Brightside Biography: I’m a Funeral Director
Funerals are not fun. That’s obvious, right? What may not be obvious, though, is all of the work that goes into taking care of your sweet grandpa after he’s passed. Not only the work of taking care of sweet grandpa, but really, the work (and love) that goes into caring for the entire family. I’ve always had a quiet admiration for funeral directors and their ability to be quietly professional, but to also be graceful and understanding of families who are grieving. This leads me to Chelsea Tolman, who I met after reading this post on her blog, Mbalmergirl. She has tales that are considered “gross,” but more importantly, she shares stories that will break your heart and simultaneously restore your faith in humanity. There’s this story about a husband and wife who died together in a car accident and this poignant story about a man who died alone. This woman is a gift. Here’s her story.
Can you tell me a little bit about yourself (first name, position, family, what you like to do in your free time–things like that)?
My name is Chelsea Tolman. My position currently is a consultant for a local mortuary (newly acquired BTW), basically I promote and give advice on advancing their firm. I am fully licensed, which means I am a director and embalmer and can handle every step of the process in death care. Which means I can pick up bodies from their home, a facility or medical examiners office etc., I am an embalmer, I can make arrangements with families, direct funerals and everything in-between. I am married to an amazing man and with him I have gained a beautiful step-son both of which I love and cherish deeply. I love to write, I read science fiction and fantasy, and of course books related to the death trade, I am a runner and I love coming up with fun things to do with my family. I like to play video games (as long as there are puzzles to solve) and watching movies with my husband and step-son.
When did you know that this is the type of work that you wanted to do? How did you know?
Okay, here is the played-out cliché of “It’s a calling”. I get that some people do not understand that, but it was truly a lightbulb moment for me when I spoke with a funeral director on the phone and when I hung up I knew that this was what I was meant to do. I was working at a junk yard at the time and I loved it! I never would have thought that this was where I would end up 15 years later.
What kind of schooling did you have?
I attended Gupton-Jones College of Mortuary Science in Decatur, GA. I have a degree in Mortuary Science and did 18 months of apprenticeship. Classes I took are anatomy, biology, microbiology, chemistry, pathology, mortuary history, mortuary law, embalming, funeral service management, small business management, communications, sociology, psychology, counseling, ethics, restorative art and whatever in-between classes I have missed. I have been licensed in Georgia, North Carolina and now Utah.
Can you describe a “typical” week (as if there is such a thing!)?
Yes, there is such a thing. “Typical” is running around like a chicken with your head cut off only to slow down and patiently listen to someone who needs to talk, then rush off again and finalize paperwork, make a dozen phone calls, then again patiently listen to an angry family member about what they need to vent about, then sit on hold with insurance companies, airlines and cemeteries only to then change clothes and head to the embalming room, then change back and rush to a church, cemetery or vital records office. All while remembering which family requested what and for what day. It’s a fantastic juggling marathon of events. Lunch? What is that?!
What is the embalming process entail?
Through most of my career embalming was typical, the norm. In our current culture there is controversy surrounding the procedure. I think it is important to understand that embalming is not required by law (aside from certain circumstances, I can elaborate if you want). The purpose is to stay decomposition, at least long enough to have a funeral days or even weeks after death. Embalming is a procedure of replacing most of the blood in the body with preservative chemicals. It makes the tissue feel firmer (which is disturbing to some and comforting to others), it makes applying cosmetics easier and gives the body a much more “Life-like” appearance (again, disturbing to some, comforting to others).
What do people get buried in such expensive boxes? Are underground vaults necessary?
The expensive “boxes”, LOL, can be described as a display, like a pretty jewelry box. It is intended to make the deceased look comfortable and protected. Caskets have as many features as you could imagine that the public could want. They can be sealing, non-sealing (meaning there is a casket surrounding the lid allowing air out, but nothing gets in). They are made of wood and metal and now even biodegradable materials like wicker. The interior fabric can be a crepe, cotton or velvet. They come in every color and almost every size and can be personalized with artisan corners and embroidery. They have mattresses with springs and mechanisms to raise and lower as well as tilt side to side (for the best viewing options). People make these choices because it’s consoling to know that their mother, or brother, or child is comfortable, we love our family and even when we know they are gone from the body, it is human nature to want to make them comfortable. So, all of these options make caskets “boxes” expensive.
Underground vaults serve two main purposes: 1. Some vaults protect the expensive casket from water, earth and critter damage. Albeit not forever, but some people like to imagine that the jewelry box stays just as beautiful as when they bought it, maintaining their loved one in comfort. 2. If you bury a casket in bare earth, it deteriorates quickly. This can cause the lid of the casket to collapse which then causes the ground to sink, which then creates a problem for the cemetery. They will have to fill the space with more dirt and sod making it laborious and expensive to maintain a beautiful lawn. So, to answer your question, no, vaults are not necessary for the purpose of burying a body, unless you want the protection, or you are burying in a cemetery that requires it (which is pretty much all of them).
Most people would probably say that they would be afraid to touch a dead body. Has this ever been an issue for you?
Nope! I have never had a problem touching dead bodies. I don’t think I have an exact answer for you, but this has just not been a problem for me. I know it is disturbing for some, it can be creepy or weird but it’s just us, without the blood moving. It’s not dangerous (unless you have a terrible disease), it can be smelly, look weird and the skin texture can be strange but it’s really normal, it’s the end of life. I can see where people are put-off by it but I think it is just that our current culture is so removed from death that it seems like a taboo. Nope, it doesn’t bother me.
How do you get the images of their faces out of your head at night? How do you handle your own emotions when working with grieving people?
You don’t get the images of the faces out of your head. Period. I can still see some of the broken people I have helped, I can still feel their pain. You just learn how to cope with the craziness of being surrounded by death all the time, or you go crazy with it and find a new profession. Any aspiring funeral director should take this piece of advice: If at all possible, do your apprenticeship first! Know what you are getting into, it is not easy, it is emotional and strains you and your family. The caveat is that these days, funeral homes are taking strides to ensure that their employees get time off and are on some type of regular schedule. The high of helping people will wax and wane, in the highs you will sacrifice your personal life and your family, in the lows you will break. The first high in this industry can last for years. Some have lost it all, family health, emotional stability. But it’s not all dark, find a firm that supports you in the dark times and don’t sacrifice yourself, if you can do that, it is100% worth it.
I created a saying for myself, “It is not my grief”. I didn’t lose somebody, I didn’t know the deceased and until now, I didn’t know the family. My purpose is to be the shoulder, if I fall apart, how can the family trust that I can help them? It is important to me to get out of my head, whether I go for a run, take a yoga class or read a good book, self-care (doing something for you and only you) is paramount and remembering that you didn’t lose someone, the people you are helping did.
What is one thing you learned on the job that you did not learn in school?
Everything! LOL. Not really. College prepares you for a lot of things, it does not prepare you for everything. Learning how humans react in a textbook cannot, no matter how hard you try, prepare you for how humans react in real life.
What is one decedent/family that will stay with you forever?
So many! I have built incredible relationships with the families that I have helped. Even now, years later, I have families whom I have kept in touch with, I love them all, deeply.
What is your favorite thing about your career? Your least favorite thing?
I am fulfilled when I know that my efforts were helpful. When I walk a family into a room to see their loved one for the first time since the death and they physically show emotion, that is satisfying. At the end of a graveside, when the service is over, and the family can go on and find their new way of life, I feel pride. Grief is hard and messy, so when I know the family is feeling it and getting it out whether its anger or sadness, I know I have done something right.
What do you believe happens to you when you die?
Ha! Good question. I like to think that whatever an individuals belief is, that is what will happen to them. It would be fun if the faith people have in their religion or Gods or views of afterlife were true for each person. I don’t have any different view of afterlife now then before I became a funeral director. It is all a mystery, I don’t have strong feelings, but it would be cool if we could all end up wherever we believe we should end up.
Do you believe in ghosts?
I believe in energy left when a body dies. I have had encounters that felt like a ghostly experience but I can be no more definitive than that. The short of the long is I don’t really know. I would like ghosts to be real, and I would like my experiences to be real but I just don’t know.
How has this work changed your view of death?
Well, my view of death has only changed in that it is unpredictable. I didn’t understand that before. I thought that death is just death and that was the end of it. The reality is that death can be harsh and bewildering and funny and sad. There is no black and white. I have learned, so far, that you cannot put a label on death other than it is final for this world, or life, or segment depending on what you believe. Life is a crazy whirlwind and death is no different.
How has this work affected your view of life?
Live hard and live real. Never quibble about the little things and love everybody! Take care of your own body and mind first, before taking care of others.
Thank you so much, Chelsea, for taking the time to share your story! Do you have any questions for her?