It was a drizzly day, big fluffy clouds with varying shades of gray swirled overhead. The humidity hung in the air whispering of the storm that was threatening to overtake the city. It was mid-afternoon when I received a phone call to pick up a deceased man from the Medical Examiner’s (ME) office, so I jumped in the funeral home van and hit the road. Once I arrived at the ME’s office I backed the van into a small alleyway that ended with a railing and ramp that led to a large metal door. I rang a bell next to the metal door and a staff member escorted me with my cot inside to retrieve the deceased man. The staff member and I chatted and bantered back and forth, talking about what cases he had seen lately, I talked about the families I was currently serving. He then retrieved the man from a back room, and I proceeded to check the name on the tag attached to the man’s foot, verifying it was the right person. We transferred the man onto my cot and I left the building just like I had countless times before.

After getting my passenger safely into the back of the van, I climb into the driver’s seat and hit the road again. It only took a few minutes and I was on the freeway headed back to the mortuary. The clouds were ominous. Darker than before. Then, as I was driving it started to hail and the wind became angrier, so much so that I had to keep a tight grip on the steering wheel to prevent the van from careening into another lane. There wasn’t a lot of traffic on the freeway, but every car was slowing down due to the severe weather conditions. The hail stones became bigger and bounced off the windshield with so much force that I feared it would crack the glass. The wind had become so strong at this point that almost all of the traffic was moving at a crawl as the drivers struggled to keep control of their cars. This scenario is incredibly difficult to explain if you haven’t ever experienced it. I was surrounded by a black and brown haze as the wind picked up dust and debris from the streets and hurled it around like an angry child throwing an epic temper tantrum. The hail stones crashed and smashed with incredible energy.

At this point I was thinking that I had to get off the freeway and under some cover. As I neared the next overpass it became apparent that I was not getting off the freeway any time soon. The cars that were ahead of me had stopped under the overpass for protection and blocked any other cars from getting passed. I was stuck! Cars stopped in front of me and cars now stopped behind me, my only option was to put the van in park and climb in the back of the van away from the windows and wait it out. It was just me and the man I was charged with keeping safe hunkered down with nowhere else to go.

The baseball sized hailstones hit the van, threatening to break the windows and punch through the seemingly thin metal that protected me and my passenger. The sound was deafening, the booms echoed in the cramped metal space. The wind bullied the van, pushing it from side to side seeming to try and knock us over. I talked to the dead man lying on the cot next to me. I told him I would do whatever it took to get him back to the mortuary safe so that his family didn’t have to experience any more trauma than they already had. In my head I thought about what I would have to say to them if by chance we were thrown over and the body was injured. I was mentally preparing myself for the possible hours of reconstruction I would be faced with if this whole thing went badly. I would do what I had to do to assure the family could say goodbye to a complete and whole person. As these thoughts and scenarios swam around in my head, the wind slowly lost its rage and calmed. The hail storm abated, and the clouds parted. How long had it been? a minute, an hour? I am not sure. The storm had passed, well not so much a storm but a tornado that had run amok around the city and seriously close to the freeway I had been trapped on.

Through this entire ordeal, there was not one crack in the windshield, not one dent in the metal of the van and the man that I had picked up from the ME’s office was safe and unscathed. I was able to present him to his family unharmed.

This was the 2008 tornado that ripped through Atlanta and tore open Georgia dome! 30 people were injured and one person was killed. The video below is my father telling the story during one of my book readings.

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

-Author unknown. 

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

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

Funeral Service Oath

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

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

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

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

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 mbalmergirl@gmail.com 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”

See you in a few weeks!

Chelsea Tolman

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.

Gillian Rodriguez

How did you get into the industry (family/passion)?

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 experience. 

Outside of work, what are your hobbies/interests?

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 for all. 

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 academic successes. 


Funeral directors must balance work and home life, that includes pumping for breast milk while at work in-between serving families.

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 mbalmergirl@gmail.com. Thanks!

Learn more about what your funeral professional does everyday by reading “Speaking of the dead” order your copy today!

Book cover "Speaking of the dead" by Chelsea Tolman

An in-depth look through the eyes of a mortician during the most emotional time in people’s lives. Walk in Chelsea’s footsteps during heartbreaking, unpleasant and sometimes funny events that happens when dealing with the dead and their families.

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.

The media rarely paints a pretty picture of the funeral industry. One bad story very truly affects how the public sees the entire bunch. I love giving the world a small glimpse of the wonderful things we do and how we love to do them. We are not money hungry. Death does not bring us riches and fame. We treasure the simple thank you card like we were handed a million dollars. Our industry requires us to sacrifice and we chose the industry we work in. Our reward is the comfort that we give to the families we serve. There are many funeral directors in the world and all of us have some kind of passion for helping others and I wanted the world to know that, which is why I wrote a book about it.
Families experiences with funeral homes and funeral directors aren’t supposed to be easy, someone you love has died. We understand the tragedy you are faced with and the anger, and grief and sadness you are carrying. Yet we continue to help because we can. We are equipped to be bombarded with questions, cynicism, even anger. The stories I hear about family members who have had a terrible experience with a funeral director, may all be very true, but we do our best in the worst situations… every day.
The next time you hear troubling story regarding the funeral industry, remember the thousands who didn’t do those things, remember the caring and loving people sacrificing for you every day and every night and be glad that we are here and that we are your neighbors.
I love hearing from you, my readers, about how my stories have affected you. Writing these personal stories can be a challenge for me because I remember them, I remember the faces and the death. For the month of December, I will be taking a break from my usual personal stories of serving families and focusing on other great funeral directors that I know. Their stories are important, and I want the world to know them.

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!

This week I am sharing a couple of cool interviews I had the honor of being a part of for Halloween.

Great conversation I had with Chris and Kristina Holifield from I Am Salt Lake Podcast. If you aren’t already you should subscribe to their podcast, these are two super cool people and their podcasts are always interesting.

Episode 353 – Chelsea Tolman, Salt Lake City Mortician

Fun, lighthearted chat with Kristian Anderson and Steven Labrum with SLC Culture on 1280 The Zone. Listen on Sunday mornings for interesting topics and fun banter.

SLC Culture – October 28th, 2018 – Chelsea Tolman