking in the door there was a cat litter box immediately on the floor inside a modest kitchen to our right then after taking just a few steps there a small hallway to the left that led to a bathroom and a bedroom. I asked about the cat, the police explained that it had been taken to a shelter since there was no one around to take custody. There was a living room where a woman was busying herself with tidying things up, seemingly trying to find something to do. She avoided eye contact with us so we respectfully left her alone and continued. We walked down the short hallway and could see the woman lying on her bed. Her mouth was wide open, her limbs stiff. She had been dead for some days. The bedroom was tidy, the top of her dresser was filled with trinkets arranged lovingly. Her closet door stood open and I got a glimpse of organized, well cared for clothing hanging and pressed.

We assessed how we would get her moved from the bed to our cot and then went back to the living space. We explained to the police the steps we would take in getting the woman transferred to our van. At this point we got a good look at the living space. There were pictures everywhere of family, friends, and adventures she had been on. The carpet was clean and vacuumed, an afghan gently folded over the arm of the couch. it was a striking comparison to the body that lay in the bed just footsteps down the hall, seemingly abandoned by everyone who claimed to have loved her once.

The details of the transport are not important, what was important is that the woman tidying things up turned out to be a long-time friend of hers. She told us how the woman had siblings, nieces and nephews who loved her and talked to her on the phone regularly. The family had all moved away from each other and this woman had lived alone. She was divorced with no children. The deceased woman had been healthy enough and only days before had a phone conversation with her niece. She was loved and cherished and the pictures in her apartment reflected that. Due to the state of her body in advanced decomposition, all alone in her room, her body could have easily fit in a scene from a horror film, but her life and the family that loved her could not. I was not present for her funeral but understood that her family was there and told stories of her and rejoiced in her life and loved her greatly.

My career has been filled with small surprises in caring for the seemingly forgotten dead. I have told stories where funerals have had only one in attendance, where a person was truly alone and we never found any surviving family or what seemed to be a forgotten soul was actually loved by many. These are all realities. The truth in death is a slippery slope of learning and growing. I knew death before becoming a mortician. I knew death by illness, suicide and murder amongst my own friends, family and a boyfriend. This journey of sharing my love for people and helping them in their most vulnerable and broken state has been a test in my fortitude. Anyone in this business, and yes, it is a business, have these stories and experiences.

In this second wave of funeral stories I hope to share not just my experiences but the experiences of others. If you have a story that you would like published in my second book please submit it by mail to: P.O. Box 1961, Salt Lake City, UT 84110, or email to Please include your name and contact information and any pictures you would like to include. If you have not yet read my first book “Speaking of the Dead” you can get a copy by clicking here.

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.

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

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

Click to buy now

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

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

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

Episode 353 – Chelsea Tolman, Salt Lake City Mortician

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

SLC Culture – October 28th, 2018 – Chelsea Tolman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

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.