Hi everyone. I know, I know, it has been a very long time since I have posted anything on my page. Well, I am happy to announce that starting October 1st, the blogs will begin again! New stories, updates and information. I am so excited and can not wait! Stay tuned!
It is midnight. Most people are tucked in bed sleeping soundly. Your funeral director is up working dressed in a smock and gloves, preparing the dead. Their phone is always nearby just in case of the inevitable phone call notifying them of another death. Your funeral director is always ready, always prepared, day or night.
During the last few months I have posted very little. I started a business and have been working on some other ventures. Today I wanted to share with you other funeral directors who have been using social media to convey their messages. I have compiled a list of links and descriptions and created another tab on my website called “Others in the industry”. It is important to celebrate the brave souls who are willing to speak out and teach others about the mystery surrounding the inevitable, our death. I have a great respect for those who talk about death in a respectful way. There are no gimmicky, romanticizing, dark lords here, just real people who handle real death and understand your fear of it. https://chelseatolman.com/those-in-our-industry/
To arrange an interview, or request a signed copy of my book “Speaking of the Dead”, please contact me directly at 801-702-9202, email to: firstname.lastname@example.org, and follow me on social media at twitter.com/chelsea_tolman, instagram.com/thembalmergirl, or facebook.com/mbalmergirl
Before you read this story I felt this a good opportunity to address that there are many industry professionals whom I admire and also tell their stories on social media platforms. It is important in our current society to address the many questions raised when it comes to death and how we care for the dead. I am working on adding a new page to my website dedicated to sharing links of these funeral directors. So in the next couple of weeks if you have any suggestions of who should be added to this page please message me on instagram @thembalmergirl or email me at email@example.com and of course you may always send me a message from the contact page.
Her hands were clutched in front of her. She made 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 the buttons on my jacket were fastened, 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 that she was 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 to hopefully create some sense of ease that is needed in these moments. She quickly recoiled both hands to her chest and sank further into her crowd of defender. Still never looking up but in a mighty voice contradicting her small frame 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 diminutive 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 the situation is occurring are real and painful. Some people fear the mortuary and the funeral director. Some believe that we are out to get their money and steal their loved one’s body parts to make the painful experience they are living more painful. Some choose to be cocooned in a world where death doesn’t exist for them because in our society, we are so far removed from death that it is a mystery to most. 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 during the time they would be spending 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 was, 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 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. During this time 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 her husband 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.
This is a story that I recall every Memorial Day. It is heartbreaking but forces us to remember the veterans who struggled with injuries both physical and emotional and ended up in unfortunate circumstances. Some of our veterans have died alone and dejected. Today, let’s remember all of them.
I went on a first call. It was a small home, it was fairly shabby, the stain peeling off the wood on the front porch and siding, the yard was trying to be grass but just couldn’t get its way around the empty pots, lawn furniture and grimy toys left about. I walked in and was greeted by the sister of the deceased and a niece and nephew. I sat with the family around the kitchen table to go over some details. The lighting was poor and the 1960’s countertops were dull and scratched and covered in used dishes. This was not an unfamiliar scene, it isn’t even a negative, it was just the setting I was in. I asked if they had thought about services and what they would want to do as a tribute for the man who had died. Every person in the room was in tears and solemn and quiet. The sister told me that they wanted the best for her brother. A big funeral with a casket and viewing and burial. She told me he was a war hero, he served his country and had been wounded, he had lost both legs and had been bed ridden for several years. He should be honored and cared for as a king. So, I pulled out a packet that detailed our service packages and pointed out the one that best served what they were describing to me. A viewing, a service and a burial. We talked about the local cemeteries and which one they would like to use. Almost immediately I was met with hesitation at the cost. After some discussion, I explained the other options we had available, services can be beautiful in many different ways and budgets. It is never easy to talk about money, especially when a death has occurred and the family is raw and in shock and broken. We decided they should think on the matter and that we would meet at the funeral home the next day after some sleep and could then decide on the details. I asked to see where his body was so I could bring my partner in and transfer him to our cot to take him to the mortuary. We walked down a narrow hallway to the end of the house. Halfway down the hallway the smell hit me, it was awful. As I walked into the room which was the size of a closet and saw this poor man laid out on his bed with no sheets and a myriad of stains that I could not have guessed what they were. He was skin and bones. He had no legs and I could already see and smell that he had bed sores (when a person lies in bed so long in one position the tissues cannot get blood flow and so it starts to decay). He was wearing a t-shirt and a diaper, neither had been changed in a very long time. His hair was long and scraggly and his facial hair had not been trimmed in months. (As disturbing as this may be, this scene wasn’t uncommon. Most people in that area could not afford could care and so it was up to the families to handle a job that is much more difficult than you would imagine.) I explained to the family how we would be taking him from the room to the hearse waiting outside and took my leave to get the cot and my partner. Once we got this man in the hearse and was set to drive off, I was approached by the sister pleading to take good care of him, he was a hero and deserved to be honored. I assured her that I would and left her sobbing in the front yard. My heart broke for so many reasons, his deplorable conditions, her absolute grief.
The next day, the family came in to discuss funeral details. We sat for about an hour going over different options to give him a fitting tribute within their budget. I could not take payments and there wasn’t any insurance, even the government couldn’t pitch in enough money to supplement what little they had for the funeral he deserved. The most economical choice of cremation was even more than what they had to spend. I gave them some resources and told them that we would somehow figure this out. They thanked me and said they would call later that afternoon. They never called that afternoon or the next day. The day after that I made a call to them and discovered that the phone number I had was disconnected. So, I did some searching in the phone book for the names of the family members I knew and came up with nothing. I then decided to wait another day to see if they would show up or call. After about a week of failed attempts to contact them, I drove to the house only to find it empty and silent. So, my next step was to call the medical examiner. In these cases, the medical examiner in the jurisdiction would take possession of the body and make further attempts to find some family who will claim them. The weeks soon turned to months. I periodically checked with the medical examiner as to what happened to this man and as of the last time I checked he had been in their morgue for four years.
I cannot adequately describe the disappointment I felt in this family. As a funeral director, I am here to generate some type of closure, present some way of creating a tribute to the deceased. This man’s abandonment goes completely against my code. If only this family would have come back, we could have figured it out. I get that funerals are expensive and most people cannot afford what it costs but we have to come to some decision, some way of taking care of the body and give the family a ceremony. I have imagined what the sister of this man might be going through, never get closure at abandoning her brother. Maybe I am wrong and she found a way to move forward but her pleas ring in my ears even today, please take care of him, he was a hero.
What does a funeral director, author, blogger do when taking a hiatus from writing?
Starts a business, nurses her husband back to health after an accident, has a couple of book signings, stays by the old dogs side after a couple of ER visits, trains an employee for the new business and works in the yard😁😉
“Behind these doors is the most sacred room in the building. It is where loved ones come to be prepared for the most difficult event in a family’s life. Those that work behind these doors pledge to each family a never-ending commitment of respect and service to those that place their trust in us.”
In mortuary college, every student is pledged to care for the deceased with respect and treat the families with integrity. I remember standing with my graduating class, adorned in my robes and tasseled hat, repeating each word of the oath written below. After all my classmates and I had gone through in class, the testing, the long days and nights, the testing, so many subjects we needed to learn to get to this day and did I mention the testing! We said each word together with family and friends in the crowd, watching and listening to what we promised to do. I couldn’t have been prouder of our profession, that we were required to take such an oath to do our job. There is a reason that families trust us, we have an incredibly important role in handling people and the deceased. Real things. Important things. One little white lie will always turn into a chain of other lies which destroys trust and reputation. One unwashed instrument carrying a disease can be carelessly tracked home.
We are the ones who will do the jobs not many others can or will do. We are the ones who care about you before we have ever met you. We are the last responders, and more recently I have heard us described as ninjas. We are your funeral directors.
Funeral Service Oath
“I do solemnly swear by that which I hold most sacred;
That I shall be loyal to the Funeral Service Profession and just and generous to its members; That I shall not let the constant relationship and familiarity with death give me cause to yield to carelessness or to violate my obligation to society or to the dignity of my profession.
That I shall obey the Civil Laws. That I shall not divulge professional confidences; And that I shall be faithful to those who have placed their trust in me.
While I continue to keep this oath unviolated, may it be granted to me to enjoy honor in my life and in my profession; and may I be respected by all people for all time.”
You’ve lost someone to death. A person that you knew, loved and talked to is no longer there. The grief is crippling, food turns to ash in your mouth, you are unable to move, function, smile. Will you ever laugh again?
I have been there for hundreds of families and talked them through the emotions they are feeling just trying to find a way to convey to them that it is normal to be angry, sad, numb, even happy. I myself have experienced that total grief that comes with a devastating loss.
Grief is real for everybody, it is normal, it is tangible. You can feel it, taste it and hate it. So how do you embrace it? A question I get quite frequently from families is, “When will this pain end?” The only true answer to that question is that it won’t. But, you will learn to survive with it. The more you embrace the ache and hurt the more you learn to live despite it.
It is currently Springtime and I awoke this morning realizing that this time of year is the perfect analogy to living with grief. Where I live, during the winter months, we get lots of snow. This creates many challenges. It can be a challenge to get up in the morning and have to scrape the ice off your car in the freezing cold. It can be a challenge to then drive on slush laden roads where the simple turn of a wheel or fast brake, whether by you or someone else, can send your car into a seemingly uncontrollable skid. Grief is like that. There are times when just getting out of bed is a task too difficult to achieve and driving on slushy roads is similar to the unpredictability of interacting with the world, you almost never know what might trigger an attack of horrible grief rendering you almost incapable of functioning. In those moments, remember that spring is coming. Even when you feel so heavy that simply putting one foot in front of the other does not seem possible, you will again feel the sunshine after a long winter. It’s like when the snow has melted and flowers with their bursts of color are just starting to peek through the dead grass and weeds. You will start to have days where you feel whole and complete and find joy in being. Of course, reality will come back just like the snow and the rain during springtime but again the sun will shine and more and more color will start to burst forth and your heart will lighten.
Just like in nature there is a natural ebb and flow to grief. The clouds will part briefly allowing for a few deep breaths and then the gloom settles in again. When this happens remember that the sun will find its way through the clouds and give you moments of respite. The long winters and springtime seasons will always present themselves, you cannot escape it. However, even in the darkest hours, in the worst moments of trying to get through a day, an hour or a minute, your best defense of cloudy, snowy days is try to remember the Spring.
I have such a great life. An amazing and supportive husband. A beautiful and gentle autistic step-son. An old dog who has been by my side for so many years. I am fortunate in that every struggle, me and my family faces, I know that we will survive and thrive on a real and epic level.
It is the weekend and I am supposed to be working right now. I am sitting at my desk with piles of paper all around. I should be filing the stacks and entering data into the software. My to do list includes arranging mailing lists, creating advertising material, organizing phone calls for the next week and preparing to interview potential employees. Yet… instead I sit. Still and quiet, loving the sounds around me. My husband and my niece, who are in the adjacent room, are talking through the best strategies to handle the myriad of situations they are facing in a video game. My step-son is in the room next to me traversing through his own maze of imaginative worlds while muttering recollected phrases out loud. Vash (the old dog) is lying on the floor sleeping soundly, and at the moment, seemingly free from the ache of inflamed joints and the trembling internal pain that afflict the aging.
The dishwasher is running, the laundry is in various states of being washed, dried or folded. Between household chores and running a business, nothing is ever finished, there is always something to be done. Yet right now, this moment is more important than anything else I could be doing.
Life events cannot be anticipated and can turn our simple everyday routines upside down. You never know when an accident may occur resulting in a major disruption to a peaceful weekend, month, year. I have lived long enough to know that it takes only a minute for life to turn into chaos and tragedy. So instead of working right now, I am soaking up the little moments of my perfect life that I vow, will never be taken for granted.
The season was changing, it was fall. Orange and yellow leaves scattered the ground. Some leaves still clung to the trees in pure defiance of being replaced by newer, greener leaves in the spring. The air was crisp, the grass was turning brown and crunchy. It was the perfect season for a graveside service. The woman who passed away had pre-arranged all of her services prior to her death. She was to be embalmed and have a night of viewing at the mortuary then the next day be transported to a cemetery in a neighboring town for a graveside and burial.
During the arrangement meeting with the children we finalized all of the details, set the time for viewing and when we would meet at the cemetery. The children left and I busied myself with ordering the casket and vault and notified the cemetery of our plans so they could dig the grave. I then called the clergy to coordinate when to meet at the cemetery, he let me know that he was not able to make the trip but would be at the viewing to say a few words to the family. This is not unusual with services that are out of town, the clergy sometimes have other obligations and are not able to travel for a service. Often in these cases the funeral director will step in and say a few words in lieu of the clergy. I notified the children and offered to step in which they readily agreed and were grateful for the offer. At no time during any of our interactions did the children indicate what was to happen the day of the graveside.
The viewing went as planned. Family and friends came and visited. Nothing was out of the ordinary. Once the viewing ended I allowed the children some private time with their mother before I closed the casket for the last time. They said their goodbyes and left the building.
The next day, I arrived at the funeral home early. I placed the casket in the hearse along with a register book, tissues and lap quilts. Then I got on the road for the long trip. It was about a three-hour drive through winding country roads lined with trees, the bright fall colors were a welcome backdrop. I arrived at the cemetery early in order to get everything ready and then waited for the children to arrive. During these times I enjoy scoping out surrounding headstones looking for unique sayings or try and find the oldest headstone in the area. As I wandered around I noticed it was getting close to the time for the graveside and had not yet seen or heard from the children. Still I waited, I knew it was a long drive and they would have had to get up pretty early to make it there in time and they had been up late the night before for the viewing, so I waited.
It was ten minutes past time for the graveside and still no sign of the children. I called the son to ask about their ETA. He didn’t answer so I left a message. I then called the daughter, she didn’t answer so I also left her a message. Then sat in a chair under the tent and continued to wait. At twenty minutes past time for the graveside I was still the only person there, aside from the cemetery crew waiting nearby. Finally, the son called me back. He told me that no one in the family would be there, no one had enough money for gas for that long of a trip and they all had to work today. I was shocked! Not once did any of the children give me an indication that they would not be there. After a moment of silence, I was thinking of how to respond to that, I finally asked the son how he would like me to proceed. He told me to just say a few words and then have his mother buried. They would make a trip to the cemetery at a later date. We both hung up.
I stood there in the cemetery looking towards the cemetery crew awaiting my signal. I looked at the tent and the chairs perfectly aligned with folded blankets set on each one for the family to sit in comfort. It was quiet there, aside from a few rustling leaves as light wisps of wind carried them around the headstones. I turned my head and looked back at the hearse with the waiting casket and its passenger awaiting pall bearers to carry it to the grave opening.
It was the perfect kind of day and the perfect set up for a graveside service. I swallowed hard in disappointment and walked to the waiting cemetery crew. I explained the situation, stressing that there would be no one to help carry the casket to the grave. The crew jumped into action and called in additional coworkers, then they stepped out of their truck and followed me over to the hearse. The additional men showed up and we all carried the woman to her final resting place. Then, to my surprise all the crew stood in a line near the casket in a ready and waiting position and one of them gave me a little nod. I understood that they would be the fill in mourners for the little service I had planned. I said my few words and read a poem I had found, then took a picture of the crew standing there behind the casket. I was so touched by the cemetery crews’ actions, they were so willing to step in and stand as mourners, it was truly heartwarming. I thanked them all and let them finish the burial.
Once I got back to the funeral home, I printed the pictures along with the speech and poem I had read and put it all in the mail for the children. If they couldn’t be there in person, at least they would know that their mother was memorialized properly.
In hindsight, maybe I could have been clearer with the children about the expectation that they would meet me at the cemetery, prompting the discussion about their lack of gas money. I would have happily provided a hearse at no charge to assure they could attend the graveside. While they were happy with the pictures and copy of the speech, I still feel the situation could have been avoided had we communicated better. And, although it worked out, I wonder how many times this has happened that the cemetery crew were so prepared to step in and attend the service of woman they never met.
Are you looking for something to do this Saturday? Well, look no more, come see me at Weller Book works in Trolley Square in Salt Lake City for a reading and signing session starting at 7:00pm!
I recognize that ultimately this is kind of a sad story, the connection between these two hearts is real and so I decided to share anyway.
I knocked firmly on the wooden door. It was an ordinary wooden door to an ordinary house in an ordinary neighborhood. As I patiently waited I checked to make sure I had buttoned my black suit jacket and that my pressed black pants were clean and free of lint. I cradled a clipboard in my arm and looked over the information written on it one more time so that I could address the family by name. As the door opened a middle age man stood in my view. He was wearing jeans and a t-shirt and looked tired, it was almost midnight. The blackness outside was stark against the light spilling from the now open doorway. I introduced myself as the funeral director with the mortuary and asked about the person whose name I had been given and written on my clipboard.
I was invited into the home and the door was closed behind me. I entered a cozy living room where two women sat a couch together, the couch was cream with mint green stripes. The man who invited me in walked passed me and sat on a recliner with the same pattern as the couch. I made my introductions again and inquired after their names and relation to the woman that I would be leaving with. They were all her children. As we talked I took a seat on a wooden chair near the group and looked around the room. Family pictures were carefully placed on a mantle. A side table held a tall white lamp and stack of papers. Then I got down to the reason I was there. To take their mothers body back to the mortuary with me.
They talked about her a little and told me how she had held everyone in the family together and her passing was going to be an adjustment. She had been ill for some time with cancer and even though her death was expected it was hitting them hard. I inquired about their father and was told that he was not handling her death well, that he was in his room sleeping. After gathering some details I had the family take me to where their mother was located. We walked down a small hallway and entered a room to our left. The room was dimly lit. There was the smell of illness, if you haven’t ever experienced this before it is like a mixture of bleached linens and medication. There were two beds in the room parallel to each other. One was a twin bed pressed against the far wall and the other a hospital bed located just near the doorway where we were standing. There was a nightstand next to the hospital bed covered in pill bottles, tissues and a partially empty water bottle. I took everything in and realized that both beds were occupied by still and silent forms. I walked up to the hospital bed where the woman lay and assessed her position and how best to move her without disturbing the other occupant of the room. The twin bed held a man curled up in the blankets facing the far wall with his back to us, not moving. I gathered that this was her husband and he was doing his best to ignore what was going on in the hospital bed next to him.
The children and I took our leave and I waited until we were back in the living room to address the situation. I asked, “Is that your father?” and “Does he want to leave the room before I bring the cot into the house?” They assured me that he would want to stay where he was and to proceed as normal. I walked out of the house to get my coworker waiting by the van and unload the cot. As we walked back to the house I explained to him what we were walking into and how we would proceed. Everything went as planned. We successfully transferred the woman into our care and left as the children stood in the open doorway of the house watching us drive away.
About a week later I received another first call (when we are first notified of a death), it was the same address and the same family name. Of course my thoughts went to the curled up man in the bed on the far side of that dimly lit room. I entered through the same wooden doorway, spoke to the same children and walked down the same small hallway into the same room. The form in the twin bed was just as still as he had been a week ago. The hospital bed had been removed but everything else in that room was the same. As the children and I left the room and walked down the hallway towards the living room for a second time I asked, “Had he also been ill?” the answer was no, he just stopped moving after their mother died. He wouldn’t eat or drink, he just gave up.
This scenario happens more often than most people would think. A person can die of literal heartbreak. I read an article once that explained when people are that connected, the survivor is so distraught that their heart reacts just like they were having a heart attack. It is actually called “Broken heart syndrome”. I for one find this terribly romantic, that a love between two people is so deep that when one dies the other simply cannot live without them. It seems like more and more people give up on love once it gets difficult, but these stories give me hope that there is still lots of love out there and couples are making it work through the good times and the bad. I hope this for all of you this Valentine’s day. Struggle through the hard times and make it last until death do you part.
“I love you without knowing how, or when, or from where. I love you simply, without problems or pride: I love you in this way because I do not know any other way of loving but this, in which there is no I or you, so intimate that your hand upon my chest is my hand, so intimate that when I fall asleep your eyes close.”
― Pablo Neruda, 100 Love Sonnets