Speaking Of The Dead is an innovative book that portrays the lives of morticians in an autobiographical fashion through short stories, all from the viewpoint of the author, Ms. Chelsea Tolman. Unlike some mortician authors, Chelsea doesn’t try to impress her audience with gruesome stories, shocking language, or attacks on the funeral industry. On the other hand, she also doesn’t go on a crusade attempting to portray the industry as being populated by angels. Rather, she simply tells her stories and recounts her thoughts while carefully maintaining the dignity of the deceased and their families.
Veterans of the industry will be able to identify easily with the events described in the book. Whether they be the stories of co-worker hijinks such as hiding under sheets in the embalming room waiting to sit up and startle someone or dealing with panic-stricken family members who are certain they just saw their dead mother move. Similarly, in the chapter “We will Always Remember,” Chelsea accurately sums up the horror we all feel when we realize that something has gone less than perfectly with the arrangements and it’s probably our own fault.
This isn’t just another funeral director book. It’s not a recounting of the author’s spiritual journey, a detailed “day in the life,” or sweeping accusations of greed and fraud. In fact, although the summary on the back cover uses the term “peek behind the curtain,” it’s much more than that. Chelsea aptly sets the scenes and describes them in such loving detail that you can easily picture yourself present for the events she recounts. You’re there as a disembodied observer, allowed to make your own judgments about what you see and feel.
Chelsea keeps an evenhanded portrayal of her memories. Unlike some books that are thinly veiled criticisms of certain funerary practices, she embraces all types of body preparation, disposition, cultures, and rituals. She covers and respects the full range of our practice, from embalming and interment to shrouding and cremation on a pyre. This book provides a sense of relief to people who want to read about the funeral industry without the burden of having to wade through the author’s own biases.
There is one area where Chelsea allows herself a bit of self-indulgence, which is describing her struggles as a woman in a traditionally male-dominated profession. One might expect this to be a preachy topic, but it is not. She simply presents her own experiences and allows the readers to interpret them as they will. Chelsea’s book is enlightening in allowing us to experience them with her without cramming criticisms and guilt trips down our throats.
Speaking of the Dead was published on Amazon.com in November 2018. One surprising response to it has been the frequent suggestion by readers in funeral-related social media groups and Chelsea’s website that it should be used as a textbook in mortuary schools and CE courses. For people just starting out in the funeral industry, it provides a realistic snapshot of many of the experiences and emotions they can expect to face. Chelsea goes beyond simply giving grisly descriptions of damaged corpses or the Zen-like “death is beautiful” mindset. She portrays with great accuracy what it is like to be in real everyday situations, such as looking a dead body in the face up close and then using your skills to restore their living beauty. Or the gut-sick feeling of carrying dead babies away from their mothers or standing over the bodies of teenagers who killed themselves and wondering what could have gone so wrong in their lives to lead to this. Conversely, she also allows you to feel the peace that comes with the end of prolonged suffering and the conflicting emotions of grief and relief that the surviving loved ones feel.
For people who have been in the industry a while and are feeling burned out and tired, it shows that you’re not alone and reminds you why you do this job. She talks about the humbling feeling of getting to know a decedent through their families and learning how they affected all those people. This is contrasted with the stories of other people who are gone in a flash, left no survivors, and aren’t missed at all. She reminds us that there’s more to handling the dead and their families, than literally laying hands on the dead and manipulating their remains. She’s also realistic about the crushing fatigue and emotional burden that this job can bring but reminds us that it is okay to feel that way.
Ultimately, Chelsea’s book does a great job of demonstrating why someone would want to be a funeral director. Why you came to this realm of death doesn’t matter, but why you stay is accurately captured in the chapters of this book. The true calling of the funeral director is to make a difference and touch lives in a way that only a funeral director can. This is why we are here, why we endure the late nights and long days, and why we choose to be the final caretaker on life’s journey. Speaking of the Dead captures it all and delivers it in a way that will leave you thinking about the funeral industry in ways no other book does. FBA
Chelsea Tolman lives in Salt Lake City, Utah with her husband, stepson and dog and owns Tolman Trade Services, a mortuary support company.