October is a palpable time of year. It encompasses the mystery of life from beyond, the dead are remembered, revered or feared in balanced fervor. I love Halloween! I like this time of year to remember that the spirit of people and animals alike may still have some hold on this world. This is the only time of year that I display in my own home skulls, skeletons, headstones and all the creepy crawly things that we usually shy away from. I like the freedom of being strange and macabre because what I do for a living is usually seen as strange and macabre. I am a mortician and I care for the dead and I love what I do.

The history of my profession is timeless. From the beginning of time, life has been born and life has ceased, there is no other way. We cannot have life without the end of it. To prepare myself for this post I have been listening to the podcast LORE, Aaron Mahnke has an otherworldly way of telling stories that make us reconsider whether or not ghosts are living amongst us. I have also been watching the series Haunted, where people tell their stories of being abducted, cursed, wounded or frightened by unseen forces. I am not a big believer of entities from beyond plaguing us with their unfinished business, undying love or need for revenge. That being said, I have found some interesting links that may make you think twice about where that creak in the floorboards is really coming from.

Haunted Rooms

LORE podcast

My Funeral Home Stories

And of course my own ghost stories:

I ain’t afraid of no ghost!

Angry

Spirits in a mortuary

Grabbed by a dead man

And of course if you have not yet read my book “Speaking of the Dead” it is still available on Amazon.

It was early evening when we got the call. The air was crisp and cold. There were patches of black ice on the roads that threatened a tire slip and mounds of dirty snow were piled high on the sides of the streets. The man we were going to pick up was found dead in his apartment on the second floor of the building. It was an older complex which could mean a challenge with stairs, narrow hallways and small door openings. I explained the possible challenges that we might face to my partner who had never been on a transport call before, this would be his first time out. We pulled the van up to the gate that entered the complex, the deceased man’s mother greeted us bundled in her coat, seemingly calm as she described where we should park. The procedure I had in place was for one person to enter the space, speak with the family and assess the situation, then retrieve the second person, our medical cot and any supplies we may need. I took the lead since my partner was new.

As the mother of the deceased and I walked up to the apartment we were greeted by a man who was standing guard to the doorway we would enter. I shook his hand and introduced myself. He was a family friend, there in support of the grieving mother. The mother seemingly unperturbed by the fact that her son was dead and his body was on the other side of the apartment door tried to rush in opening it to whisk me inside, but I had to slow her down. Many people in a state of shock like this can get comfort from talking and seeing that I am genuinely concerned for them and more interested in the person than just doing the job. I grasped her hand and asked her who found her son and what had happened?  I was trying to get a sense of the situation. She was uninterested in chatting though, she quickly told me that she had found her son, that she had come over to his apartment to check on him because she hadn’t heard from him in several days and he had only just moved to this new place. She then proceeded to take me inside. As she opened the door, the air inside was ripe with the scent of advanced decomposition, acidic and eye watering. The door opened into a living room that was filled with piled boxes unopened and labeled with what was contained in each one, clothes, books, dishes. On the other side of the high mounds of boxes was a modest kitchen with similar boxes scattered along the counter tops in various stages of being unpacked. The sink contained used dishes with crumbs of a meal scattered on a plate, a crusting of milk at the bottom of a glass. We made a right at the kitchen and started down a narrow hallway closer to the acrid smell.

The first thing I saw was a black and bloated leg hanging off the edge of a mattress which was sitting on the floor with no frame. As we entered the room the rest of his body was in the same state, he was big, dark, bloated and covered in blisters, meaning skin slip (skin slip occurs when the top layer of skin detaches and easily bursts and sloughs off when touched). He was lying on the mattress on his back. I turned to the mother and rushed her out of the room, I felt that she had probably seen enough already. To protect her from further trauma I asked her and the friend to wait outside while I retrieved my partner and got to work. As I had surmised, there was no elevator, only concrete and metal stairs with tight turns down to the icy parking lot. I was a little worried since this was my partners first transport and one never knows how a person might react to the horror waiting upstairs so I bluntly told him, “this is almost the worst of the worst scenario for your first call”. I walked through how we would be handling this situation but internally prepared myself to call for back-up if it proved too much for the new guy. We hand carried the cot up the steps, taking note of the conditions because this would also be our way down, only on the way down the cot would be laden with the weight of the dead man.

We were able to fit the cot just inside the front door of the apartment with the ability to close it for privacy. First we lowered the cot as far to the ground as it would go. Since this transport would require the man be slid down the hallway from his bedroom, once we reached the living room, it would be easier to maneuver him onto the cot with it closer to the ground. My partner and I then dawned our gloves and retrieved a “body bag” (this is an enclosed plastic bag that would zip up to contain any fluids and make for easier transport), at least that is what it said on the package. We then made our way down the hallway to the bedroom. As we entered the room, I kept an eye on my partner for signs of running away or throwing up, both situations have happened more times than I can count. I watched him look at the man. The man’s skin was dark and he was bloated, his facial features were unrecognizable due to the swelling. Almost every surface of his skin was covered in blisters the size of teacup saucers just ready to burst and slip off. Just think of a time that you have burnt yourself on the stove or curling iron but much, much worse.

On the floor of the bedroom were piles of clothing and bedding, like the man had been sorting his laundry before he died. Gratefully, partner proved himself capable in keeping his lunch to this point. He asked me what we needed to do and as I instructed, he did what needed to be done. It turned out the “body bag” was actually just a sheet of plastic that could be folded over a person and sealed with sticky tape! Ugh, “Okay we can make this work” I thought in my head. We rolled the man slowly onto one side, this task was made difficult by the blisters bursting with every touch making his skin slippery and almost impossible to hold on to. We pushed a clean linen sheet and the sheet of plastic and a white canvas tarp with black handles underneath him. Then rolled him to his other side and pulled the materials out so that it was completely underneath him.  It was messy and smelly and not very dignified but at the end of it all we had wrapped the man in our materials successfully. Now, the only plausible way to get him from the bed to the gurney was to pull the straps of the canvas, slide him off of the bed and down the hallway. As we pulled, the man proved large enough that as we made our way the plastic sheeting and the man’s limbs slipped and bumped the doorways. By the time we got him to the living room he had left behind a trail of liquid and sloughed skin, there was no other way around this without a proper body bag. All we had to do now was slightly lift the man’s torso onto the cot and slide him into position. Everything worked like a charm until the last few inches when suddenly, he got stuck! We pulled and pulled but he would not slide any further and his feet were still dangling off the end of the gurney! We strained and pulled and pushed without making any headway. I had no idea what was happening so we stopped to take a break, both of us red faced and sweating from the strain. My partner had the idea that the end strap of the tarp was stuck on the end of the cot and, he was right. We released the strap and thankfully slid the man the rest of the way onto the cot. We secured him with the cot straps, covered him completely with the sheet and then placed our cot cover over everything. We did it! We made it this far with few mishaps. We wiped up the mess down the hallway and covered the mattress with the bedding as best we could to protect the mother from having to see the huge soiled stain her son had left there.

We walked outside where the mother and the friend were waiting for us. I walked back into the apartment with the mother and we talked about what would happen next and how the mess would get cleaned up. I gave her instructions on who to call and who could help her. She gave me a hug and then my partner and I prepared for the decent down the stairs to our van. I asked the friend if he would be willing to help us with this part and thankfully, he agreed. One set of wheels at a time we stepped the gurney down the treacherous concrete stairs and ultimately into the van waiting in the parking lot. It wasn’t easy and it wasn’t fast but it was as dignified as we could make it. We said goodbye to the mother and her friend and pulled away, thankful that we did our job as dignified as possible in such a sad situation.

My partner was my husband, and this was our first transport together after opening our business Tolman Trade Services (TTS).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is midnight. Most people are tucked in bed sleeping soundly. Your funeral director is up working dressed in a smock and gloves, preparing the dead. Their phone is always nearby just in case of the inevitable phone call notifying them of another death. Your funeral director is always ready, always prepared, day or night.

During the last few months I have posted very little. I started a business and have been working on some other ventures. Today I wanted to share with you other funeral directors who have been using social media to convey their messages. I have compiled a list of links and descriptions and created another tab on my website called “Others in the industry”. It is important to celebrate the brave souls who are willing to speak out and teach others about the mystery surrounding the inevitable, our death. I have a great respect for those who talk about death in a respectful way. There are no gimmicky, romanticizing, dark lords here, just real people who handle real death and understand your fear of it. https://chelseatolman.com/those-in-our-industry/

To arrange an interview, or request a signed copy of my book “Speaking of the Dead”, please contact me directly at 801-702-9202, email to: mbalmergirl@gmail.com, and follow me on social media at twitter.com/chelsea_tolman, instagram.com/thembalmergirl, or facebook.com/mbalmergirl

This is a story that I recall every Memorial Day. It is heartbreaking but forces us to remember the veterans who struggled with injuries both physical and emotional and ended up in unfortunate circumstances. Some of our veterans have died alone and dejected. Today, let’s remember all of them.

I went on a first call. It was a small home, it was fairly shabby, the stain peeling off the wood on the front porch and siding, the yard was trying to be grass but just couldn’t get its way around the empty pots, lawn furniture and grimy toys left about. I walked in and was greeted by the sister of the deceased and a niece and nephew. I sat with the family around the kitchen table to go over some details. The lighting was poor and the 1960’s countertops were dull and scratched and covered in used dishes. This was not an unfamiliar scene, it isn’t even a negative, it was just the setting I was in. I asked if they had thought about services and what they would want to do as a tribute for the man who had died. Every person in the room was in tears and solemn and quiet. The sister told me that they wanted the best for her brother. A big funeral with a casket and viewing and burial. She told me he was a war hero, he served his country and had been wounded, he had lost both legs and had been bed ridden for several years. He should be honored and cared for as a king. So, I pulled out a packet that detailed our service packages and pointed out the one that best served what they were describing to me. A viewing, a service and a burial. We talked about the local cemeteries and which one they would like to use. Almost immediately I was met with hesitation at the cost. After some discussion, I explained the other options we had available, services can be beautiful in many different ways and budgets. It is never easy to talk about money, especially when a death has occurred and the family is raw and in shock and broken. We decided they should think on the matter and that we would meet at the funeral home the next day after some sleep and could then decide on the details. I asked to see where his body was so I could bring my partner in and transfer him to our cot to take him to the mortuary. We walked down a narrow hallway to the end of the house. Halfway down the hallway the smell hit me, it was awful. As I walked into the room which was the size of a closet and saw this poor man laid out on his bed with no sheets and a myriad of stains that I could not have guessed what they were. He was skin and bones. He had no legs and I could already see and smell that he had bed sores (when a person lies in bed so long in one position the tissues cannot get blood flow and so it starts to decay). He was wearing a t-shirt and a diaper, neither had been changed in a very long time. His hair was long and scraggly and his facial hair had not been trimmed in months. (As disturbing as this may be, this scene wasn’t uncommon. Most people in that area could not afford could care and so it was up to the families to handle a job that is much more difficult than you would imagine.)  I explained to the family how we would be taking him from the room to the hearse waiting outside and took my leave to get the cot and my partner. Once we got this man in the hearse and was set to drive off, I was approached by the sister pleading to take good care of him, he was a hero and deserved to be honored. I assured her that I would and left her sobbing in the front yard. My heart broke for so many reasons, his deplorable conditions, her absolute grief.

The next day, the family came in to discuss funeral details. We sat for about an hour going over different options to give him a fitting tribute within their budget. I could not take payments and there wasn’t any insurance, even the government couldn’t pitch in enough money to supplement what little they had for the funeral he deserved. The most economical choice of cremation was even more than what they had to spend. I gave them some resources and told them that we would somehow figure this out. They thanked me and said they would call later that afternoon. They never called that afternoon or the next day. The day after that I made a call to them and discovered that the phone number I had was disconnected. So, I did some searching in the phone book for the names of the family members I knew and came up with nothing. I then decided to wait another day to see if they would show up or call. After about a week of failed attempts to contact them, I drove to the house only to find it empty and silent. So, my next step was to call the medical examiner. In these cases, the medical examiner in the jurisdiction would take possession of the body and make further attempts to find some family who will claim them. The weeks soon turned to months. I periodically checked with the medical examiner as to what happened to this man and as of the last time I checked he had been in their morgue for four years.

I cannot adequately describe the disappointment I felt in this family. As a funeral director, I am here to generate some type of closure, present some way of creating a tribute to the deceased. This man’s abandonment goes completely against my code. If only this family would have come back, we could have figured it out. I get that funerals are expensive and most people cannot afford what it costs but we have to come to some decision, some way of taking care of the body and give the family a ceremony. I have imagined what the sister of this man might be going through, never get closure at abandoning her brother. Maybe I am wrong and she found a way to move forward but her pleas ring in my ears even today, please take care of him, he was a hero.

“Behind these doors is the most sacred room in the building. It is where loved ones come to be prepared for the most difficult event in a family’s life. Those that work behind these doors pledge to each family a never-ending commitment of respect and service to those that place their trust in us.”

-Author unknown. 

      In mortuary college, every student is pledged to care for the deceased with respect and treat the families with integrity. I remember standing with my graduating class, adorned in my robes and tasseled hat, repeating each word of the oath written below. After all my classmates and I had gone through in class, the testing, the long days and nights, the testing, so many subjects we needed to learn to get to this day and did I mention the testing! We said each word together with family and friends in the crowd, watching and listening to what we promised to do. I couldn’t have been prouder of our profession, that we were required to take such an oath to do our job. There is a reason that families trust us, we have an incredibly important role in handling people and the deceased. Real things. Important things. One little white lie will always turn into a chain of other lies which destroys trust and reputation. One unwashed instrument carrying a disease can be carelessly tracked home.

We are the ones who will do the jobs not many others can or will do. We are the ones who care about you before we have ever met you.  We are the last responders, and more recently I have heard us described as ninjas. We are your funeral directors.

Funeral Service Oath

 “I do solemnly swear by that which I hold most sacred;

That I shall be loyal to the Funeral Service Profession and just and generous to its members; That I shall not let the constant relationship and familiarity with death give me cause to yield to carelessness or to violate my obligation to society or to the dignity of my profession. 

That I shall obey the Civil Laws. That I shall not divulge professional confidences; And that I shall be faithful to those who have placed their trust in me.

 While I continue to keep this oath unviolated, may it be granted to me to enjoy honor in my life and in my profession; and may I be respected by all people for all time.”