these doors is the most sacred room in the building. It is where loved ones
come to be prepared for the most difficult event in a family’s life. Those that
work behind these doors pledge to each family a never-ending commitment of
respect and service to those that place their trust in us.”
In mortuary college, every student is pledged to care for the
deceased with respect and treat the families with integrity. I remember
standing with my graduating class, adorned in my robes and tasseled hat,
repeating each word of the oath written below. After all my classmates and I
had gone through in class, the testing, the long days and nights, the testing, so
many subjects we needed to learn to get to this day and did I mention the
testing! We said each word together with family and friends in the crowd,
watching and listening to what we promised to do. I couldn’t have been prouder
of our profession, that we were required to take such an oath to do our job.
There is a reason that families trust us, we have an incredibly important role
in handling people and the deceased. Real things. Important things. One little
white lie will always turn into a chain of other lies which destroys trust and
reputation. One unwashed instrument carrying a disease can be carelessly
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.
“I do solemnly swear by that which I hold most sacred;
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.
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.
I continue to keep this oath unviolated, may it be granted to me to enjoy
honor in my life and in my profession; and may I be respected by all
people for all time.”
You’ve lost someone to death. A person that you knew, loved
and talked to is no longer there. The grief is crippling, food turns to ash in
your mouth, you are unable to move, function, smile. Will you ever laugh again?
I have been there for hundreds of families and talked them
through the emotions they are feeling just trying to find a way to convey to
them that it is normal to be angry, sad, numb, even happy. I myself have
experienced that total grief that comes with a devastating loss.
Grief is real for everybody, it is normal, it is tangible. You
can feel it, taste it and hate it. So how do you embrace it? A question I get quite
frequently from families is, “When will this pain end?” The only true answer to
that question is that it won’t. But, you will learn to survive with it. The
more you embrace the ache and hurt the more you learn to live despite it.
It is currently Springtime and I awoke this morning realizing that this time of year is the perfect analogy to living with grief. Where I live, during the winter months, we get lots of snow. This creates many challenges. It can be a challenge to get up in the morning and have to scrape the ice off your car in the freezing cold. It can be a challenge to then drive on slush laden roads where the simple turn of a wheel or fast brake, whether by you or someone else, can send your car into a seemingly uncontrollable skid. Grief is like that. There are times when just getting out of bed is a task too difficult to achieve and driving on slushy roads is similar to the unpredictability of interacting with the world, you almost never know what might trigger an attack of horrible grief rendering you almost incapable of functioning. In those moments, remember that spring is coming. Even when you feel so heavy that simply putting one foot in front of the other does not seem possible, you will again feel the sunshine after a long winter. It’s like when the snow has melted and flowers with their bursts of color are just starting to peek through the dead grass and weeds. You will start to have days where you feel whole and complete and find joy in being. Of course, reality will come back just like the snow and the rain during springtime but again the sun will shine and more and more color will start to burst forth and your heart will lighten.
Just like in nature there is a natural ebb and flow to grief.
The clouds will part briefly allowing for a few deep breaths and then the gloom
settles in again. When this happens remember that the sun will find its way
through the clouds and give you moments of respite. The long winters and springtime
seasons will always present themselves, you cannot escape it. However, even in
the darkest hours, in the worst moments of trying to get through a day, an hour
or a minute, your best defense of cloudy, snowy days is try to remember the Spring.
The pillows have been fluffed, fresh water is ready in a drinking
glass nearby. There are rows of bottles neatly arranged on the bedside table
and someone you love is tucked under the sheets, sleeping soundly, finally. How
long will they be asleep this time? An hour? Eight? There is no telling when the
illness is terminal, and you are the caretaker. Has it been days? weeks? Years?
Doctors visits, therapy, medications, little sleep and sponge baths. It is an
honor to care for the people we love and help them when they cannot help
themselves, it is also a full-time job and exhausting. So, what happens when
this part of the job is over? Your person has died, and the hospital takes away
the bed that you have placed fresh sheets on a thousand times, cleaned up
messes with soap and bleach and lovingly snuggled with someone you love who was
sick and dying. The bottles of pills are no longer needed, some full, some half
empty. That drinking glass with the flower print sits on the night stand
silently reminding you that this person loved purple irises. So many things you
are now going to go through, the next set of tasks are listed somewhere in your
brain. Your journey through grief starts here.
Many experts have published the stages of grief that we are
supposed to go through. Like there is a pre-prescribed way to come to terms with
why your mother is no longer there for your planned Sunday brunch date, or why your
brother was found hanging in the closet when he seemed so happy, or why your
unborn child never made it through the birth canal alive. There is no formula
for getting through these events. There is no end to how people leave the world
as we know it. And there are thousands of ways that we as humans handle these
losses. It is time to put away our assumptions of how people grieve and let go of
the way a funeral is done just because that is how it has been done. People don’t
live and die in the same manner, lets celebrate who they were on our own terms,
with our own kind of celebration.
Watch out 2019, Chelsea Tolman is on the loose! I am gearing up for some exciting new content and a new look. That being said mbalmergirl will be dark for a few weeks in preparation of these new things to come. In the meantime all previous blog posts will still be available for your reading pleasure. You can also find me on instagram @thembalmergirl, facebook @mbalmergirl and twitter @chelsea_tolman, browse my website for previous interviews on podcasts, blogs, radio and TV and contact me with any questions or suggestions of things you would like to see, hear or read about at firstname.lastname@example.org or use the contact page on my website.
Thanks to everyone for following and reading my blog and to those who have/are/will read and review “Speaking of the dead”
Gillian Rodriguez is a licensed funeral director and embalmer in the state of
Texas. She has been fully licensed since 2013 and has been in the funeral
industry since 2011. She is now the aftercare director for Parting Pro, a
rapidly growing software company for funeral professionals.
How did you get into the
Funny story. I set off after high school and
earned my bachelor’s degree in Psychology in 2007- about the same time the
recession was really gearing up. Realizing one million (plus or minus) students
were graduating with my same degree every year, I decided I need to
differentiate myself. I’d previously completed internships in forensics, where
I loved the science but missed the connection with people. I’d also completed
an internship in grief counseling, where I loved working with people but missed
the hard sciences. I took time off to soul-search and really determine what I
wanted to do, and then it hit me. Funeral Directing. The challenge of it
appealed to me in a way I still can’t explain- I wanted to step into the lives
of people who needed it the most, and be their helper. Fearing my parents’
total disapproval (they were envisioning law school or another post-grad
program, I think), I sheepishly mentioned my interest. My mom grinned ear
to ear, and said it made perfect since, given my heritage. How could I have
escaped this connection? Of course, she was right. I would be the fourth-generation
funeral director/embalmer in my family, and the first woman in the succession.
So, was it family? Was it passion? Without hesitation, both.
This industry is hard. Why
do you do your job every day?
I have an inexplicable desire to approach the
hardest, worst situations in the world and act. The challenge of not only
directing, but really helping the families who needed it most, traversing this
universe of shock, grief, terror, anger, sadness, relief, happiness and joy in
their memories…and everything in-between? Yes, please. The families that are
the “hard” families, with the most complicated situations and loss?
Those are my people. The ability to reach the un-reachable is something that
drives me every day, even now.
What is your favorite part
of the job?
My job has taken me into a new challenge of
our profession- communicating with colleagues across the country about death
care technology. As the Aftercare Director for Parting Pro-the most innovative
software in the funeral profession- my job is tasked with bridging the gap
between the nostalgia and familiarity of yester-year (typewriters? carbon paper
contracts?) and the technology of the future (digital ID verification, online
arrangement experiences and digital case management). It’s no longer
sufficient to have a website that tells families to call your business. Your
website must now offer an interactive, online experience. Families can buy a
diamond ring, a car, a house and more online- why is our profession lagging in
meeting families where they need us, in their new-found online communities? You
can still be the neighborhood funeral home, while recognizing that a virtual
“neighborhood” exists, too. So my favorite part? Intellectualizing
how to take our profession into the future, with compassion, values, and
service at the forefront.
How do you balance work and
home life? What do you do for self-care?
Wait, there’s a balance? Just kidding! First,
I want to acknowledge that I didn’t pop out of mortuary school knowing about
this balance, the need for it, or how to achieve it. That was a rather painful
learning experience that took years to master. I realized I was working myself
to death for a lifestyle I could never participate in, because I was working
myself to death. Which brings me to my self-care: Saying “no.”
Sounds simple, but it’s not. Learning how to say no was, and still is how I practice
self-care. Does this mean I don’t work hard? No. It means I’m selective in the
work that I do, and relish the peace found in the quiet moments that are mine
to own. I think, as women in this profession, we often believe that we have to
work harder, smarter, better, stronger, and “more” in order to prove
our place. But it wasn’t until I realized that mentality was total bullshit and
self-destructive, that I was able to pour myself into my total life
Outside of work, what are
I’m consumed by learning. My hobbies/interests
at the moment are graduate school, where I’m earning a Master’s degree in
clinical mental health counseling. Immersing myself in intellectual stimulation
may sound like torture to some, but for me, it’s my time. It’s my mental space
to re-claim and grow my own understanding of people, their lived-in
experiences, their meanings. My focus is on applications of emotional contagion
and indirect trauma, as well as combining artificial intelligence with bereavement
counseling services online to one day, broaden accessibility to these resources
If you choose, tell us
about your family, kids, spouses, pets etc.
My family, without a doubt, is the only reason
I can do this. Any of this. When I was considering graduate school, my husband
simply looked at me and said, “I want you to have your dream.” My
son, who’s three, well…while I think the hours away from each other are hard
on us both, the hours spent together are that much more savored and treasured.
He’s my absolute sunshine (and knows it). My dogs are my other children, and
there have been many, many times I’ve cried into their soft fur at night in
total grief for the family I served. My
village deserves every ounce of credit for my professional, personal and
Tell a story about a family
you have served.
While working at an internship, I remember
serving a family of a fallen serviceman who was killed overseas. I’d never been
exposed to this level of service, had no idea what “high profile”
meant or anything to do with the ceremony and honor of that type of service. I
was completely naive, not prepared, and shadowed the entire process in my own
shock and awe. The day of the arrangements, my brother told my family he would
be deployed, and all I could envision was this family at the funeral home.
About the time I broke down, and decided that I couldn’t be a funeral
professional, I realized that if something like that were to happen to my
brother, I would want someone to take care of me, in the way I desired to care
for that family. It was more than a desire. It was a compelling need. A
determination to perfect it. My brother was deployed to South Korea and we were
blessed with his safe return. Naturally, the military perfected 99% of the
service, but the small time I had with his widow inspired me to contact The
American Widow Project, and promote their materials throughout as many funeral
homes as time would allow.
What message would you like
to give to the public about our profession?
I am human. I am not Lurch Adams. I am not a
morbidly-consumed evil-wisher, waiting to prey upon a family when tragedy
strikes and my pockets are empty. Nay, I’m a rather normal person. If you see
me in the grocery store, I’ll probably have my son, shopping for the same food
you eat. If you call me at 3 a.m., I’ll probably sound foggy for the first
three seconds because…I actually sleep. When you feel pain, I feel pain. I’ve
just learned little tricks to sustain myself long enough to get to my car and
cry the entire way home. I know how to care for you when your over-sized
sunglasses aren’t quite big enough to conceal your dissolution into grief.
Simply, I’m a person too, and I want to help.
This is the last in the Who We Are Speaking of Series for December 2018. Please submit details and contact information for your favorite funeral director to be placed in the spotlight for future series to email@example.com. Thanks!
Learn more about what your funeral professional does everyday by reading “Speaking of the dead” order your copy today!
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.
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.
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 (firstname.lastname@example.org) 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.
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 (email@example.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.
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!
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.
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.