D12193814A9549FA97F64D0D0B827AE2This series is meant to highlight beautiful funeral directors. Too many times we see and hear the media focus on the horrible things that happen in the funeral industry. I am here to prove that there is more good in our industry than bad. Every story in this series is written by the directors themselves.

Dennis K. Wesley

Dennis is the business owner of Funeral Directors First Call. He has been in the funeral industry for 26 years serving many independent and corporate firms with support services. He began his career in a small-town funeral home doing 150 calls a year. He owned a seasonal business and always had an interest in the funeral industry. He has been married for 31 years to Bobbie and has a 25-year-old daughter Tori. He is really into older cars, photography and enjoying great bands.

From Dennis:

I think that the service we provide is like what a priest does for his congregation. We are called upon to do a scared task of helping the loved ones get through a horrible time. I have a desire to help people and there is no better way than funeral service. Helping families get through the worst few days possibly of their lives.

I think all funeral professionals probably work way too many hours. I honestly have a problem with knowing when to stop and go home. I am very involved in my church and volunteer in many charities around Baltimore. That helps me relax and get up for the next call.

Years ago I was working for the medical examiner’s office and received a suicide call on Christmas morning 2006. I arrived to find a 9-year-old little girl who had hung herself. She had been abused by her stepdad and had begged her mother to make him stop. I can still remember getting her down and I was determined not to put her in a body bag. I had the mother come down and I let her say goodbye. I then proceeded to carry her lifeless body up the stairs and I turned my head and the stepfather was holding her little sister consoling her. That was a moment in my career that I saw the good and the bad of our industry. People don’t realize what we have to deal with on a daily basis. My Christmas will never be the same.

The funeral profession is not full of rich men and women who drive fancy Cadillac and Lincoln automobiles. We are everyday people who devote their life to serving the dead and their families. We are secretaries, lawn mowers, priest, counselors, police officers, painters, make-up artist, surgeons and everything else. We do all types of jobs in our duties as funeral professionals.

If you know of a funeral director who would fit in this series please send me an email (mbalmergirl@gmail.com) with who the person is and contact information. This series is planned to run each week in December but I may run another series again in the future.

Don’t forget to claim your copy of “Speaking of the dead”. For a limited time the kindle version in $2.99 paperback is $13.99. What a perfect gift for Christmas for you or someone you know. Click here to get your copy.

Bonnie Dalberg Ansley

This series is meant to highlight beautiful funeral directors. Too many times we see and hear the media focus on the horrible things that happen in the funeral industry. I am here to prove that there is more good in our industry than bad. Every story in this series is written by the directors themselves.

Bonnie Dalberg Ansley

Bonnie began working in the funeral industry in 2006. Her titles have included funeral director assistant, office manager, embalmer, funeral director, décor specialist and manager. Currently she holds a funeral director and embalmer license in Georgia.

How did you get into the industry?

At the age of 22, I lived in Augusta, Georgia working multiple jobs while majoring in biochemistry.  My father had suffered from chest pains while mowing the yard.  After resting inside a bit, he was taken to the local VA hospital and was told he was in the middle of a heart attack and needed an emergency triple bypass.  The surgery went well, but infection soon set in – his entire body had lost all it’s natural color, the open incision on his chest had turned green and purple and I naturally thought he was going to die.  I’ve encountered death before with classmates, a SIDS baby from my mother’s daycare and even extended family, but up to this point, never that close to heart.  I was devastated and thought “What do I do?  Who do I turn to?  What will happen when he dies?”  Thankfully, he recovered, but the impact of the trauma was so deep.  When he was strong enough, I made the decision that I wanted to be the one to take care of my dad.  I want to be the one to take care of everyone I loved and make sure they are taken care of the right way.  I moved to Atlanta within weeks to attend Gupton Jones and the rest is history.

This industry is hard, why do you do your job every day?

Because I make a difference in this world.  I work with intense passion and give my full talents and drive to each family I serve.  I see it on their faces, I hear it in their voices and I feel it when they embrace me.

What is your favorite part of the job?

My favorite part are the moments when I can take heartache and refocus it towards something positive.  For example, a family is riddled with anxiety and fear the first time that they enter their visitation room.  In their minds, they are expecting a dimly lit room filled with antique furniture and their loved one without any life in them.  What if, instead, the doors opened to reveal a room filled with that person’s joy?  A vignette against that wall overflowing with Elvis paraphernalia, and over there, a mannequin showcasing a vintage 50’s style dress, her favorite color can be found everywhere from backdrops to artwork to up lighting.  “Love Me Tender” is playing in the background and as they move closer to her, she’s dressed not in her Sunday best, but rather what people were used to seeing – jeans, a sweatshirt and her infamous fire engine red lipstick.  Now this… this is mom and she would’ve loved this.  Every attention to detail has been made for the family.  A framed photo of her family’s business is on display; there are Elvis ornaments to celebrate not only her love of “The King” but also her love of Christmas… this is all done without the family having to haul her personal belongings to the funeral home or any cumbersome work involved.  It was something created from someone who truly listened to the family and was able to capture enough of their loved one’s happiness into aesthetics that affect all their senses – taste (red velvet cupcakes to match her fiery personality and red lipstick), sight (all the visuals tastefully on display), sound (uplifting music), touch (holding the Elvis keepsakes in memory of “her”) and smell (Christmas tree air fresheners were placed inconspicuously around the room to fill the air with that crisp tree smell).

How do you balance work and home life, what do you do for self-care?

Self-care is something that I have struggled with throughout my whole career.  Life is an ever-changing journey and I am currently refocusing on my physical health at the moment.  I am down 32 lbs and counting.

Outside of work what are your hobbies/interests?

General merriment – eating, drinking, dancing or karaoke with good people and an uber driver when the night is over.

Tell us about your family, kids, spouses, pets etc.

My family is not traditional, but then again, whose is anymore?  My immediate family consists of my husband, Kyle, my fat little Chihuahua, Vlad, my german shepherd mix, Greta, and exotic “sea creatures” throughout the house.  I have so many people that are mutually considered family and it continues to grow.  I would trust my life to so many others and for that, I am blessed.

Tell a story about a family you have served, or body prepared that was especially significant to you personally

I remember serving a small family – there was the deceased and his wife.  The gentleman worked for Coca-Cola for decades and lived, breathed and of course, drank, Coca-Cola.  Everything was personalized in that Bonnie fashion where we focused on his love and passions.  I and the staff wore Coca-Cola clothing instead of suits, there was Coca-Cola paraphernalia everywhere that the public was present and at the very end of the service, I passed out cokes and diet cokes so that everyone could toast to this amazing man as I played the original 1971 commercial of “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke.”  The wife was grateful to experience so much love for her husband in an unexpected place, she has since continued to stay in touch with me.

What message would you like to give to the public about our profession?

The public image of a funeral director is terribly misguided.  We do not make six figures, I mean, I do drive a Cadillac…hearse that is and then my Nissan home.  We are not all the vampiric, pale men in a dusty suit hiding in the shadows – hello, I’m a perky, Asian American female in her mid 30’s.  We do not manipulate defenseless widows into overspending for an elaborate service.  I listen to what my family’s wants are.  After all, they are the ones in charge and I am only here to offer solutions.  I don’t care if someone is spending $1,000 or $10,000 – they deserve the same treatment and respect from me and that is what I provide.  Funeral directors wear many hats, but I assure you, con artist is not one of them.

If you know of a beautiful funeral director who would fit in this series please send me an email (mbalmergirl@gmail.com) with who the person is and contact information. This series is planned to run each week in December but I may run another series again in the future.

Don’t forget to claim your copy of “Speaking of the dead”. For a limited time the kindle version in $2.99 paperback is $13.99. What a perfect gift for Christmas for you or someone you know. Click here to get your copy.

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!

I was informed of a husband and wife who were killed together in a car accident and our mortuary got the call. The couple had gone for a drive. Maybe they were going to the grocery store, maybe to see a movie, I didn’t know the details. What I did know was that somehow, they didn’t or couldn’t stop their car fast enough while driving behind a semi-truck. As a result, they ended up underneath the back end of the rig, ultimately shearing off the top of their car. Neither of them survived.

This would be my first opportunity to see, in real life and on the job, the destruction that motor vehicle accidents can have on a body and on their surviving family members. I remember the words of the director that I was working with. He explained that I was welcome to observe the couple, but I didn’t have to, there would always be others. He warned me that both bodies had been greatly damaged from the accident and this could be just too much for a young funeral assistant in the beginning days on the job. I hesitated for only a second before I assured him that I wanted this experience now. I felt this was like a rite of passage, preparing me for my career ahead. With a small nod he turned and beckoned me to follow.

I followed the funeral director down the long hallway in the back of the mortuary toward the garage where the couple lay waiting. The team that went to receive the husband and wife had only just gotten back and while they had removed them from the transport vehicle, they not yet been taken the pair inside the building. As we walked I couldn’t help but imagine what this would look like. In my young mind, influenced by TV shows and movies, I imagined the worst scenario possible. I had no idea what an accident this bad really did to a body and no real-life experience to compare it to.

The director opened the door to immediately reveal two cots sitting side-by-side, lying on each was an occupant enclosed in a thick black body bag, like the ones you see in crime TV shows. Surrounding the couple against the walls of the space were shelves that accompany any funeral homes garage. Ledges lined with boxes holding signs, water, towels and décor for the seasons. A tool box caught my eye reminding me of the things we were constantly fixing around the funeral home like loose door knobs and loose toilet handles. In the center of the garage stood a body lift (a device designed to assist lifting the deceased from tables into caskets). The room smelled slightly of exhaust fumes from the cars recently driven. The hearse and the flower van were parked on the opposite side of the room, silently witnessing what happens to people when vehicles are not driven carefully.

The image of the cots alone was enough to invoke just how tragic the situation was. Side-by-side they married each other, side-by-side they raised children together and side-by-side they got into their car that day. Now, side-by-side they lay on cots in the garage of a mortuary.

We walked to the cot closest to us and the director carefully unzipped the thick bag while I stood a few steps away. I slowly stepped closer to see the man lying inside, looking for blood and tissue and gruesome accident things. There was no way to identify him through facial features.  The man was wearing dark blue jeans and a shirt of red and blue plaid, all of which were soiled. Scattered about his head and what was visible of his clothing were bits of road debris, glass and shards of broken car pieces. He looked like he had been created out of wax and cosmetics like a movie prop for a horror film, he just didn’t look real. What hit me first though was his wallet, lying on his belly it was encased in a sealed plastic bag that had biohazard printed in red over the top. It probably held his driver’s license, credit cards, and memberships passes, never to be used again. There was a handful of change that I imagined, like most men he kept in his pocket and jingled absently while standing in conversation, a set of keys that at one time resided in a bowl on the counter in their home or hung on a hook next to the door, patiently waiting for the next drive to the grocery store. In that moment my heart sank as I realized that his children had just lost both of their parents, without warning and without getting to say goodbye.

Years after this experience, I bought a house in a small town in the South that reminded me of this couple. The house had been owned by a husband and wife who had also died in a car accident together. The children they left behind did all they could to get through their pain and loss yet ultimately could not bring themselves to clear out the house that they grew up in. It was just too painful. On my first walkthrough, it looked just like someone had left unexpectedly and never came back. Tiny house shoes sat next to the door patiently waiting their owners return. A shelf of cookbooks in the kitchen held instructions for meals and treats for family gatherings. Each room had its own tale of previous use. A sewing machine whispered that there was hemming left undone, closets full of clothes never again to be worn by their intended owner. The house had sat empty of life long enough for the cobwebs and moisture of the South to take up residence. The air was thick and moldy, and it was dim due to lack of electricity, the only light was what came through the windows which were covered in cobwebs and dust. So naturally, my thoughts went to this first couple I had experienced accidental death with. Lying next to each other on cots in black body bags surrounded by garage things, nestled amongst their belongings that they had taken with them that day and their children who were left with a only a house full of memories.

Tragedy is a necessary part of this job. When people ask me questions of how I handle these situations every day, my mind almost always drifts to this couple. The children were never going to see their parents again. They had to trust the doctor that their parents were dead, they had to trust that the funeral director had the right bodies and they had to deal with other family members, friends and a lifetime of remembrances that they were not yet ready to dismantle and sell to a stranger. So, it shouldn’t be how I could handle these things, the question should be how could I not? The families who survive the death of a loved one, always have it worse than I.

I was not involved in making the arrangements for this couple, but I was present when they were laid to rest. It was a chilly fall day and we were surrounded by huge trees half covered in orange and red leaves that dotted the cemetery beyond our blue funeral tent signifying the end of one season and preparing for the next. Surrounded by their children this husband and wife, just like they did in life, will for all eternity be side-by-side.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Balloons, gently floating up through the clouds with their ribbon tails softly swaying in the breeze. It’s a back and forth, soft bumping and swaying type of event. It used to be common for graveside services to have the crowd release balloons in homage to the deceased.  The practice is slowly fading and even banned in some areas, thankfully,  due to the damage they cause to the environment and wildlife. This experience is not a recent event, just a beautiful memory. With every balloon release I am mesmerized by watching them drift up and away, like it was the first time I had ever seen it. There is excitement in trying to keep track of a single balloon as it gets smaller and smaller while everyone around you secretly urges their own balloon on, hoping it will rise higher and faster than anyone else’s. Often, I will hand out Sharpie markers and watch as the crowd struggles to hold a balloon in the crook of their arm or between their legs as it fights for release. There is a hollow screeching concert of marker on rubber as people write out loving messages for someone, most believe, is up above us in the heavens. It is also inevitable that one or two balloons get away before the countdown is made to let them go. And almost every time, the Sharpies’ squawking stops and heads turn upwards to watch the rogue balloons float away with a background of murmurs stating the obvious faux pas of the individual who didn’t hold to their string tight enough. Sometimes it’s an adult who lost their battle of holding onto a balloon while writing their heartfelt note, sometimes it’s a child not understanding how helium works, and a lot of times there are tears at the lost opportunity to have this balloon sent on its way up, alongside the multitude.

One funeral in particular that I directed was for an infant, a baby boy. Before he was born, the family knew he was going to die shortly after birth, they just didn’t know when exactly. These are heartbreaking funerals and they must be handled in a very delicate way. The spot in the cemetery that the family had purchased pre-need (before a death occurs) was a garden still in construction and was not quite ready for burials at the time of the infant’s death. In this case, we planned a small ceremony at an above ground crypt where the infant would be placed until the new garden was open and we could have him buried in the previously planned spot.

I had everything ready at the crypt before the family and friends were to arrive. It was a drizzly day, not quite raining but wet, while grey skies threatened a downpour. It was a short walk from the road to an alcove walled on two sides with cream colored marble crypts reaching high above our heads and a large tiered concrete water fountain in the center happily splashing water over its  sides. The other two sides of the area looked out over the expanse of a cemetery lawn dotted with huge trees full of green leaves, heavy with moisture. I placed a small table for the tiny casket to rest upon during the service. The flower van was parked nearby against a curb and was full of light blue balloons awaiting their liberation. I parked the dark blue limousine near the curb of the walkway that led to alcove and just inside its back door, the seat held the small white casket cradling the precious baby boy’s body.

As people arrived, I busied myself with opening doors and umbrellas, assuring that everyone was as comfortable and as dry as possible. Once the family was ready and it was time to start the funeral, the father and brother of this tiny human lifted the casket from the back seat of the limousine and hand carried him with a slow, careful walk to the alcove and the awaiting crowd while the grieving mother paced close behind. Large black umbrellas jounced in the hands of the audience as they all tried to find enough space to watch and listen to those who were speaking.

After the ceremony, everyone gathered behind the flower van. The Sharpies were handed out and one by one the blue balloons were passed around and then, just as I handed out the last balloon, it started to rain! Not a downpour, but enough drops to make the task of releasing balloons a difficult one. As friends and family began writing their messages, the squeal of marker on rubber permeated the heavy air around us. Most everyone huddled under umbrellas in an attempt to keep the raindrops from ruining their valuable drawings and messages. Coat sleeves and long dresses were used to towel off the rubber spheres when drops found their way past the umbrella canopy. Then, with smeared marker messaged balloons, the crowd walked down the road of the cemetery to where the baby boy would ultimately be interred, leaving the casket behind for the cemetery crew to place the marble facing on the crypt’s open end, closing in the tiny casket in its temporary holding place. It was a somber, walking procession of family and friends along the empty road of the cemetery. As we reached our destination there was a last attempt at wiping the moisture off of the balloons and then they were released into the thick, soggy air. Some of the balloons lifted enough to rise but most just lazily wafted in the slight breeze, only to drop just a few feet away or hover over the newly-laid grass that was not to be stepped on. Children and adults alike would walk upon the recently seeded grass to grab a rebellious balloon, wipe off the offending drops and hurl it upwards as best they could. After every failed attempt was made, the crowd finally dispersed leaving behind a pasture of new grass dotted with blue sadly grounded balloons.

Some weeks later we got the go-ahead to open the new garden and we could finally put the baby boy in his final resting place, so we arranged a  graveside service. We planned to take the tiny casket from the crypt and walk down the cemetery road to the grave, say a few words and release a new bundle of balloons. This day was beautiful, no rain. It was blue skies, bright green trees and grass, everything was perfect! The family started gathering at the crypt and I was busy getting all of the things ready, including securing another collection of balloons. I set up a table with pictures, markers and handouts, then began securing the balloons to the table leg. I made a knot in the bundle of strings, making sure they were secure and then I let go, and then, so did the balloons! I froze for a second, confused, then launched myself up desperately grabbing at the strings  which quickly rose out of my reach In seeming slow motion I turned my head towards where the family was gathering and saw that every head was turned upwards to watch the balloons float up and away. I was certain that they would be crushed – first the balloons that wouldn’t fly and now this!  As I walked down the road to talk to the family, I made a call to the shop where I got the balloons and explained what had happened and that I needed more balloons delivered right away!

To my surprise and great relief, the family was laughing when I reached them! They all exclaimed at how much fun it was to see the balloons lift off in one big bundle and then watch my horrified face as I tackled the air attempting to get the balloons back to the ground.

In the end we did get more balloons, and everything else went as planned. The family had a surprise though. Remember the balloons that didn’t make it from the first service? Well, the family came back to the cemetery after everyone else had left and collected them all! We tied the deflated, smear-marked balloons to some of the new ones, allowing their journey to continue.  My lesson from that day was that even when everything from my perspective seemed to be going wrong; the grass not ready for burial, the need for two services for the infant, balloons that would not rise in the rain to the second set of balloons launched before the ceremony could start, even after all of that, this family made the best of it. They cherished the moments as part of the process and instead of things being a disaster, every step of it was made beautiful.   With the right attitude almost everything has significance, even long deflated, smear marked balloons.

Some funeral directors make it a habit of watching the news before beginning the day. We are, sadly, looking for the shootings, accidents, fires or any disaster that may mean “work”. I had had a long night and awoke the next morning in a rush, taking no notice of the day’s headlines. Apparently, during the night a man had robbed a convenience store and shot the clerk who worked there, then he was able to run away before the police could arrive. After some detective work the police were able to track down who he was and where he lived. The swat team surrounded his house and his confused and elderly mother opened the door. She tried to get answers from the men in black gear, carrying shields and guns, pushing her out of the way they entered the house just as her son was coming out to greet them, he brandished a gun and before he could fire he was gunned down by the police, in his living room, in front of his mother! The man was in his 40’s, he had a drug problem and his mother, the ever-nurturing kind, had no idea what had just happened. We got the call later that day to come and pick up his body.

We laid the man down on the embalming table and looked over the wounds. He was riddled with bullet holes. He was not autopsied, yet, it was still a mess.  All we could think of was what his poor mother was going through after watching this happen to her son, in her own home.

When the family came in to make arrangements, it was determined that there would be a small graveside, no obituary was to be published and no one was to know when the service was to take place. The family religion was Bahai which meant a traditional shrouding with prayers and rose water. The church would not agree to perform the ritual and none of the family members wanted to do it, no one even wanted to see his body. This meant the funeral home was to perform the shrouding. We were given instructions by the church on how the shroud was to be wrapped and a sheet detailing the prayers to be said. We had no idea what we were doing. The family dropped off the shroud and the rose water and my coworker and I took all of these supplies and headed to the prep room to start the task. The table the man laid on was in the center of the embalming room, ringed on two sides with white cabinets and counter-tops. The back end of the room was slightly dimmed where open shelves of towels and chemicals sat. The rest of the room was covered in bright fluorescent lighting, making the room feel much more cheerful than the situation called for. We laid out all of the instructions given to us. We then sutured the mans wounds to prevent them from seeping through the shroud and washed and dried the body. The shroud came in strips and the strips were to be wrapped in a specific way and the rose water was to be sprinkled at certain points of the shrouding. It turned out to be a relaxing experience, wrapping, sprinkling, saying the prayers. Once we finished, we placed the shrouded man in his casket and closed the lid. Giving us our own kind of closure to the experience.

The day of the graveside was bitterly cold, the grass and trees were covered in ice. We loaded the casket in the hearse, grabbed all of the supplies we needed, tissues, blankets etc. and drove to the grave-site. We wanted to make sure that everything was set up and ready by the time the family arrived. We laid out the carefully folded blankets and tissue packets on the chairs. My staff and I then pulled the casket out of the back of the hearse and walked through the crunchy, frozen grass to place the casket on the open grave, its final destination. The family arrived all at once bundled in black coats and scarves. When anyone spoke, it was in hushed tones giving a reverent silence to the air. I watched the scene as the handful of family members took their seats with the backdrop of the simple wooden casket, bare of any adornments or flowers. Stretched out on all sides were the silent graves of others, huge trees covered in ice stood as watchmen over their dead. The grass was slightly frosted with white aside from the trails marking where people had walked over from the street, and ominous grey clouds hovered in the sky above. There was no color other than the green of the tent and chair covers. The clergy stood at the head of the casket and I took my place at the back of the tent to watch and listen and reflect on what this family was going through. Why did this man do what he did? What drives someone to the desperation of killing another person? As the clergy spoke, his voice reverberated off the trees and yet seemed strangely muted as the freezing rain started again adding the quiet tinkles of tiny ice droplets hitting the already frozen landscape.

When the service was over, no one spoke, the family got up and walked to their cars then quietly drove away. I waited at the grave until the vault lid was closed, then got into the hearse and drove back to the mortuary. Once back, I noticed the tingling in my fingers and toes as they defrosted from the hours of standing in the freezing cold. I was so wrapped up in the experience that I did not notice how I was close to losing limbs to frostbite. As I thawed, I considered what this family was experiencing. Their son, brother, friend was dead, yet it was the brutal death of a man who brutally murdered another man. The silence of the cemetery and the colorless backdrop seemed fitting for laying this man to rest. I hope the family has found some peace, I hope the dead man has found some peace. I will always remember this experience and how the choices we make directly affect the people closest to us.