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!

Before I tell this story, I want you all to know that the majority of people I meet take way too much stock in Hollywood’s versions of dead bodies and what they do, or do not do, in the days before they are buried or cremated. I have had people tell me about the bodies that sit straight up, “ I saw it with my own eyes!” Or watched a woman in a casket breathe, or blink, or twitch a finger, or whatever their eyes told them happened. It’s true that our minds decide what we see, that the dead are not dead, there was a mistake and they are still breathing just really slowly, “Just like in that show I saw” people have told me. I have been brought back into a room where the family frantically asks me to call a doctor because so and so opened their eyes for split second, or their mouth twitched “I swear I saw it”. I don’t mean to make light of these situations because it’s traumatic and sad. The truth, is unless you are around the dead all day, our minds are trained to see a person sleeping. Sleeping people twitch and breath and move, combine that normalcy with the yearning for the person to still be alive and hope to not have to handle the loss in the coming days and years can assuredly create false impressions of movement. It is heart wrenching and I have to calmly explain to the family that they are seeing things that are not there and assure them that their deepest wish is not going to come true.

The hardest of these moments for me was a young girl who lost her mother unexpectedly. She was probably early thirties and an only child. She had not been close to her mother in recent years and there was a ton of unresolved anger and sadness that turned to guilt when she died. The daughter was unmarried, and her father estranged, there was no other family to support her.

When she came in to see her mother’s body, she brought with her four of her friends for support, one of them a hospice nurse. I walked them into the large viewing room, the lights were slightly dimmed, and the woman lay on a table covered to her shoulders with a sheet. The daughter was rightly upset, and emotion overtook her as the girls stepped up to the body. I felt the daughter had all the support she needed so I stepped out into the hallway to give them time alone, letting one of her friends know that I was right outside the door if they needed anything.

It took less than a minute for one of the girls to burst through the door into the hallway practically yelling, “Call 911, she is still alive!” and “Call a doctor quick!” I have to say that I was only surprised because one of these girls was a hospice nurse. She should know that dead bodies don’t come back to life funeral homes. Yet, this is what happened, and the girls were most assuredly feeding off of each other’s frantic energy.

I calmly walked her back into the room and listened as they all told me the same story of an eye twitch. I thought it best to look the woman over again myself in an effort to look like I was investigating the situation, but she was just as still as before, not at all twitchy. I turned around and addressed the girls while standing next to the dead woman explaining to them what they were or, more accurately, were not seeing. To give context, the woman had not been embalmed, there would not be a service and she was to be cremated later that day.

I remember the daughter as if it happened yesterday. She turned to me with clear, bright blue tear filled and hopeful eyes as she argued that maybe the doctors got it wrong “Can you please just call?” she pleaded. My heart ached for her. Her pain was real and tangible. She argued where had seen a show where a dead person was only in a coma that made them appear dead and then later came back to life. So, after more explanation of the trickery of our eyes and helping them understand the real, hard truth, the girls finally calmed down. The daughter slumped her shoulders and hung her head in resignation and I asked her friends to come into the hallway with me and leave the daughter to have a final conversation with her mom and hopefully resolve some of the guilt that she will undoubtedly struggle with for the rest of her life.

“Doo Wop”

High school. A place of judgement, cliques, and where the popular mix with the unpopular. All must all interact together though, living and dreaming in the same space. It is the stage set for the best and the worst experiences in life.

He was a jock, a football player and he wanted to be my boyfriend. He was cute, but I was sure that his only reason for wanting to date me was that someone made him a bet. You know the story, jock hits up the geeky girl and gets her in bed only to get kudos from his other jock friends. And he was relentless! Always hanging around, always trying to tell me how pretty I was. And it pissed me off! Why would this guy, who could have any girl in the school, want to have anything to do with me? I blew him off. He kept it up. Then, finally I told him we could be hang out. I was sure that he would get bored and move on, there were too many other girls that were much easier to get than me. And so, we dated, and he stuck around. After some months of dating, I was starting to feel like maybe he was for real, maybe he did like me, maybe this could be a thing.

One night me and a couple of my friends went out cruising the strip. This was the thing every high school kid in Las Vegas did on the weekends. We drove up one side of the road lined with casinos and fast food restaurants, made a U-turn and then drove back down the other side of the road lined with different casinos and fast food restaurants.  We repeated this over and over again, occasionally stopping for food or to say hello to other people in cars in parking lots. The only point of this was to be seen in your car, waving at the people you knew in other cars and then go home.

Suddenly we were flagged down by a truck full of girls. Neither me or my friends knew who they were but decided to pull over anyway. As we pulled into a Wendy’s parking lot and a girl jumped out from the back of the truck before it even stopped and immediately stormed right towards, me looking like she was ready to fight. Her body hunched with purpose, fists balled up and long blonde hair swinging at her back to the momentum of her steps. I had been in fights before, it seemed to be my curse. Some girl doesn’t like me for whatever reason and the ONLY resolution, of course, is to try and beat me up. Well, I did not know this girl and had no idea what she wanted, so I braced myself for whatever crazy she was bringing with her. As she approached she was screaming something unintelligible. She raised her arms from her sides periodically and as she got closer to me in-between her strange rant I did catch her saying something about a fiancé? Which just deepened the mystery of the whole thing. Once she got close to me I asked her what the problem was and that I didn’t know her or her fiancé. Then she said his name. It was him! My boyfriend, this guy that told me I hung the moon, that spent all of his free time with me! The girl was from another high school and as I tried to wrap my head around this news, I could only guess that he thought the two of us would never meet or ever find out about each other. The girl finally calmed down when she realized I really had no idea he had been dating someone else. We talked it out and accepted that we were both being played. She told me that they had been dating for two years and had plans to marry after high school. I told her not to worry, the creep would never hang out with me again. As we talked she visibly went from a raging maniac with flailing arms and chest puffed out to a defeated young teenage girl, shoulders slumped, arms limp, heartbroken and crushed. We each said our peace and then went our separate ways.

That night I was staying at a friend’s house. We got to her house and changed into pajamas. Then sat together on her trundle bed. We had the lights in the room turned off but had candles burning on a dresser which reflected light off of the walls and ceiling giving the room a soft, calming glow. We talked about all that had happened. To show my age this was the era of En Vogue, a girl band that was really popular and always on the radio. They had a hit song called “My lovin’” (You’re never gonna get it). The chorus of that song has a line where they say “Ooooh, bop”, which to us sounded more like “Doo Wop” and was terribly similar to Mr. “I need a girlfriend from every school” ‘s last name. So, we played the song and happily sang it inserting his last name into the chorus laughing and giggling like teen girls do. I had moments of angry rants about being betrayed and I had moments of real sadness at losing my boyfriend.

As we were talking and singing and laughing, the phone rang. It was one of those clear plastic phones where the guts inside were covered in bright neon colors and lit up so when you had the phone on silent you still knew you had a phone call and your parents would never hear it. I think every teen girl had one during the 90’s. My friend answered the phone and low and behold, it was Mr. Doo Wop wanting to talk to me which, of course, I refused at first. After he pleaded a bit with my friend, I finally agreed to get on the phone thinking I knew what would happen. He would give a slick “I am sorry, it’s really only you, she means nothing to me speech followed with “we are good right?”. This is what I imagined. But it was nothing like that. He did say that he was sorry, but he needed me to understand his side, he sounded desperate and anxious. He told me that the other girl was controlling and wouldn’t let him break up with her, serious eye-roll here. Then he said that the girl had actually broken up with him that night and he needed to talk to somebody and he said that talking to me always made him feel better. I was feeling indignant and jaded that he had the gall to ask me to help him through his own sorrow of getting caught despite the fact that internally I wanted to help and talk him through this. My response to him was that he would get no sympathy from me and I promptly hung up the phone. He called a few more times begging to talk to me but refused and didn’t talk to him again.

I am an empath. I feel other people’s feels and he was in real pain. He was so distressed and clearly didn’t know how to handle it. At that moment though, I didn’t care. In that moment I knew that there would never be a relationship between us, I felt that in a few days he would go back to her and they would make-up and life would continue the same way it had before as if all of this had never happened. I was so very wrong.

It was the weekend, so my friend and I stayed up late that night going over all of things that had occurred. We did finally doze off planning to sleep all of the next day as teens do on the weekend. Instead, we awoke to the ringing of the brightly colored phone. My friend answered, and I stayed right where I was, pulling the covers tighter to my chin, nothing good could come from a phone call this early in the morning. I listened to the one side of the conversation that I could hear and before my friend hung up the phone I was already sitting up and knew that “Doo Wop” was dead. Not that I “knew knew” because no one had told me yet, but I knew because I heard the desperation in his voice the night before. The pleading, not that I would take him back, but that by talking to him I could somehow give him comfort. He had been found by his younger brother who was a toddler at the time. The child had gone to wake him up for breakfast and found him lifeless lying on his bed, he had shot himself in the head with a shotgun, an image no one should see, especially a toddler.

The day of the funeral my friends and I found our seats. “Doo Wop” had been cremated and his urn was tastefully displayed at the front of the chapel. I saw his mother and his other girlfriend “fiancé” sitting in the front row. As we waited for the funeral to start we heard gasps coming from behind us. I turned around and to mine and everyone else’s surprise, there he was! Walking down the aisle, whole and unharmed. In complete shock, me and most of the crowd watched this man walk to where his mother was sitting, he bent down, gave her a hug and then sat next to her on the pew. What was happening? Was this a joke? I turned my head in all directions to get a look at the crowd around me. Some were talking to each other in whispers, some looking around confused like me and some sitting quietly with no reaction at all. If this was a joke, it wasn’t funny. After talking with some of the people near us, my friends and I learned that the man who had just walked down the aisle was actually Doo Wop’s older brother. I was still stunned. That moment of thinking he wasn’t dead and that this whole thing was just a joke gave me a hell of an adrenaline rush. The crowd finally settled down and it was time to start the service. Several people got up to the pulpit and said such wonderful things about him. And he was wonderful and so young. He had a kind heart and loved his family. His death was a real tragedy and affected many students at the school. I can only imagine what his family was going through.

I don’t remember the funeral, I don’t remember what happened after the funeral. I will always remember the phone call. The plea for help. Not because he was upset over a girlfriend matter but that there was clearly something else going on. And I had ignored it. I don’t blame myself for not talking to him that night, there was no way I could have known what was going to happen. I do however hope that if I ever recognize that same desperation for help, that I will take a moment, follow my gut and listen.

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

I have had a resurgence of people asking me how I got myself into death care, so I thought it would be fun to re-post my first post telling the story.

The most asked first question I get when I tell people what I do for a living is “How did you get into this business?” Then “Why would you want to do that?” So, why would I want to hang around dead bodies all day? And, comfort their grieving loved ones? In every sense my answer is “It’s a calling”. I am not a stranger to death, I have felt the horrible grief that comes with losing someone you love, whether expected or not. Yet this one day changed what I thought was my career. I was working for a junkyard in Las Vegas, I loved the work. Tinkering in cars and ripping at their guts and bones and tendons fulfilled my days. I loved helping customers build or repair their projects for show or reliable transportation. I had great determination for proving myself in an industry most people considered were just for men. I loved the grease and sweating in the desert sun inside my coveralls and steel toed boots. I was in charge of keeping an inventory of every vehicle and its location, how long they had been picked at and the value of the parts left. When new cars came in, I got to decide which ones stayed, which ones went and which ones got hidden away for the rarity of their pieces and I loved it! Then in the matter of a month or so, two of my coworkers experienced tragedy. One lost her husband unexpectedly and one lost both parents fairly close together. This was not the first time I was near when someone I knew who was experiencing a death, yet, for some reason I listened to my friends stories differently. I heard over and over, the funeral director did this, or the funeral director did that. Can you believe what the funeral director told me? How could one person influence the experience my coworkers had so much that they hinge on their word, advice and suggestions so readily? This was a person they had just met and was in charge of caring for their loved one and yet, they gave so much weight to the experience of my grieving friends. I was baffled and fascinated. I called a local mortuary and in the 20-minute conversation I had with an embalmer, I was hooked. I knew I was changed, and my life just got richer.

It’s a really tough profession, especially when you are good at it. The mother who lost her child too soon, the wife whose husband was killed in an accident. Who in their right mind would want to deal with that day in and day out? I think it’s safe to say that when people think of a funeral director, they think of dead bodies, the blood, the fluids and the things we do to make those left behind more comfortable.  Yet, our hardest job is you, the ones left behind. We answer to you and your family and everything we do is catered for your personal experience. Your mother, father, sister etc. are all special. They were in your life in a certain way that is much different than another family member. We hear you and we listen to the tiny nuances of personality like her favorite flower, his favorite team, the special ice cream dates with the grandkids. Then we suggest things that tribute that person and celebrate everything they were to you in the best way possible.

I am certain that there is no emotion stronger and more unpredictable than grief. It can turn you on your head and rip a family apart in a matter of moments and the funeral director is standing in the middle picking up the pieces and arranging them in a way to get you through to whatever the next step is that is waiting for you. We can be the shoulder to cry on, or the person to yell at.  We have to remember to be the brain and the heart because in grief you literally do not possess these things.

I am sure there are some of you reading this to hear the gross stories and descriptive accounts of the untimely deceased people that I have placed on a gurney and buried in cemeteries. I myself have a curiosity and love for the human body and its working and non-working parts. However, in any profession that includes the uncomfortable grossness of our living or dead bodies, there should never be a person to exploit unprofessionally what is experienced in those moments. I am not saying there isn’t, I am saying there shouldn’t be. Just like with any other job. Things go wrong. People are people, circumstances present themselves at a bad time and human emotion gets in the way of decorum… these things happen. So yes, it can be funny, it can be incredibly sad, it can be horrifying and it can be perceived as uncaring. Yet, when placed out in the open for public consumption there are considerations to what others have experienced and how one tells the story might create a negative experience. That being said, I love my stories, and you will never read about anything so descriptive or unprofessional from me that would play to the morbidly curious crowd.

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Photo taken by Tyson Rider www.tysonjrider.com

The funeral home was fluttering with people, filling the hallways and lobby with chatter and the occasional burst of laughter. The staff was buzzing about, moving flowers and parking cars. We were all getting ready for a funeral, and I was the funeral director. In this town it was customary for the officiating clergy to show up to the mortuary about thirty minutes before the funeral was scheduled to start. They would talk with the family briefly, then come into the office and give the director the “Order of service” (who was speaking when, what song was to play and how the service would end) this was the normal routine. On this day though, it was starting to get uncomfortably close to service time and I had not yet seen the preacher. I decided to call the number I had in the file only to be greeted by a voicemail. I spoke with the family about the situation and luckily someone had the phone number for the preacher’s son, so they gave him a call. The son was just as baffled as we were and said he would try and find his father and give us an update.

It was almost service time and we needed to start this funeral! It is important to start a funeral on time for a number of reasons. The crowd who comes usually have scheduled their day to be available for a certain amount of time, the musicians usually have other appointments to get to once their part of the service is over with, the police escort is counting on us to leave the funeral home within a given timeframe so they can return to their duties, the cemetery crew will be waiting and ready with their equipment based on the start time of the funeral and of course, the funeral home may have another service later, or other families to meet with or embalming’s to perform. So, starting a funeral on time is incredibly important to everyone involved.

With no word from the son yet, I went to inform the crowd as to what was happening. I calmly walked into the visitation room full of people and announced that we were waiting on the preacher still and that the service may start a bit late. I then made my way to the chapel, where some people were already seated, and said the same words from the pulpit. Then, I waited, and made plans to conduct the service myself in case the preacher never showed.

Finally, I received a call from the son, he informed me that his father had gotten lost on the way to the funeral home. He said his father had been showing signs of dementia recently and this type of thing was happening more and more. He told me his father was insistent on officiating the service even though I had offered to handle it. They had been driving toward the funeral home as we spoke, so, I told him that we would wait to start the service. When they arrived, I made my way out to the front porch to greet them. The porch floor was a red stained concrete bordered by the red brick building on one side and large white columns and bright full flower beds on the other. It led out to the parking lot where I could see the pair making their way towards me. The preacher was elderly, very tall, bone thin and barely able to make full steps. He shuffled along in a dark brown suit hanging loosely around his arms and legs, his white hair was slicked back from his ears and he firmly clutched his tattered bible. Close behind was his son, patiently helping him along. I walked up to them and introduced myself with my arm held out for a handshake, only to have the preacher veer just slightly, eyes slightly frantic and focused on getting inside, and walked right past, leaving me standing there with my hand held out to the air, I giggled to myself internally at how that probably looked standing alone with my arm stretched out and quickly followed them inside.

The son apologized for his dad and of course, I understood that he was confused and embarrassed. So, I made another attempt at an introduction and started a conversation about the order of service, and we successfully pieced together a program for the funeral. After a short prayer with the family, we were ready to make our way to the chapel. The son escorted his father up to the chapel doors and then stopped to wait in the hallway, feeling uncomfortable in his jeans and t-shirt, having just rushed out of work. The chapel had a large stage where the pulpit sat in front of a low bench that provided seating for the clergy and other speakers. Behind the bench at the very back of the stage hung a huge cream-colored curtain which served as a backdrop for flowers which were expertly placed to create color, and depth.

As we entered, just to the left was a glossy black baby grand piano that sat in front of the wide steps leading up to the stage, to the right were rows of pews full of people and straight ahead was the space between the pews and stage where we would center the casket.

Once we had the casket placed, I directed the staff to seat the family and then rushed over to the stairs and offered my arm to steady the man struggling up the steps, the preacher looked back at me with slight sneer and weak growl and I understood that his pride was shaken enough already. With a chapel full of people watching, I had no intention of embarrassing this poor man further, so I stepped back only to be ready if he stumbled. One shaky leg at a time found the steps and miraculously he made it to the top step and shuffled over to gently seat himself in the captain’s chair we provided for him, if only barely.

The staff and I left the chapel and I went to find the son and see how he was holding up. He informed me that he had a conversation with his mother and that he would be taking his father home right after the service, they would not be joining us at the cemetery. I agreed this was wise, his father was obviously shaken and exhausted from his ordeal of being lost.

When the funeral was over, I calmly walked back near the steps, feigning the need to do something important while side-glancing and staying as close as possible in the event the preacher toppled or slipped. He shuffled and hobbled and grunted and incredibly made it to the bottom of the stairs on his own. At that moment the son walked over and took his father by the arm to lead him away. The preacher then promptly threw a fit totally unfitting for a revered clergy man! He raised his voice, stating he was absolutely going to the cemetery, it was his right! His face was beet red and his fists balled up like a two-year-old. I acted quickly and showed the son the back way out of the chapel, so he wouldn’t have to drag his shouting father through the crowd. As I held the back door for them, the son gave a heavy sigh and pulled the preacher away slowly with a mournful backward glance, looking like a whipped puppy. With a heavy heart I made my way back to the chapel and escorted the casket and the crowd to the waiting cars and off we went to the cemetery.

I received a call from the preacher’s son the next day, he informed me that his father would not be available for funerals from that point on. He sounded broken and exhausted. I imagined how hard it would it be to force an adored and respected parent into retirement. It was a humble moment, a sad day that this man, once strong and proud, couldn’t remember how to get to a place he had been to hundreds of times and his son was now laden with a new set of responsibilities as their roles inevitably reversed.

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In all my years as a small female funeral director, I can tout so many times that I have assisted with, or on my own, moved a deceased body from strange and compromising situations. Upstairs, downstairs, through narrow hallways, sliding in mud and slipping on ice, struggling to move ungiving weight from tangled, grabby bedsheets. I have always found a way though, never faltered, strained terribly yes, but always got the job done without injury to myself or the person I was charged with keeping safe. I have been applauded that my little frame held a remarkably strong and careful woman who has expertly handled herself in situations that defied the laws of, what is first assumed to be, my nature.

We received a call one day, it was an expected death, nothing out of the ordinary for a mortuary. A coworker and I drove to the address we were given. It was an apartment building, and we were instructed to go to the third floor where the family was waiting. I entered the apartment first to meet the family and make a plan of how to successfully transfer the deceased from the bed to our cot, through the apartment and then down the three flights to our waiting van. I surveyed the setting and noted all of the obstacles that we would need to negotiate, couches, end tables, lamps, those sorts of things. Our best way down with a cot were the stairs, they were steep and concrete and narrow and would be difficult to maneuver, but nothing more treacherous or challenging than anything I had handled before. I retrieved my coworker and we started the process of moving the woman into our care. We carefully wrapped her in a clean sheet and then gently slid her onto our cot. We gave the family a precious moment before heading towards the narrow, hardened concrete stairwell. The woman was survived by a sister who wanted to be present for the process. This is something we usually don’t discourage, it is a family members’ right to help in moving someone they love. It can be cumbersome however, when a new set of hands start dictating what the professionals know to work better. We explained to the sister how narrow the stairwell was and it would be safer if we did the job on our own and she could meet us in the parking lot to help at that end. She thankfully agreed, and we entered the concrete maw of the evil snaky stairwell.

Anyone who has moved furniture down a flight of stairs can understand the push-me, pull-you Tango dance it requires to get down those steps with the furniture and your limbs intact and uninjured. Well, this is the struggle we faced at this moment. My coworker was ahead of me and setting the pace, which was faster than my careful strides could bear while carrying my end of the load. “Take it slow”, “Don’t rush”, “You’re going to fast”, “Slow down!” were my cries as the serpentine stairwell gulped us down it’s throat. We were getting to our destination when suddenly the momentum and my careful steps went out of sync and right then, without warning, my coworker stopped to round the bend of the next landing jarring my already rickety footwork and strained handhold of the cot handle. Before I knew it, my grasp failed completely! The handle I had been holding turned into an arm of steel claws and wrenched it’s bolts down my shin only stopping to pin my foot to the stair step I was currently standing on. This all happened so abruptly that I completely lost my balance. My quick reflexes grabbed at the hand railing, I missed it by millimeters and I pitched forward face-first, without my hands to break the fall, I awkwardly landed on top of the dead woman! My foot still pinned, my shin in tatters and my pride shredded and throbbing like the nerves in my leg.

I was given a minute of respite before I heard the question “Are you okay?” “Do I look like I am okay damnit!?” Was the screamy response my brain shouted inside my head, but of course, the situation called for something more professional. So, I quickly stood, laughed it off, gulped my pride and blinked back the haze filming my eyes, grabbed my end of the cot and continued to hobble and strain down the rest of the staircase to the waiting sister and our van. Refusing to look down at what I imagined to be a blood soaked and tattered pant leg, I left my coworker to get the cot into the back of our van by himself while I tried not to limp or wince, creating a fantastic, straight backed, hopefully professional demeanor, while hugging the woman goodbye and reassuring her that her sister was well taken care of and confirming the time she would be coming to the mortuary the next day for arrangements.

With stoic pride and elegance, I pulled myself into the passenger side of the van and kept smiling while waving goodbye to the woman who, thankfully, had no idea about the incident that had just occurred. As soon as we were on the road I pulled up my pantleg which was somehow dry and undamaged, and it seemed my stocking had worked as an absorbent, holding in place tiny droplets of now dried blood. As I carefully peeled down my stocking, which pulled off each dried bead, it sprang forth fresh bright crimson drops to trickle down the quickly bruising wound. I hadn’t decided how to handle the situation yet, so I didn’t say much in the way of words just gave a crazy, maniacal laugh as I imagined myself folded over kissing the belly of an occupied cot with my foot stuck under its handle. I couldn’t stop laughing like a demented hyena yet, inside my head was a tear streaked sobbing mess of a girl, not knowing whether I was ever going to walk normally again. I think this feeling is what people refer to when announcing that someone has cracked! We arrived back at the funeral home. Walking was just as difficult as I had imagined, and of course the rendition of my superb comedic performance had to be told and then repeated over again. Oh, the woes of the grotesquely injured.

It took almost two months for the goose eggs, yes eggs! to stop throbbing every minute I wore my stockings. And every time I took a minute to change the dressing of my injury and relive the day that I toppled over a dead woman, I made sure my coworker saw at it as well, laughing again at the image of me tipped over uncomfortably and hopefully reminding him that the seconds he may have saved by being impatient had caused weeks of agony for me.

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The profession of death is harder than most funeral directors make it seem. The public only sees well-dressed professionals, stoic and pressed and always there to make everything go as planned. However, in the back rooms, grown men and women stand over the body of a teen who has taken their own life in a horrible way and wonder what could have gone so wrong. We cradle your dead infants in our arms and revel at their tiny perfections while meticulously wrapping them in clean duck and bunny printed blankets for you to hold them in. We go home after a long day with the smears of mascara on our shoulders from comforting a sobbing, hysterical wife whose husband was killed too soon in an unforeseeable accident. We hold back our emotions when a toddler is lifted to see her grandmother lying in a casket and clumsily tucks a Crayola colored picture in grandma’s motionless hands. The business of death is real, it is raw, and we are not always the kind faced, open armed and seemingly unwrinkled, patient people you see in the lobbies of funeral homes and standing tall next to a shiny Cadillac hearse.

The day for a funeral director starts with stumbling out of bed, scrubbing off the sleep and staring back at the image in the mirror with a good ole fashioned pep talk. Never knowing what the day ahead has in store for us. We carefully choose our two-piece suit, shirt to match and shoes we can get through the day in. Dry cleaning, pressing shirt creases, shining shoes and making sure to have plenty of fresh socks or stockings at the ready is a constant concern and task in assuring that the families we sit across from and the people attending the funerals that we direct see only a well put together professional person who can handle whatever needs to be done, without question. We have perfected the bad hair day dos and eye bag cover-up, without looking like we stuck our faces in cake icing. Rosy cheeks and bright eyes are important in creating the expertly assembled, we can handle it, let us help you and we care type of people we strive to be for you.

Yet sometimes, it fails. Days of little sleep and even less time for meals that are filled with dead bodies trailing behind them their screaming, sobbing, shattered family members. The phone hasn’t stopped, and the demands pile up along with heaps of paperwork, explaining the difference between laws and rules, convincing the cemetery or florist or airline to do just this one favor so the family can create the final farewell they envision for this newly dead person who was a mother, grandfather, son or spouse. Upstairs change into a suit, downstairs change into embalming gear, to the cemetery, to the vital records office, sitting on the phone arranging another funeral in the lobby of a church between other funerals, filling out paperwork, gently guiding the grieving through the myriad of choices available, feeling like maybe the choices weren’t exactly what they needed. Then, life at home. A spouse, children, a sick parent, friends and neighbors, laundry, house cleaning, soccer games, choir practice, doctor’s appointments, the dog died, the yard needs mowing, the furnace stopped working. Well, these things are real too, these things are raw and need the same attention and care and love and patience as any profession dealing with human emotion and grief. All of this while being paid pittance for the effort and being granted insufficient time off to attend to these duties, let alone respite for our own tired and weary bones. So, sometimes the better part of a human, under these conditions, fail.

I remember them all, all of the faces. I remember when I knew I wasn’t present enough, at work or at home. I remember the waves of doubt that I could handle things. The slightly down-turned eyes as I tried to push through a really hard day and ended up bringing uncertainty to those who needed me to be certain. The tear filled but silent judgments that, at that moment, I was just as broken as the person I was supposed to be shouldering.

Not everyone will understand or give leeway when things go wrong. Even on the best of days things are missed, misinterpreted, or forgotten for any number of reasons. Human error, a buried email, lack of follow up or details forgotten. Sometimes it’s okay, but in every circumstance where it was okay, a funeral director remembers. We let it sink in over and over, and through all the strain and pull of everything we strive to be and sometimes cannot, I promise you that when something breaks down or isn’t delivered or goes horribly wrong, it is not on purpose or for the lack of caring or trying. Failure isn’t an option in this business, so when it happens, we will always remember.tie-690084_1920Picture provided by Pixabay