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

Dennis K. Wesley

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

From Dennis:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bonnie Dalberg Ansley

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

Bonnie Dalberg Ansley

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

How did you get into the industry?

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

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

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

What is your favorite part of the job?

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

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

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

Outside of work what are your hobbies/interests?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have you ever been so tied up in an emotion you can’t explain that you are close to tears, want to run as fast as you can all while feeling like a nap is a good idea? Well that is me today! The time has come for me to introduce my finished book “Speaking of the dead”. Can you believe it?!

One year ago I started this journey. So many of you have been reading my blog and giving me incredible feedback which I have enjoyed reading. You have waited for it, asked for it and now… your patience has paid off! “Speaking of the dead” Is now available on kindle! It will be available on Barnes and Noble and Nook Ereader in the next 72 hours and the print version should be ready for purchasing in the next couple of days!  This is real folks, this is happening!

Click to buy now

Thank you to all of my supporters and followers, I am so grateful for your encouragement and excitement. I could not have done it with you!

I am sitting at a conference table of dark glossy wood, I am straight-backed, I have my hands clasped in front of me and my legs are crossed. I am patiently waiting, watching, listening. Around the table in other chairs and sitting on couches are family members who have just experienced the death of someone they love. At this moment, I am the audience.

I watch as expressions of confusion, understanding and consideration swim around the faces of the family as we broach the subjects relating to the funeral, the burial, picking out caskets, vaults and all of the many things that they must decide on. Sometimes the death is expected, and I empathize as I observe those with down-turned, dark sunken eyes and hunched shoulders showing complete exhaustion because for weeks, sometimes months they sat next to the dying waiting for this one day, and it has taken its toll on their reserve.

Sometimes the death was unexpected and the shock of it all leaves the family silent and unable to make decisions. Then there are times when the heaviness of everything gets the best and someone ends up in hysterics of crying or anger.

There are young mothers who planned for their baby’s birth and are now picking out caskets instead of cradles. Teen brothers and sisters are stuck in shock realizing they have to face their friends at school and explain that a sibling took their own life. And husbands and wives who lost their sweetheart after fifty years together are now faced with learning how to live a life alone.

And I am watching. I am familiar with the facial expressions and the body language and it all tells me a story. It tells me what these people are feeling and who the dead person was to them.

It’s not always dark though. There are families that have accepted the place they are in now and prepared for this meeting, giving me accounts of a life lived that was fun and full. I get to hear about the antics pulled by people I never knew, yet closely resemble someone in my own life. Many times I have laughed with a family about the father who was a trickster or grandfather who told them dirty jokes. I can relate to the Grandmothers who always had candy available and would not let you leave her house without a full belly. A mother who made the rules and stuck by them and only now it is understood that it was all in your best interest and the intent was full of love. Brothers who gave us nicknames and sang silly songs. A sister who after years of fighting over bedroom boundaries, now are willing to share everything together. Life, and death has its place and time. It is in these moments that I revel in my own family dynamics and appreciate the smallest moments.

I get an intimate look at a person that I will never meet. I get to make friends with people that I otherwise would have never known. Family dynamics that I compare to my own family come to life in this room around a conference table of dark glossy wood. It is an honor and it is remembered. So many stories, personal and real and I get to be a part of it. Here, I am the audience.

One day a gentleman walked through the door of the mortuary. He was expertly dressed in a high-end suit and tie. His shoes were definitely real leather and polished to a high sheen. He sported short, dark hair which was spiked on top, undoubtedly styled by a barber in a fancy shop where your cut comes with a clean shave and a warm towel. These were things that we were not used to in our small country town. He was impressive as he walked into our office with his resume in hand. He enchanted us all with his beautiful toothfull smile and natural charisma, his charm could rival any salesman. I think we hired him on the spot, if only for the sheer ambition he exuded and dared us to test.

Sometimes people just click the moment they meet. If you have ever felt this, then you know. It is a strange, immediate feeling of familiarity like you had known each other well before that moment. That is what happened to me the day he walked through the door.  The mortuary was not necessarily looking for another employee. We did okay, sometimes the days and nights got hectic and strenuous but overall, we had enough downtime to get small hours of much-needed respite. We even had the occasion to tend to a little vegetable garden at the back of our red brick building. But he walked in the door and we found ourselves with a new set of helping hands.

He and I hit it off like two teenage girls. We loved the same 80s music and old black and white movies. On his first day of working with me, as we were running errands, we stopped at a convenience store for a coke. The bins at the check-out counter held colorful braided hemp bracelets. The ones that promised to last a lifetime. We never said a word, we both saw them, we gave a knowing look to each other and I said the cashier we’ll take two of those.  We ran to the car and placed them on our ankles swearing to each other that we would never take them off as long as we were friends.

As I taught him the ropes of the funeral trade, he loved and absorbed all of it. He took to funeral service like a moth to a flame. At least the service part, the embalming room presented challenges for my new-found friend. The reality that our beings could produce so many unpleasant noises, fluids, and smells made for a test in his seemingly unbreakable resolve. Many times I excitedly called him to the back room yelling “You have got to see this!”, and then chuckle as he ran for the exit when he couldn’t handle what I wanted to show him. He soon learned to approach my call with caution, carefully poking his head through the door, cracking one eye open just enough to look like Jack Nicholson in his  movie “The Shining,” only he was the one who was afraid and I saying, “Here’s Johnny”! Through squinted eyes he would peer through the doorway at me ready to look away quickly in case I was trying to show him something that I was fascinated about, meaning he would not be.

His skill in meeting and talking to people completely made up for his lack of ability to embrace the back rooms. He had an attention for detail and a flare for decorating with pictures and flowers that astounded the men and women he served. Every visitation room was a show, the family memorabilia he placed so skillfully you would have thought that you were walking through a movie set, or a model home. The flower arrangements that came in for the deceased were always positioned according to height and color for the perfect balance to accent the casket and the person lying inside of it. He made friends with everyone he met and many times I would talk about a family that we had previously served and he would give me the update on how they were doing, offer their phone number and say we should stop by their house for a visit. I was quickly learning that this man was a social butterfly of epic proportions. He knew people from all over the world. He was never without his phone which was constantly buzzing or ringing with messages or calls from Dave or Brian or Celeste, any number of names I could list here certain he knew someone who possessed it. His cell phone was his life and was either on his hip in a leather pouch or in his hand.

Our friendship moved outside of work and I eventually met his boyfriend and neighbors. We had barbeques and parties and spent many late nights sitting around a fire roasting some type of meat and toasting to each other’s accomplishments. These evenings usually ending in deep conversation or dancing on the porch. Eventually I ended up moving into the house directly across from the boys, making an even more intimate bond for everyone involved. Our friendship deepened and over the years we had accumulated so many memories, lived through tragic circumstances and celebrated holidays, birthdays and ordinary days. He was the man on the riding lawnmower waving to passersby in expensive cargo shorts, designer shirts and a wide brimmed bonnet that would make any decent southern woman jealous. He won awards with his Tupperware parties and could refinish a wooden counter-top like a professional. We were besties in the sense that besties are with the added bonus that to spend a day together was as easy as walking across the street. And like all good things, these things had to end.

He struggled with balancing a party life mixed with a work life. He struggled with his health. He struggled with his relationship. He struggled with being. Circumstances changed, and he found a new happiness in another state. After carefully weighing the options of staying and going, he chose to go. Packing his moving truck was painful, saying goodbye with his promise of frequent visits was painful. Our worn and tattered ankle bracelets that had weathered the best and the worst were a testament to a human attachment that desperately held its threads together. This adventure was one that wouldn’t last. His health declined, and his partner living across the street from me couldn’t keep taking him back.

If you have ever known a person who dances on the edges of a fast and furious life that their body just can’t keep up with, you will understand the hellish cycle of ache and agony that those who loved my friend went through, including me. The phone calls got further and further apart, the excuses got more and more grandiose and the patience of not being told the truth ran thin. More times than I care to admit, I cried for him. More times than I thought was possible I believed the stories that my friend was doing well. He was depressed and spinning out of control, doing things that were harmful to him and those around him. More times than I can count I planned a trip to scoop him up out of his “Happy,” “Fun,” “Worth it all,” “Pitiful,” “Sick” life and bring him to my home to force him back to health, to reality. I never acted on that, but I did eventually learn that his “sickness” could not be cured. My friend proclaimed that he had cancer and that his only option at this point was to go home to live with his mother, three states away. He said he was going there to die.

I am left with the guilt that the years of his stories and embellishments and need for telling a grand tale left me lacking much sympathy. I had heard the woes of a desperate man who craved notice for his depravity and disguised it as illness so many times that I had already turned my head when the stories turned real and deadly.

I will not retell all of the details of his painful decline. I will only recount that he often called me with joyful accounts of some amazing opportunity that days later ended in some scheme that the company or the employees that worked there had executed to cause his separation with the establishment. My friend was talented on so many levels and to watch, in action, the deterioration of his gifts as he blamed the masses for his failure, was heartbreaking. I cannot fault him, he grappled with so much. He was a young and handsome man who loved other men in a world that hated men who loved other men.

I remember the shame I felt whenever my friend would call and tell me of his worsening ailments because I could not always believe the tale. I hated that in the background of my thoughts was an eye-roll and “Whatever” types of feeling. It was always dramatic, he was always weakening,  yet he always had more days to detail the fallout he was overcoming. I stopped answering his calls every time his name popped up on my phone and only chose to pick up the phone when I knew I had the strength to be present and encouraging.

Then, his partner decided to go pay him a visit at his mother’s house. He wanted to see in person, like the rest of us, how dire my bestie’s situation had become and he promised he would come back with a report on just how worried we should be. When he returned he was in a state of grimness that could only mean that there had to be some truth behind my friend’s account of his imminent death. I was shown pictures of the deterioration of a once proud and lively man. He bore no hair on his head, his clothes hung off his bones like a wet sack. I was caught between waiting for the next tale and hating myself for not rushing to his sickbed.

One sunny afternoon, I sat on my back porch enjoying the warmth of the sun when his name popped up on my phone, I didn’t answer. Moments later I listened to the message that he left for me. He sounded so happy and spoke clearly and stated that he had some great news! He ended with an “I love you” and “I cherish our friendship”. After listening to his message, I called him back right away hoping to talk to the jovial friend that I missed so dearly. Indeed, he was his old self, cheery and fun-loving. He amused me with his quick-witted jokes and vibrant conversation. He had just left the hospital for a refill of his meds and had been given a new colostomy bag. We had talked about his funeral many times before, but he went over the details with me once again. He wanted the black onyx casket, he was to be dressed in his finest suit and designer glasses, in his hand he would clutch his precious cell phone and I was to embalm his body.

Then he told me his exciting news. He had just been hired to work for a local flower shop. He would be arranging bouquets of flowers for birthdays, weddings, and funerals, which was among his many talents. I was given a detailed account of his interview and how fabulous the owner of the shop was and that his first day was tomorrow, the next day. He was so dedicated to this opportunity and certain that he could keep this position and finally thrive in this small country town. When the conversation was over I hung up the phone thinking he was finally on the upswing again and flourishing enough and that I didn’t need to worry for him for the moment, and I was so wrong.

It was the very next day that I received a call from his partner that my bestie had been found dead. He had died in his sleep, discovered resting peacefully in his bed, no longer breathing. The news was devasting and unexpected. I had just talked to him! He was happy and sounded so healthy. So many times I had expected the news of his death, only because he always tiptoed on the edge of life with partying and depression,  so when it actually happened, the shock of it took the air from my lungs. The zipping memories of laughs and smiles and fear and anger that had I shared with him and our friends flashed over and over in my head. You always think that the best years of a friendship, or any relationship for that matter will never end. The late-night talks on the back porch, watching the fashion shows as he paraded in front of us all to show off new shirts and jackets and shoes. The bonfires with all of us giggling together and the flames dancing as a happy background to our moments. No more phone calls of fabulous jobs that he would be fabulous at, and keep this time. No more stories of whatever ailments were harming him at the moment. No more heartbreaking calls begging for visitors or confessing that he had made a terrible mistake and he just wanted to come back home.

I spoke with his mother about embalming him. She relayed to me that the funeral home had already performed the procedure after they picked him up from the medical examiner’s office and it was too late for me to fly out and help.

I was managing a funeral home in another state when he died. The job was one that was almost impossible to take any time off from. So I made a plan to drive the ten hours there, attend the funeral, get a couple of hours of sleep and then drive the ten hours again to return back to work.

I woke up hours before sunrise on the day of his funeral and drove to this small town, where my friend would be buried. It was like I was in a dream, as I drove the miles and the sun started to rise I wondered if I had imagined it all. I was delirious with emotion and grappling the reality of what I was doing. I was wicked tired but so full of adrenaline that my body felt out of place with itself.

As I approached the address for the funeral home I was overwhelmed with what was waiting for me in that building. I was not ready. I could not stop the car. I drove right past and burst into tears while looking at  this building as I drove past where my friend lay waiting for my arrival, decked out in his finest no doubt, and dead. My friend was dead. I could see his lifeless body in my head, I could feel his cold skin. I couldn’t imagine walking in that building with people all around me and having the energy to stifle my grief. My anger. My guilt. I wanted those people to leave so that I could be with him alone and explain why I never came to see him in the darkest moments of his life that were real and not fabricated. These people were in the way and rude for being so present when I needed them to just go away. Then, I was a funeral director, I had seen this before. So many funerals I had directed where I heard from the guests in attendance about the one person who never came to see the deceased while they were living, yet that very same person was the one who was making the most fuss and carrying on about their own grief. I felt that I had turned into that person. I drove to a convenience store on a corner up the road and one block over from the funeral home, I did not want to be on the same road as my dead friend at that moment. I didn’t want to be in the same town.

I needed gas, I needed some water, I needed sleep and I needed my friend to be alive so that I could go visit him just like he had begged me to for so many months. Eventually I couldn’t stall any longer. I pulled myself into my car. First one leg, sit on the seat, then the other leg, adjust the mirror. The seat belt needed latching, so I did that. I was thirsty, so I gulped from my water bottle. Next was to close the car door but first I needed to make sure I was really ready. I should use the restroom again. Splash more water on my face. I was so tired. Every movement was a chore, my limbs felt caked in wet mud, heavy and sluggish as I ambled back to the restroom, ignoring what I was certain were sidelong glances at my state of suffering. I made a final check of the things that I felt were necessary to pull myself together.

Finally, I had myself in my car, buckled, door closed and turned the car key to rumble the engine to life. I drove to the funeral home. I parked my car where the lot attendants told me to, a job I had performed for so many other grieving people. Now, I was the one grieving and their instructions were confusing and impatient. A teaching moment for the future. In that moment I went from a total mess, grieving my friend, to funeral home manager. I felt like I should instruct these young kids on how to perform their job of directing traffic well enough to pack a hundred cars in a fashion that would allow for a smooth transition to the cemetery when the funeral was over. I cased the parking lot, the exit from the chapel, the direction of where the procession needed to go. I needed to let it go. Funeral directors are terrible funeral guests, even if we are professional enough to keep our thoughts to ourselves, we still observe the way a funeral is run by others. I felt I should be in charge but I was not and so I kept my thoughts to myself, exited my vehicle and walked the walk to front door.

The funeral home was buzzing with people. They were moving about unorganized and loud. I didn’t recognize anyone there. I kept walking until I saw  his name, his name, on a placard, in a funeral home, hovering just above an open book for the guests to sign. I made my way to there. The light that glared down on the book was hot as I tried to scribble my name and leave a sweet message for his mother. I then walked into the room jammed with people smiling and talking, I wish that they would all just shut up and leave! And then I saw across the room bits of the silver and black casket, through the throng of bodies I also caught a glimpse of dark spiky hair peeking over the lip of the box. I excused myself through the jumble of people seemingly intent on preventing me from seeing my dead friend and just before I approached my destination, I was stopped by a hand on my arm. I turned to see who could be so rude in preventing me from finishing my quest. It was his mother. She grabbed me in a full-bodied hug sobbing, “You came, you came!” I could only squeeze her tighter as I held my own emotions in my throat. She let go of me and then wrapped one arm around my waist as we walked to the casket containing the body of her sweet, baby boy.

Clumps of ash choked my throat as I tried to breathe. To swallow. To not break into shards of grief. My vision was blurred as it was confirmed that my friend was surely dead. So many times, I have stood at a casket after fussing and tucking and straightening, looking at the person lying inside with my friend standing next to me. He would tell me how good a job I did preparing this person, “You have a gift,” “You are an artist,” “The family is going to be so pleased,” “One day you will prepare my body and you better make me look just as good!” Now I stand at his casket that I didn’t help pick out, looking at his body that I didn’t embalm and assessing the folds in his suit that I did not dress him in. And he looked good. At that moment it did not matter that I did not do these things for him, at that moment I was not a funeral director, I was grief-stricken and mourning and my dear friend was surely dead.

I left his mother and scanned the room to see if I could find my friends partner. I found him across the room talking to a gentleman and so I made my approach. Once he saw me he grabbed me in a huge bear hug and couldn’t believe that I had driven the ten hours in only ten hours. And then the introductions started. It was a furious affair of being dragged from person to person, all of these people I did not know, yet when introduced with my name almost every time these people responded “Chelsea! You are Chelsea, his best friend? I have heard so much about you,” “He loved you so much,” “He always talked about you.” This was flattering. This was uncomfortable. I was this person who everyone knew as his best friend. He talked about me, shared our stories, made me up to be like this amazing angel that he looked up to and I had left him to die all alone.

After the funeral, we all drove in procession to the cemetery, a trek I had made so many times to so many cemeteries, never before driving in a car trailing behind the hearse. The cars snaked through stop lights and around the turns and bends of the small-town blocks to end at the snow-laden cemetery with only one dark patch of earth dotting our destination, my friend’s grave. I didn’t feel the cold although I am certain it was biting. I don’t remember much of the graveside service either other than I was placed up in front of the crowd, standing with the family, right where I was told I belonged.

I can still see him in his casket, I imagine him lying enclosed in his box, sealed in a concrete case, buried in the earth. He is dressed to the nines, pressed, clean shaven with perfectly spiked hair and clutching his beloved cell phone. On occasion, for months, I would send him a text letting him know of my sorrow. My guilt. I could imagine him lying there still and lifeless clutching his phone to his chest as it lit up his darkness with my messages, never read. Eventually the batteries would go dead, and my confessions and heartbreak would only be sent into the digital wasteland of regret, and grief.

I will forever remember the first embalming that I performed on my own. It was late in the evening maybe ten or eleven o’clock, well after sunset . The director and I had just picked up (“received” in mortuary lingo) a deceased man from his home  and were now back at the mortuary where we transferred him to the embalming table. The director said that he was going out to grab something to eat before he could get started on the preparations. He gave me  instructions to start the process and told me to complete as much as I could on my own. In preparation I tied my hair in a bun, suited up in my white embalming smock, shoe covers and blue latex gloves. Imagine a reverse Smurf in small human form. At this point I was comfortable “setting” features (closing the eyes and mouth for a pleasing, natural look) and “raising” vessels (finding the artery and vein needed for embalming)  on my own, so I knew I could complete this much while the director refilled his calories. The room was bathed in bright fluorescent lighting, I was surrounded by stark white walls and the white porcelain table  bearing the dead man was in the center of the room with the foot end butted up against a set of white cabinets and counter-top, a sink, drain and the embalming machine. I pulled out the chemicals that were needed and lined them up next to the machine to wait until it was time to mix them all together.

I enjoyed this time of getting to know my patient. He was long and thin, a real “tall glass of water.” He had brown hair mussed from being bed ridden and ill. He wore red sweat pants, a white t-shirt, and white socks which were all stained and wrinkled from long wear. I placed a clean towel over the private areas, then carefully removed his clothing keeping the towel in place for modesty. He had died of Lou Gehrig’s disease. I remember how his limbs were pulled unnaturally and his muscles and tendons were stiff, making it a chore to straighten them out. I also spoke to him. I told him that once this part was over, his family would be grateful of seeing him at peace when they came to say their goodbyes. It was the first in what would become a natural routine for me, talking to the dead people in my charge. Maybe it was an attempt to give them, or me, some kind of comfort, maybe it was because I felt they deserved the kindness, the company. I don’t know if the “spirit” stays with the body, but I know it felt like I should give them some sense of substance because they had lived and were loved, even if their physical heart was no longer beating.

I kept talking, I told the dead man how beautiful his wife was and that she was going to have a hard time now that he was gone but she understood he had to go (all of these things I had witnessed when we “received” him from his home). Once I had the man disrobed, modesty towel in place, I pulled out all of the instruments that were required for the procedure and laid them out neatly on the embalming table so that they were easily accessed when needed. I turned on the tap and directed the long hose from the sink to pour water down one side of the table. I washed the man’s face with soap and fussed over closing his eyes and mouth so that he would look peaceful, at rest. I shaved the bit of stubble from his neck and chin making sure to get as close as possible without causing razor burn. Then I made the required incision and prepared the vessels for the embalming. Once I was finished with this, the director  had not yet returned, and so I waited, but not for long.

It was getting late, and I was sure the director would be back at any moment to help and manage things, so I continued the process on my own. I mixed the chemicals, attached the hose of the embalming machine and flipped the switch to on.  As the machine churned fluid into the man’s body, the gentle whir of its motor  and the soft splashing of the water spilling from the hose were the only sounds in the room. I poured soap over his limbs and massaged his muscles, (this is to help facilitate blood flow and ensure that fluid is getting to all areas of the body.) I went slow and watched everything carefully. Walking around from one side of the table to the other assuring that I wasn’t missing anything. Before long I had completed the process and was in the final stages of washing the body. That is when the director finally walked into the room. I asked if everything was okay, since he had been gone so long. He chuckled and revealed he had been in the front office the whole time! He confessed of sneaking in to check on me throughout the evening and that he had never even left the building! He had meant for me to do this on my own all along. He walked up to the man on the table with a huge grin as he inspected and then praised my work. That was a proud moment for me, another test passed!

I was also beginning to learn that most funeral directors have a wicked sense of humor. The next morning, I walked into work, chest puffed out, head held high, remembering my big accomplishment from the night before. I was greeted by the funeral home manager as I walked in the door.  Usually a jovial guy and always ready with a quick joke at your expense, so I was shocked as he walked up to me with purpose and a stern demeanor and immediately asked, “Who embalmed Mr. so and so last night?” I froze, then slowly in a smaller than normal voice answered, “I did.” He paused and said, “Follow me.” He turned on his heel and deliberately stomped away towards the embalming room. As we walked down the long-carpeted hallway, the walls seemingly getting narrower the closer we got to the door of the embalming room. My head was reeling, what could have happened? I set the features, fluid was fine, body washed, cream on the face and hands, body covered with a sheet! As we entered the room the senior embalmer was already there standing over the man with his arms crossed. Oh man, this was serious, what did I miss?! This is what a deflated balloon must feel like. The fluorescent lights of the room felt hot, like a spotlight in an interrogation room. Then the sheet was pulled off of the table exposing the man that I had embalmed, by myself, the night before. Modesty towel still in place.

They both stood back with arms folded and asked me to look at this man lying on the table and explain to them what was wrong. I did this, citing everything I had done the night before step by step, I stated the fluid mixture, I massaged every limb, every appendage had good fluid, I closed the eyes, cleaned and trimmed the nails, and he looked good! So, I turned to them both and said “Nothing, there is nothing wrong with him.” A moment of tense silence and then,  laughter?! Like hyenas they laughed, and I was so confused! Once these men were able to catch their breath I heard the most beautiful words, “Nope, there is nothing wrong with him, you did a great job!”

During one of my first days working at a mortuary we received a husband and wife who were killed due to a car accident. The older couple had gone for a drive, maybe 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 semi which sheared off the top of their car. Consequently, neither of them survived.

This would be my first opportunity to see, in real life and on the job, the destruction that accidents can have on a body and on their surviving family members. I remember the director pulling me aside and explaining that I was welcome to see the couple, yet he warned me that I didn’t have to. There would always be others, and this could be just too much for a young funeral assistant. I hesitated for only a second before I assured him I was ready for this experience, it was like a rite of passage in preparing me for the career ahead. I couldn’t help but imagine what the couple would look like, my young mind, taught by TV shows and movies, had no idea what an accident this bad really did to a body.

I followed the funeral director as he walked toward the garage where the couple lay waiting. He opened the door to immediately reveal two cots sitting side-by-side, each holding an occupant enclosed in a thick black body bag. Surrounding the couple against the walls of the room were shelves that accompany any operating funeral homes garage, shelves lines 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, loose door knobs, running toilets. In the center of the garage stood a body lift (a device, looking like an engine hoist, designed to assist a funeral director in lifting people from a table and into their caskets). The room smelled slightly of gas from the cars being driven in and out during daily operations and the hearse and flower van were parked on one side, silently witnessing what happens to people when vehicles are not driven carefully.  That image 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 bag while I stood off to the side. It seems that my imagination was much more graphic than real life. As I slowly stepped closer to the cot, it looked like this man had been created out of wax and cosmetics, like a movie prop for a horror film, he just didn’t look real! There was no way to identify him through facial features and my heart sank as I realized that his children had just lost both of their parents, without warning and without getting to say goodbye, they would never see their parents again. He wore blue jeans and a blue and red plaid shirt, all of which were soiled and scattered with road debris, glass and car pieces. What stood out more than anything else were the personal effects, his wallet which 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, resembling use and daily life.

Years after this, I bought a house in North Carolina 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 completely clear out the house. On my first walkthrough, it looked just like someone had left unexpectedly and never came back. Tiny house shoes lay next to the door awaiting 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, unmade beds, a sewing machine held the latest project unfinished, closets full of clothes never to be worn again 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, it was dim due to lack of electricity, the only light was what came through the windows. 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 left with a house full of memories.

Tragedy is a necessary part of this job. When people ask me questions of how I handle these situations day in and day out, 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 house full of remembrances that they were not yet ready to dismantle and sell to a stranger. So, it shouldn’t be how I handled these things day in and day out, the question should be how could I not? The family left behind from this tragic and horrible experience had 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, 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, would for all eternity be side-by-side.burial-cemetery-cross-592667

Photo credit: Free stock photos

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.

gerbera-1250287_1920Photo provided by Pixabay

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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Photo provided by pixabay