In an article called “Here’s Why You Can’t Keep Your Loved Ones Skull” By Ellen Gutoskey. There is an exploration of the legalities regarding what you can and cannot do with your body after you die. I was particularly interested in this article because my older brother has repeatedly told me that he wants me to retrieve his skull and display it… somewhere and I have not a clue how to make this happen. Here is the article:

Even if showcasing your grandfather’s skull on your living room mantle is the type of offbeat tribute he absolutely would have loved, your chances of making it happen are basically zilch. Mortician Caitlin Doughty explains exactly why in her new book Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs?: Big Questions From Tiny Mortals About Deathexcerpted by The Atlantic.

Having written permission from dear old Gramps stating that you are allowed to—and, in fact, should—display his skull after his death simply isn’t enough, for two reasons. First of all, most funeral homes lack the equipment required to decapitate a corpse and thoroughly de-flesh the skull. Doughty admits that she doesn’t even know what that process would entail, though her best guess for a proper cleaning involves dermestid beetles, which museums and forensic labs often use to “delicately eat the dead flesh off a skeleton without destroying the bones.” Unfortunately, the average funeral home doesn’t keep flesh-eating beetles on retainer.

The second hindrance to your macabre mantle statement piece is a legal matter. In order to maintain respect for the dead, abuse-of-corpse laws prevent funeral homes from handing over corpses or bones, but the terms differ widely from state to state. Kentucky’s law, for example, prohibits using a corpse in any way that would “outrage ordinary family sensibilities,” but leaves it entirely open to interpretation how an “ordinary family” would behave.

Sometimes, of course, it’s relatively obvious. Doughty recounts the case of Julia Pastrana, who suffered from hypertrichosis, a condition that caused hair growth all over her face and body. Her husband had her corpse taxidermied and displayed it in freak shows during the 19th century as a money-making scheme—a clear example of corpse abuse. Since the laws are so ambiguous, however, funeral professionals err on the side of caution.

Funeral homes also must submit a burial-and-transit permit for each body so the state has a record of where that body went, and the usual options are burial, cremation, or donation to science. “There is no ‘cut off the head, de-flesh it, preserve the skull, and then cremate the rest of the body’ option,” Doughty says. “Nothing even close.”

If you’re thinking the laws sound vague enough that it’s worth a shot, law professor and human-remains law expert Tanya Marsh might convince you otherwise. As she told Doughty, “I will argue with you all day long that it isn’t legal in any state in the United States to reduce a human head to a skull.”

The laws about buying or selling human remains also vary by state, and are “vague, confusing, and enforced at random,” according to Doughty. Many privately sold bones come from India and China, and, though eBay has banned the sale of human remains, there are other ways of procuring a stranger’s skull online “if you are willing to engage in some suspect internet commerce,” Doughty says.

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!

“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.

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.

I am sitting at a conference table of dark glossy wood, I am straight-backed, I have my hands clasped in front of me and my legs are crossed. I am patiently waiting, watching, listening. Around the table in other chairs and sitting on couches are family members who have just experienced the death of someone they love. At this moment, I am the audience.

I watch as expressions of confusion, understanding and consideration swim around the faces of the family as we broach the subjects relating to the funeral, the burial, picking out caskets, vaults and all of the many things that they must decide on. Sometimes the death is expected, and I empathize as I observe those with down-turned, dark sunken eyes and hunched shoulders showing complete exhaustion because for weeks, sometimes months they sat next to the dying waiting for this one day, and it has taken its toll on their reserve.

Sometimes the death was unexpected and the shock of it all leaves the family silent and unable to make decisions. Then there are times when the heaviness of everything gets the best and someone ends up in hysterics of crying or anger.

There are young mothers who planned for their baby’s birth and are now picking out caskets instead of cradles. Teen brothers and sisters are stuck in shock realizing they have to face their friends at school and explain that a sibling took their own life. And husbands and wives who lost their sweetheart after fifty years together are now faced with learning how to live a life alone.

And I am watching. I am familiar with the facial expressions and the body language and it all tells me a story. It tells me what these people are feeling and who the dead person was to them.

It’s not always dark though. There are families that have accepted the place they are in now and prepared for this meeting, giving me accounts of a life lived that was fun and full. I get to hear about the antics pulled by people I never knew, yet closely resemble someone in my own life. Many times I have laughed with a family about the father who was a trickster or grandfather who told them dirty jokes. I can relate to the Grandmothers who always had candy available and would not let you leave her house without a full belly. A mother who made the rules and stuck by them and only now it is understood that it was all in your best interest and the intent was full of love. Brothers who gave us nicknames and sang silly songs. A sister who after years of fighting over bedroom boundaries, now are willing to share everything together. Life, and death has its place and time. It is in these moments that I revel in my own family dynamics and appreciate the smallest moments.

I get an intimate look at a person that I will never meet. I get to make friends with people that I otherwise would have never known. Family dynamics that I compare to my own family come to life in this room around a conference table of dark glossy wood. It is an honor and it is remembered. So many stories, personal and real and I get to be a part of it. Here, I am the audience.

The funeral is over. As I step back into the funeral home and start the clean-up, I find moistened tissues discarded under the seats, on the floor or sitting on the pews. Tiny collections of tears that are a person’s memories of someone who has died. In this cleaning-up stage there is an air of preserved humbleness, the homage of the deceased is over, the casket is buried, the attendees have all gone home. Flower petals and leaves starting their slow decay scatter the carpet after being moved from one room to another. I find crumpled funeral programs stuck under hymn books or discarded on a table, no longer needed but clearly cherished and loved in the gripped hands of someone who was heart-broken. Cracker crumbs smashed in a pile on the floor where a toddler was being entertained, not understanding all this mayhem of crying adults and “Why is grandpa lying in that box?”

This is not just a mess, some trash of a wild party I am having to clean up, it’s the end of a lifetime and I planned this all along. I planned to have this gathering of people who are to bare their souls in a room with other people, cry it out, hash it out, bury a somebody and then leave, the jumble is what’s left. In this room of so many funerals, the clutter is always telling. Cultures, beliefs, hobbies of the deceased, it’s all left here in these rooms, temporarily marking what happened, small indications how many people came and what they did while they were here. In these rooms, I pick up hymn books, candle wax, incense, glitter, grasses, candy wrappers, did I mention the glitter! Korean, Chinese, Bahia, Gypsy, Mormon, Polynesian and more, every culture leaves a tell. Favorite poems and candy and foods of the deceased are left in tufts here and there scattered about my funeral home. It’s a mess and it is beautiful that it happened and now it’s over. The family has gone home to find another way to do the day to day and will remember the care that was taken of their lovely departed and those who came to comfort or share their grief. Friends have gone back to their work and kids and will remember the day that they sat in this place and spoke of or listened to great stories of this person and sang songs in their honor. I planned this all along, this mess and crumpled bits of a well-planned tribute. The silence here is gripping, the whirl of emotion gone, picking up bits left behind, I planned this all along

One day a gentleman walked through the door of the mortuary. He was expertly dressed in a high-end suit and tie. His shoes were definitely real leather and polished to a high sheen. He sported short, dark hair which was spiked on top, undoubtedly styled by a barber in a fancy shop where your cut comes with a clean shave and a warm towel. These were things that we were not used to in our small country town. He was impressive as he walked into our office with his resume in hand. He enchanted us all with his beautiful toothfull smile and natural charisma, his charm could rival any salesman. I think we hired him on the spot, if only for the sheer ambition he exuded and dared us to test.

Sometimes people just click the moment they meet. If you have ever felt this, then you know. It is a strange, immediate feeling of familiarity like you had known each other well before that moment. That is what happened to me the day he walked through the door.  The mortuary was not necessarily looking for another employee. We did okay, sometimes the days and nights got hectic and strenuous but overall, we had enough downtime to get small hours of much-needed respite. We even had the occasion to tend to a little vegetable garden at the back of our red brick building. But he walked in the door and we found ourselves with a new set of helping hands.

He and I hit it off like two teenage girls. We loved the same 80s music and old black and white movies. On his first day of working with me, as we were running errands, we stopped at a convenience store for a coke. The bins at the check-out counter held colorful braided hemp bracelets. The ones that promised to last a lifetime. We never said a word, we both saw them, we gave a knowing look to each other and I said the cashier we’ll take two of those.  We ran to the car and placed them on our ankles swearing to each other that we would never take them off as long as we were friends.

As I taught him the ropes of the funeral trade, he loved and absorbed all of it. He took to funeral service like a moth to a flame. At least the service part, the embalming room presented challenges for my new-found friend. The reality that our beings could produce so many unpleasant noises, fluids, and smells made for a test in his seemingly unbreakable resolve. Many times I excitedly called him to the back room yelling “You have got to see this!”, and then chuckle as he ran for the exit when he couldn’t handle what I wanted to show him. He soon learned to approach my call with caution, carefully poking his head through the door, cracking one eye open just enough to look like Jack Nicholson in his  movie “The Shining,” only he was the one who was afraid and I saying, “Here’s Johnny”! Through squinted eyes he would peer through the doorway at me ready to look away quickly in case I was trying to show him something that I was fascinated about, meaning he would not be.

His skill in meeting and talking to people completely made up for his lack of ability to embrace the back rooms. He had an attention for detail and a flare for decorating with pictures and flowers that astounded the men and women he served. Every visitation room was a show, the family memorabilia he placed so skillfully you would have thought that you were walking through a movie set, or a model home. The flower arrangements that came in for the deceased were always positioned according to height and color for the perfect balance to accent the casket and the person lying inside of it. He made friends with everyone he met and many times I would talk about a family that we had previously served and he would give me the update on how they were doing, offer their phone number and say we should stop by their house for a visit. I was quickly learning that this man was a social butterfly of epic proportions. He knew people from all over the world. He was never without his phone which was constantly buzzing or ringing with messages or calls from Dave or Brian or Celeste, any number of names I could list here certain he knew someone who possessed it. His cell phone was his life and was either on his hip in a leather pouch or in his hand.

Our friendship moved outside of work and I eventually met his boyfriend and neighbors. We had barbeques and parties and spent many late nights sitting around a fire roasting some type of meat and toasting to each other’s accomplishments. These evenings usually ending in deep conversation or dancing on the porch. Eventually I ended up moving into the house directly across from the boys, making an even more intimate bond for everyone involved. Our friendship deepened and over the years we had accumulated so many memories, lived through tragic circumstances and celebrated holidays, birthdays and ordinary days. He was the man on the riding lawnmower waving to passersby in expensive cargo shorts, designer shirts and a wide brimmed bonnet that would make any decent southern woman jealous. He won awards with his Tupperware parties and could refinish a wooden counter-top like a professional. We were besties in the sense that besties are with the added bonus that to spend a day together was as easy as walking across the street. And like all good things, these things had to end.

He struggled with balancing a party life mixed with a work life. He struggled with his health. He struggled with his relationship. He struggled with being. Circumstances changed, and he found a new happiness in another state. After carefully weighing the options of staying and going, he chose to go. Packing his moving truck was painful, saying goodbye with his promise of frequent visits was painful. Our worn and tattered ankle bracelets that had weathered the best and the worst were a testament to a human attachment that desperately held its threads together. This adventure was one that wouldn’t last. His health declined, and his partner living across the street from me couldn’t keep taking him back.

If you have ever known a person who dances on the edges of a fast and furious life that their body just can’t keep up with, you will understand the hellish cycle of ache and agony that those who loved my friend went through, including me. The phone calls got further and further apart, the excuses got more and more grandiose and the patience of not being told the truth ran thin. More times than I care to admit, I cried for him. More times than I thought was possible I believed the stories that my friend was doing well. He was depressed and spinning out of control, doing things that were harmful to him and those around him. More times than I can count I planned a trip to scoop him up out of his “Happy,” “Fun,” “Worth it all,” “Pitiful,” “Sick” life and bring him to my home to force him back to health, to reality. I never acted on that, but I did eventually learn that his “sickness” could not be cured. My friend proclaimed that he had cancer and that his only option at this point was to go home to live with his mother, three states away. He said he was going there to die.

I am left with the guilt that the years of his stories and embellishments and need for telling a grand tale left me lacking much sympathy. I had heard the woes of a desperate man who craved notice for his depravity and disguised it as illness so many times that I had already turned my head when the stories turned real and deadly.

I will not retell all of the details of his painful decline. I will only recount that he often called me with joyful accounts of some amazing opportunity that days later ended in some scheme that the company or the employees that worked there had executed to cause his separation with the establishment. My friend was talented on so many levels and to watch, in action, the deterioration of his gifts as he blamed the masses for his failure, was heartbreaking. I cannot fault him, he grappled with so much. He was a young and handsome man who loved other men in a world that hated men who loved other men.

I remember the shame I felt whenever my friend would call and tell me of his worsening ailments because I could not always believe the tale. I hated that in the background of my thoughts was an eye-roll and “Whatever” types of feeling. It was always dramatic, he was always weakening,  yet he always had more days to detail the fallout he was overcoming. I stopped answering his calls every time his name popped up on my phone and only chose to pick up the phone when I knew I had the strength to be present and encouraging.

Then, his partner decided to go pay him a visit at his mother’s house. He wanted to see in person, like the rest of us, how dire my bestie’s situation had become and he promised he would come back with a report on just how worried we should be. When he returned he was in a state of grimness that could only mean that there had to be some truth behind my friend’s account of his imminent death. I was shown pictures of the deterioration of a once proud and lively man. He bore no hair on his head, his clothes hung off his bones like a wet sack. I was caught between waiting for the next tale and hating myself for not rushing to his sickbed.

One sunny afternoon, I sat on my back porch enjoying the warmth of the sun when his name popped up on my phone, I didn’t answer. Moments later I listened to the message that he left for me. He sounded so happy and spoke clearly and stated that he had some great news! He ended with an “I love you” and “I cherish our friendship”. After listening to his message, I called him back right away hoping to talk to the jovial friend that I missed so dearly. Indeed, he was his old self, cheery and fun-loving. He amused me with his quick-witted jokes and vibrant conversation. He had just left the hospital for a refill of his meds and had been given a new colostomy bag. We had talked about his funeral many times before, but he went over the details with me once again. He wanted the black onyx casket, he was to be dressed in his finest suit and designer glasses, in his hand he would clutch his precious cell phone and I was to embalm his body.

Then he told me his exciting news. He had just been hired to work for a local flower shop. He would be arranging bouquets of flowers for birthdays, weddings, and funerals, which was among his many talents. I was given a detailed account of his interview and how fabulous the owner of the shop was and that his first day was tomorrow, the next day. He was so dedicated to this opportunity and certain that he could keep this position and finally thrive in this small country town. When the conversation was over I hung up the phone thinking he was finally on the upswing again and flourishing enough and that I didn’t need to worry for him for the moment, and I was so wrong.

It was the very next day that I received a call from his partner that my bestie had been found dead. He had died in his sleep, discovered resting peacefully in his bed, no longer breathing. The news was devasting and unexpected. I had just talked to him! He was happy and sounded so healthy. So many times I had expected the news of his death, only because he always tiptoed on the edge of life with partying and depression,  so when it actually happened, the shock of it took the air from my lungs. The zipping memories of laughs and smiles and fear and anger that had I shared with him and our friends flashed over and over in my head. You always think that the best years of a friendship, or any relationship for that matter will never end. The late-night talks on the back porch, watching the fashion shows as he paraded in front of us all to show off new shirts and jackets and shoes. The bonfires with all of us giggling together and the flames dancing as a happy background to our moments. No more phone calls of fabulous jobs that he would be fabulous at, and keep this time. No more stories of whatever ailments were harming him at the moment. No more heartbreaking calls begging for visitors or confessing that he had made a terrible mistake and he just wanted to come back home.

I spoke with his mother about embalming him. She relayed to me that the funeral home had already performed the procedure after they picked him up from the medical examiner’s office and it was too late for me to fly out and help.

I was managing a funeral home in another state when he died. The job was one that was almost impossible to take any time off from. So I made a plan to drive the ten hours there, attend the funeral, get a couple of hours of sleep and then drive the ten hours again to return back to work.

I woke up hours before sunrise on the day of his funeral and drove to this small town, where my friend would be buried. It was like I was in a dream, as I drove the miles and the sun started to rise I wondered if I had imagined it all. I was delirious with emotion and grappling the reality of what I was doing. I was wicked tired but so full of adrenaline that my body felt out of place with itself.

As I approached the address for the funeral home I was overwhelmed with what was waiting for me in that building. I was not ready. I could not stop the car. I drove right past and burst into tears while looking at  this building as I drove past where my friend lay waiting for my arrival, decked out in his finest no doubt, and dead. My friend was dead. I could see his lifeless body in my head, I could feel his cold skin. I couldn’t imagine walking in that building with people all around me and having the energy to stifle my grief. My anger. My guilt. I wanted those people to leave so that I could be with him alone and explain why I never came to see him in the darkest moments of his life that were real and not fabricated. These people were in the way and rude for being so present when I needed them to just go away. Then, I was a funeral director, I had seen this before. So many funerals I had directed where I heard from the guests in attendance about the one person who never came to see the deceased while they were living, yet that very same person was the one who was making the most fuss and carrying on about their own grief. I felt that I had turned into that person. I drove to a convenience store on a corner up the road and one block over from the funeral home, I did not want to be on the same road as my dead friend at that moment. I didn’t want to be in the same town.

I needed gas, I needed some water, I needed sleep and I needed my friend to be alive so that I could go visit him just like he had begged me to for so many months. Eventually I couldn’t stall any longer. I pulled myself into my car. First one leg, sit on the seat, then the other leg, adjust the mirror. The seat belt needed latching, so I did that. I was thirsty, so I gulped from my water bottle. Next was to close the car door but first I needed to make sure I was really ready. I should use the restroom again. Splash more water on my face. I was so tired. Every movement was a chore, my limbs felt caked in wet mud, heavy and sluggish as I ambled back to the restroom, ignoring what I was certain were sidelong glances at my state of suffering. I made a final check of the things that I felt were necessary to pull myself together.

Finally, I had myself in my car, buckled, door closed and turned the car key to rumble the engine to life. I drove to the funeral home. I parked my car where the lot attendants told me to, a job I had performed for so many other grieving people. Now, I was the one grieving and their instructions were confusing and impatient. A teaching moment for the future. In that moment I went from a total mess, grieving my friend, to funeral home manager. I felt like I should instruct these young kids on how to perform their job of directing traffic well enough to pack a hundred cars in a fashion that would allow for a smooth transition to the cemetery when the funeral was over. I cased the parking lot, the exit from the chapel, the direction of where the procession needed to go. I needed to let it go. Funeral directors are terrible funeral guests, even if we are professional enough to keep our thoughts to ourselves, we still observe the way a funeral is run by others. I felt I should be in charge but I was not and so I kept my thoughts to myself, exited my vehicle and walked the walk to front door.

The funeral home was buzzing with people. They were moving about unorganized and loud. I didn’t recognize anyone there. I kept walking until I saw  his name, his name, on a placard, in a funeral home, hovering just above an open book for the guests to sign. I made my way to there. The light that glared down on the book was hot as I tried to scribble my name and leave a sweet message for his mother. I then walked into the room jammed with people smiling and talking, I wish that they would all just shut up and leave! And then I saw across the room bits of the silver and black casket, through the throng of bodies I also caught a glimpse of dark spiky hair peeking over the lip of the box. I excused myself through the jumble of people seemingly intent on preventing me from seeing my dead friend and just before I approached my destination, I was stopped by a hand on my arm. I turned to see who could be so rude in preventing me from finishing my quest. It was his mother. She grabbed me in a full-bodied hug sobbing, “You came, you came!” I could only squeeze her tighter as I held my own emotions in my throat. She let go of me and then wrapped one arm around my waist as we walked to the casket containing the body of her sweet, baby boy.

Clumps of ash choked my throat as I tried to breathe. To swallow. To not break into shards of grief. My vision was blurred as it was confirmed that my friend was surely dead. So many times, I have stood at a casket after fussing and tucking and straightening, looking at the person lying inside with my friend standing next to me. He would tell me how good a job I did preparing this person, “You have a gift,” “You are an artist,” “The family is going to be so pleased,” “One day you will prepare my body and you better make me look just as good!” Now I stand at his casket that I didn’t help pick out, looking at his body that I didn’t embalm and assessing the folds in his suit that I did not dress him in. And he looked good. At that moment it did not matter that I did not do these things for him, at that moment I was not a funeral director, I was grief-stricken and mourning and my dear friend was surely dead.

I left his mother and scanned the room to see if I could find my friends partner. I found him across the room talking to a gentleman and so I made my approach. Once he saw me he grabbed me in a huge bear hug and couldn’t believe that I had driven the ten hours in only ten hours. And then the introductions started. It was a furious affair of being dragged from person to person, all of these people I did not know, yet when introduced with my name almost every time these people responded “Chelsea! You are Chelsea, his best friend? I have heard so much about you,” “He loved you so much,” “He always talked about you.” This was flattering. This was uncomfortable. I was this person who everyone knew as his best friend. He talked about me, shared our stories, made me up to be like this amazing angel that he looked up to and I had left him to die all alone.

After the funeral, we all drove in procession to the cemetery, a trek I had made so many times to so many cemeteries, never before driving in a car trailing behind the hearse. The cars snaked through stop lights and around the turns and bends of the small-town blocks to end at the snow-laden cemetery with only one dark patch of earth dotting our destination, my friend’s grave. I didn’t feel the cold although I am certain it was biting. I don’t remember much of the graveside service either other than I was placed up in front of the crowd, standing with the family, right where I was told I belonged.

I can still see him in his casket, I imagine him lying enclosed in his box, sealed in a concrete case, buried in the earth. He is dressed to the nines, pressed, clean shaven with perfectly spiked hair and clutching his beloved cell phone. On occasion, for months, I would send him a text letting him know of my sorrow. My guilt. I could imagine him lying there still and lifeless clutching his phone to his chest as it lit up his darkness with my messages, never read. Eventually the batteries would go dead, and my confessions and heartbreak would only be sent into the digital wasteland of regret, and grief.

I was 14 years old when my family moved from Utah to Nevada. It wasn’t an easy transition. A Utah bred Mormon girl (with a wild soul) thrown into sin city! I was finding it difficult to fit in anywhere and then I discovered a friend living two doors down from my new house. She was the best! A blonde beauty with porcelain skin, long legs and tiny feet. We clicked right away and as most teens did in Las Vegas, we got into a lot of trouble! We spent hours lying on my trampoline slathered in baby oil for the best tan, and lemon juice spritz in our hair trying to achieve salon quality highlights. We borrowed each other’s clothes and sang and danced in my bedroom to Depeche Mode and Erasure until we fell to the floor laughing.

I knew she was sick, but she never showed it. She had a vertical scar on her belly from where she told me the doctors had taken out a section of her bowels leaving her with a belly bulge she was always self-conscious about. She would get tired and need to rest from time to time, yet, she never complained, she was always laughing, smiling and loving. She eventually met a man whom she married. She most desperately wanted to have a child, yet, with her illness this was risky for her poor, damaged body. But she was determined, and no amount of warning or pleading was going to stop her, and then, her wish came true.

I took on the task of looking after her during the day. I would go over to her apartment to help out, making sure she was resting and eating. Being adventurous spirits, we decided to start a business making ice cream pies. We were certain that the ice cream pie business was going to make millions! We tried every which way we could to create a working recipe to bake a crispy, flaky crust and pack it with a firm ice cream filling, and with every failed attempt, we would try a different way the following day. We made fantastic messes, we flung flour and sugar and lots and lots of ice cream in every nook and cranny of her cramped apartment kitchen! With the music blaring and flour covered ice cream bits flying, we always had a blast.  Looking back, I miss those days and wish it had never stopped.

One day, I sauntered into her apartment only to be met with a strange silence.  I called for her and then noticed the bathroom door was closed. So, I went to the kitchen and started to unpack the bag of flour, ice cream and fruit choices that we would attempt that day and then waited. When she finally came out of the bathroom, her face was beaded from perspiration, her blonde, shoulder length hair hung in strands from sweat and her porcelain doll face marred with dark rimmed and bloodshot eyes. She wore a grey cotton, thigh length nightgown blemished with wetness and creased folds from hard restless sleep. She could hardly walk on her own and stumbled forward only barely grabbing the frame of the bathroom door to stop her fall. I dropped what I was doing and ran to her to assist her to the couch then gently helped her lay down. I arranged a patchwork blanket on top of her, then pulled it all the way up to her chin. She was looking up at me with silent tears streaming down her cheeks, and explained that she had miscarried the night before. I said nothing, I just gently crawled onto the couch behind her, cradled her in my lap and lightly stroked her hair. We sat like that for hours.

My friend finally rallied from the blow and our daily adventures of making ice cream pies became the norm again. This time I would make her sit in a chair in the kitchen next to me. She was the foreman and I took her instructions on what to try next. Her husband would come home every day and shake his head at the soggy pie crusts dripping with melted ice cream and the both of us covered in flour and fruit and always, we had the radio blasting!

Every day when her husband came home, out of her earshot, I warned him to give her body time to heal before they tried getting pregnant again. And every day he promised me that he would.

I will always remember the last day I had with my friend forever. We were sitting on the couch when she suddenly turned to me with a huge smile sprouting on her face. She was silent for a moment and then said. “I am glad you are here for this”. I had no idea what she was talking about, but she got up off the couch and grabbed my hand pulling me to her small apartment bathroom. She bent down, rummaged under the sink for a moment then pulled out a small brown paper bag. Then silently, with that same big smile, she handed me the bag. I opened the bag and looked inside, and my heart dropped. It contained a pregnancy test. I felt sick to my stomach. I wanted to throw up. She might be pregnant again!? Her body was still so weak! I only paused for a moment before giving her my best smile then pulled the pregnancy test out of the bag to set on the bathroom counter. She immediately grabbed the box and tore it open like a child with a Christmas present, my dread deepening but knowing she needed me cheerful and supportive for this moment. I started to walk out of the bathroom when she said “No, stay. I want you here for this”. So, I stayed while she peed into the cup. She smiled up at me like an angel, glowing with hope. I could barely stand the effort not to burst into tears and run away from the whole situation. Her anxiousness and my trepidation made for a palpable sense of confusion for me as we waited for the fluid to soak long enough to give the answer of yes or no. It didn’t take long. Bright and blaring, this plastic stick confirmed my fear and her deepest wishes, she was pregnant! I don’t know how I was able to cheer and jump up and down with her, with our arms wrapped around each other. My head was swimming and my legs were numb, but I did it, and she was beautiful in her full smile and girlish giggling.

We were to pick up her husband from work that day. She drove their white ford truck and I sat in the back seat, fuming and silent and sad. As her husband started to get into the passenger seat he was greeted with the plastic stick staring at him from the dash. I could not see his face from the back seat, but I noticed his body freeze like someone hit the pause button for a flash of a second. He pulled himself into the truck the rest of the way and she immediately wrapped her arms around his neck, kissing his face in every crease with fresh silent tears running down her cheeks. He reacted how he was expected to, and as soon as she finished accosting him and he sat back in his seat, I reached through the belt side of the passenger seat and pinched his arm hard until I was sure I gave him a nasty bruise, hoping I drew some blood! He didn’t react, he didn’t turn around and he didn’t say a word to me when they dropped me off at my house. I got out and closed the door behind me, finally letting my own silent tears run down my own saddened cheeks.

The next day when I got to my friends’ door, it was locked? I knocked and waited. I knocked again and waited. The blinds were closed, the windows were dark. Panic was setting in. I called, no answer. I called again, no answer. I then called her mother and got the news; my friend had been rushed to the hospital. She was refusing to see anybody, even me.

Over the next few days, I was told repeatedly that she did not want to see me. I spoke to her mother and her husband to get updates, learning that she had miscarried again and had sunk into a deep depression. As soon as I knew she was home, I stopped by once again. As before, she wouldn’t answer the door or the phone. I understood that depression is not rational, so I left her alone to contact me when she felt ready.

Over the next couple of years, I never heard from her. I tried to contact her, only to be met with silence. The next phone call I got regarding my friend, was the news of her death. I was told when and where the funeral was to be and in that phone call I learned that she had a son! She had the child she had always wanted, and it cost her life. Numb to the core, I rode in the passenger seat of the car, a dear companion whom I had grown close to over the last years driving me. I don’t remember much of the trip.

We walked up to the chapel doors. The place was packed with people, we made our way to the front of the room and my friend’s body. As it came closer to our turn at the casket we approached my friends’ mother. I remember that she grabbed me and squeezed me so tight that I thought I would burst!

I approached the casket; her blonde hair was curled atop her head and she looked so peaceful, so porcelain. I reached out and held her hand, even with mortuary makeup her hands were covered with dark bruising from the needles, injecting whatever chemicals the doctors thought she needed. Eventually my companion pulled me away. I had this gripping ache that my friend was gone. She had pushed me away and I was not a part of her son’s birth and I missed her, and I hated that I missed her.

One of my friend’s favorite pastimes was chasing rainbows. Together we had driven all over the city so many times chasing countless rainbows. She always said that one day she would find the end of a rainbow and take its pot of gold. On the drive home, a rainbow started to form. We were on a two-lane road and on both sides of the road was nothing but long expanses of dirt, rocks and grasses. My companion stopped the car, knowing me enough that I needed to experience this. We got out of the car to watch the rainbow form. It was so close! It was bright and arched from one side of the road to the other and on both sides of the road you could clearly see where the rainbow ended.

We sat in silence watching the rainbow form and then slowly fade away. The perfect homage to my friend’s death. From beginning to end and all the beautiful colors in between, we witnessed the beginning and the end of a rainbow.


Complete rainbow over a road
Desert road with rainbow

Photo credit:

Any person who works in customer service has the same challenge of balancing a healthy work and home life. When you deal with other people’s emotions it will eventually get to you, even the best of us. My mother is a social worker and she and I have very similar experiences of broken people with heart wrenching stories and we have talked through how best to deal with it. Mostly I deal with this sorrow by realizing that this is not my grief, the death didn’t happen to me, I never knew this person, so I cannot feel their loss. … Wrong!  While sitting in a room full of people that are in the full swing of grief and they are all handling it differently, it becomes my grief. Not the loss of course but the empathy attached to it. One person is angry, another quiet and stoic, while two more are actively sobbing through the motions and then the caretaker pushing back the emotions tries to make some kind of progress in planning the funeral. It is a precarious and constant balancing act because I must pay attention to every person and direct the explosion that may happen at any minute, from getting the deeply grieving person to stay calm and make a decision to stopping someone angry from storming out throwing up their hands in frustration. How I acknowledge their way of grieving changes from one person to the next. From using a soft demeanor to adding humor to the conversation to being pointed and getting down to business, sometimes even taking a hard stance with a person who aggressively (and inappropriately) runs the show for everyone else by making all the choices without considering that these decisions will be experienced by everyone else and their voices should also be heard.

I get a rush from balancing and moving and delegating tasks for all of those involved. I thrive on the details, yet, even I can only take so much of it. The funeral industry is demanding. Often, when I get home I will receive a call from a family member in a panic because she forgot to include someone in an obituary (way past the deadline), or mom found the pants her husband was supposed to be buried in tomorrow and asks, “Is it too late?” even though he is already dressed in something else. It has been a while since I have been “on call” at night on a regular basis but I do remember the dinners I had to walk out of or family events I had to leave early from to go receive a body from a home or a hospital or care facility. We, as an industry put home on hold to make sure the grieving families are taken care of and the deceased bodies are cared for. It takes a strong person indeed who stands beside a mortician as a spouse or partner. There are directors who have never been to their child’s baseball games, missed important events like weddings, anniversaries and yes, even funerals to care for someone else’s dearly departed. Our hearts bleed for you and we jump to take care of you, sometimes at the expense of our own families.

So, leave the work at work and the home at home, that is the rule and that works most of the time. Unfortunately, we forget and life travels in its own way to push or pull your heart and mind in directions you are actively trying to avoid. This can be said for other professions too but we are all human and our sense of sensibility gets distorted after a while and exhaustion kicks in. So, where do you draw the line?

The answer is different for everybody, funeral directors need vacations and time off. I remember when I decided to not be on call at night anymore, I felt a bit liberated that I didn’t have to have my phone in my hand at all times but I would wake up after a full night’s sleep in a panic thinking that I had missed a call. I also felt a little shameful that I was letting someone down. After 13 years of this constant on call, on the ball, 2:00 a.m. wake ups to drive to whatever home in the backwoods of Georgia, or the nursing home in the middle of the city was a little hard to let go of. Taking care of yourself in this industry is hard and it can feel like there is no room to slow down. So for those of you out there who are wearing yourself thin, in this or any other job and need to take a break, draw the line and take a freaking break!

Mountain road with slow painted in the center

c00016_f016-014ab-9780323078450There comes a time in every young embalmer’s life when they get to reconstruct part of a person in real life, not just on plastic skulls in college. To explain, in what is called “Restorative Art” class you are to reconstruct an entire face out of clay on a plastic skull. Start with the nose and move out from there. You are not judged on how good your clay face looks aesthetically but how accurate the dimensions are. There are staunch rules regarding the placement of facial features, for example, your face is made up of three equal parts; the top of your forehead to the line of your eyebrows is the same distance as the top of your eyebrows to the bottom of your nose and then subsequently, the bottom of your nose to the bottom of your chin is the same distance as the other two measurements. There are tons of these rules of proportions and we must know them all. In reconstruction if you know the proportions of one part of the face you can reasonably determine the proportions of the structure you are trying to recreate.

I remember my first restoration like it was yesterday. We got a man who had shot himself in the head, resulting in a mangled ear. It was beyond repair and it was the ear on the “the viewing side” (industry jargon for the right side of the face, which is the side that faces the side of the casket that family and friends view) My boss at the time was distressed, we had a lot of other work to do and this reconstruction would take a lot of time. I was of course ecstatic, not that the man had shot himself of course but that I now had the opportunity to build an ear from scratch and put my training to the test. I pled my case about needing the experience and that I would have to do these things for real at some point. Finally I was given the go ahead to fix the ear on my own. So, like any artist I got my supplies spread out next to me and organized, pulled up a chair next to my patient and turned on some tunes (probably classic rock, you can’t go wrong with Pink Floyd) for inspiration. Using clay, a chemical cauterizing agent, ligature, and cosmetics, I tried and failed and tried another way more than once. I do not remember how long it took me. I know I was careful and precise and referenced the other ear until I had created an ear that was suitable for viewing. I was then given the honor of walking the family in to see the man for the first time since he had died. They were nervous to walk in and see him, knowing he had exstensive damage from the gunshot. I will never forget the relief on the family members’ faces when they saw their loved one with two perfectly formed and placed ears. These moments are precious, to know that the work I do is paramount to the experience of a family having their final moments with someone they love.

* While you are here, look at the new page of my blog from the main menu called “Recommendations.” I am proud of this new addition, these are all books that are in my personal library. I have read them all (some more than once!) and love each one. You can purchase any of these by clicking on the picture and please keep coming back as I add more to the list!