An early indicator that I might possibly have a future in death care was my practice of burying the family pets that had expired throughout my childhood at my grandparents farm.
Some of the early interments were beloved cocker spaniels that had been with me since birth, dogs that had seen my first steps, and adored my relentless petting and cuddling. Later, a duckling I had fostered was laid to rest in a child’s shoebox, lined with cotton balls and a silk swatch of fabric from the floor of my grandmother’s sewing room.
Once my mom became a certified cat lover, they too eventually would lay beneath the pecan trees. I remember receiving a distressed phone call from her in my mid twenties even, long after I had left the nest. Once of her foster failure kitties was suffering from feline leukemia, and the humane choice was euthanasia. She absolutely could not bring herself to take the cat for that final ride, and asked if I would. So I did. And I stayed with the kitty and held her while they administered the shot that would give her peace. Then, I took the cardboard container carrying her body to my grandparents house, and at sunset one fall evening, buried the kitty beside a cluster of purple daisies and beneath the nearly bare branches of the pecan trees.
I still bury my pets, the latest being sweet Bella the Cat, who is nested near the roots of an oak tree at Eloise Woods Natural Burial Park for People and Pets. I am also now entrusted with the care of other people’s pet family members too, as a practitioner of whole family death care for both people and pets.
My friends, change is a scary thing, but a necessary part of existing and growing. Just when you think you have a direction figured out, one butterfly effect can put so many new things into motion. Change is guaranteed, just like death.
In the late spring, I parted ways with my current employer, as “our core values no longer aligned.” At the time, I was crushed. What had seemed so promising and progressive was not to be, and I was left struggling with what direction to take next and where to place trust. Depression ate at my creativity, and I found myself falling into writer’s block. I had so much I needed to share, but no drive or enthusiasm to share it. People were still reaching out with touching stories about their memorial tattoos, so I decided to find someone to take over the Momento Mori tattoo portion of The Modern Mortician page, so I could put focus into myself.
I worked through grieving the past and began preparing for the future. I spent the summer months volunteering and immersing myself in other aspects of my funeral career that get sidelined when the families you are serving come first. What evolved over the next few months was pretty amazing; new friendships and allies, and new ideas and inspirations.
Through strong connections and a network of people who believe in me, I am now able to take steps to nourish my passion, starting with providing home vigils and natural death care choices to the people and pets of Central Texas. I am thankful to have such supportive mentors in my life, as amazing things never happen on the shoulders of one person alone.
So, what are the Core Values of the Modern Mortician? My core values are to be transparent about funeral care, empower families in death, and “lift the veiled hood on the cloak of death”- which can be translated into, “This Mortician will NOT feed you smokey Bull Shit on a mirrored platter.”
I am looking forward to rolling out new information and sharing new things about death care and the direction of funeral service. What a sweet relief to say I do not answer to anyone but you, the reader. Your critique is far more important to me than that of those whose core values do not align with mine.
“She looks so peaceful,” the woman remarked, as she gently tucked a wisp of her mothers grey hair behind her ear. “Things were so crazy the day she died,” she continued. “I got to her bedside, and we facetimed my brothers in New York so they could say goodbye to Mama- they couldn’t make it to her in time. Technology is good sometimes…”
She went on to tell me how every day she visited her mother, she took a selfie with her. “I took my last selfie with her today, just now.” she said. “Is that weird? Some people would think so, but I don’t. I think it’s ok, don’t you? I’m so glad I got here early, you know? Things have been so busy, I’m so glad we had this time alone before everyone arrived.”
She paused for a deep breath, then continued, “I feel terrible though. I was in the bathroom when she passed. I wasn’t there beside her.” Her eyes met mine, and I could see the worry furrowing her brow. “That happens, quite commonly,” I assured her.
“It’s almost as though Mama was protecting me from the pain of watching her leave, maybe?”
“That could be…” I said. In all honestly, this does happen frequently. I’ve heard countless stories of loved ones at the bedside of the dying, to leave for just a moment for a quick shower, another cup of coffee… a bathroom break. I’ve heard just as many stories of loved ones holding on until someone arrives at the bedside. My grandfather did just that for me.
“In our culture, after the death, the person will send a sign by the 7th day, to let us know they are ok. ” She began counting out the days on her fingers, “Today is the 7th day, and I don’t think I’ve gotten a sign…what if I missed my sign?” She looked into my eyes again, as if hoping I would have the answer.
I paused for a moment, then softly stated, “I don’t think you’ve missed your sign. Maybe you’ve just been so immersed this past week, give it some time and reflection.”
She seemed to take some solace in my reply. “Sometimes the dead will send a sign by visiting your dreams… maybe she will come tonight.”
I excused myself from the room, leaving the woman alone with her mother for the last time until the rest of the family would arrive. She had told me how she had been the sole caretaker of her mother until they had to seek additional assistance from a nursing facility near their home. She had been tasked with all of her mothers care and final arrangements, leaving her overwhelmed and tired answering to the other 5 siblings around the country. This past week had been a blur, and she was ready for some rest.
The family began to arrive in the parking lot 20 minutes later. I entered the slumber room to notify her, to find she had pulled up one of the chairs directly at the head of her mother’s casket, and was gently stroking the side of her cheek. Her face lit up when she saw me. “I was singing to Mama,” she started, “and I heard a bird. I looked at the window and there was a Red Bird on the windowsill, right there!” She pointed to the only window in the room, and a soft smile spread across her face. She stood up and wrapped her arms around my shoulders. “Thank you so much for the time alone with her. I needed it so much, and Mama sent me my sign!”
I was serving my apprenticeship in a small, dusty West Texas town when I began to fall in love with the idea of Natural Burial. As the only female at the firm, I was often stuck behind the desk, forcefully playing the role of secretary, while my male counterparts were given the tasks I should have been learning on the job, like meeting with families to make funeral arrangements and embalming my required cases to obtain licensure. (I would end up obtaining these cases as a volunteer for the local big city mortuary service in my off time.) In between answering the phones, and performing menial tasks assigned to me by the FDIC (First Dick in charge, but truly Funeral Director in charge), I began to research this new old way of caring for the deceased, and eagerly followed the members of The Order of the Good Death, and other online avenues, educating myself on topics that were never broached in Mortuary School, like home funerals, and green burials.
I first saw a Natural Burial portrayed not once, but twice, on the hit HBO television series Six Feet Under. I was attending what I fondly refer to as Mortuary School 1.0 at the time, which was owned by an embalming chemical supplier, and wondering… “Why isn’t this an option for families?” After following The Order for many months, a simple internet search one day would reveal to me that Texas finally had it’s first Natural Burial Park… just outside of Austin, Texas. To a girl stuck behind a desk in po-dunk Texas, it seemed a world away. 3 years later, one beautiful spring Sunday morning, I found myself finally at the entrance of Eloise Woods.
The gate seemed to be locked, but just inside was a board with information on the burial park. I timidly climbed the fence, and approached it, immediately finding a number to call. Before my anxiety could get the best of me… I dialed.
Ashley knew she wanted a tattoo in honor of her sister, Amy. It wasn’t until she was going thru Amy’s personal belongings after her death that she found the exact tattoo stencil Amy had used years prior to her death.
“I took it into the shop and told (the artist) why it was important to me to use this same stencil. It was also the 2nd anniversary of her suicide that day. He noticed my necklace charm and asked if it held some of her cremated remains. He said that he thought it would be cool to sprinkle a bit in the ink about to be used for the tattoo.”
The suggestion caught Ashley completely off guard.
“I had to think it over a few, but i eventually thought it was a very cool idea. her body is literally a part of mine now.”
Ashley and Amy grew up as step-sisters. Ashley’s father and Amy’s mother fell for each other when the girls were toddlers.
“I have no memory of a time before her honestly. When we were small we didn’t like each other much. We fought for attention and didn’t like that our parents were with someone other than our other parent.”
When Ashley was in 5th grade, Amy in 4th, the girls shed their disdain for each other.
“We realized that we were on the same team and stared forming an actual sisterly bond. We were both dangerously smart and quite worldly as adolescents. We had a lot fun and gave our parents hell!”
Years went by, and their parents added new siblings to the family dynamic.
“As our parents had other children and we grew up, Amy got more and more sad. It was always very clear our parents felt differently about us than the kids they had together. It didn’t help that Amy’s biological father was always stirring up things to get her to hate our parents. Eventually, they gave up on her and let her move into her grandmother’s house at 12 years old. No one ever fought enough for Amy. No one made her believe in herself. No one ever told her that she could be anything she wanted. They all failed her in some way. Even me.”
The girls were separated and living with different grandparents in their teens, but with Amy having free reign, they often would sneak out and run the dark streets of Dallas in her grandma’s old Honda Accord.
“We had no fear of the world when we were together.We were unstoppable and always felt like Thelma & Louise to me. I loved her.”
Ashley soon faces the 5th anniversary of her sister’s death.
“Every year on her birthday and her death day I take time to do something I think she would’ve enjoyed. Sometimes I’ll go somewhere I wish I could take her and I sprinkle just a bit of her remains wherever i am at that moment. She’s in the mountains in Colorado, mountains in Georgia, at a concert or two, the gulf of Mexico and now the Atlantic ocean.
**** Note from The Modern Mortician****
I had the privilege of being a friend of Amy’s for several years. Amy had been weighing on my mind lately, and I knew the anniversary of her death was coming up. I wanted to feature her story and Ashley’s memorial tattoo as a tribute. Ashley- thank you for sharing Amy’s story with us. I know she loved you SO much.
Below is my story about the girl some of us loving called “Rattus.”
I called her Rattus, or rather she had me call her Rattus, in light of her multiple pets of the rodent species. Truthfully, she loved all animals, but she had many a pet rat when I met her. She called me Grape. Why? One summer, every time she came over, I was eating frozen grapes. We were night owls that summer, as we both worked graveyard shifts. We would often visit the 24 hour Walmart in the middle of the night for random items for random art projects we would be working on..or more grapes for me to freeze. Sometimes Rattus would be in a mood to go out of her way to embarrass me. She’d follow me down the isles, dragging one foot and walking with a twisted gait, and moan out “Graaaaaape, waaaaaaeet for meeeeeeeee!” It worked every time. I’d be trying to maneuver the cart to avoid her, and we would both end up in fits of giggles.
Rattus was creative as well as crafty. One day, one of her multiple pet rats died. She immediately went about securing a proper apothecary jar and setting her beloved in liquid suspension on her bedroom shelf. By the time a second passed away months later, she was attempting arterial embalming on it. She then placed it in a formaldehyde suspension and into a jar on the shelf next to the first. She ended up with 5 specimens at one point, each one in states of improved technique in preservation. At one point, I recall visiting her at her mother’s home in the country. She wanted a ride to the other side of the property to check on raccoon remains she set out for cleaning and curing. When we found it, Nature still had some work to do, but you could see the majority of the skeletal structure and much less fur and flesh- and it was pretty fascinating.
I knew Rattus about 3 years of her short life. Rattus aspired also to be a mortician at one point in our friendship, and she would have been a damn good one, too. Rattus was beautiful, funny, talented, but tortured. Physically, mentally; by others, by her own mind… she was either at her highest of highs or the lowest of lows.
We did our best to save her, many times with offers of bus tickets and rides to safe and healing places, but she just loved too hard. She believed she could fix everything. She wanted things to work in her favor FOR ONCE, and she tried- but she had obstacles we couldn’t see. She made us believe she had a plan and she was finally on the right path.
Our beautiful Amy ended her anguish Tuesday May 29th, 2012. She ended her anguish… and gave it to US. To her mother and step-father; to her father; to her sisters and brothers, and her friends. We will carry this broken piece of Amy with us for the rest of our lives.
“Tanya’s grandson was killed in a car accident last night.”
It took a second for my mother’s words to sink in… in all of my 29 years, I could not recall our family ever having experienced the tragedy of an unexpected death, much less one of a minor child.
I recall one Christmas Eve with the family many years before, where we all gathered at my great aunt’s house as was the tradition. Dylan was maybe only 5 years old. He was here, there, and everywhere that night, full of energy and rambunctious spirit. He would run up to me on the couch, literally POUNCE on my lap and give a mighty ROAR, as he was playing the role of a lion, and taking the character quite seriously as many children do. His blond hair was wild, and did indeed frame his joyous face like a mane. He was the leader of the little cousins, born into the role, most certainly.
Years later, he would spend time with my twin sons in the summer at his grandmother’s pool, swimming with them, hanging out and playing. Though he was much older, he was still so good with them. His younger sister would usually be around, a beautiful young girl always just a few steps behind her big brother. Both kids were so loving and friendly to all. I remember thinking what a great kid I thought Dylan was turning out to be. He had the world ahead of him… a strong, loving and supportive family, good looks, and an exceptional personality.
I’ve attended countless funerals, both as a mourner and as the Funeral Director. I remember Dylan’s very well. The church was at capacity, standing room only. I remember persuading my mother to allow my two young sons, both 8 at the time, to attend the services with the family. Her initial feeling being that they were too young, but relenting to my protests that they should have the chance to say goodbye, and see first hand the heartbreak of losing a life so young. I remember the slideshow chronicalizing Dylan’s life in pictures, set to music. To this day when I hear “Pictures of You”, I think of Dylan and a telltale lump will rise in my throat.
Eight years later, I awoke to find a powerful message on my morning news feed, shared by a friend and mentor on his funeral home facebook page. I had begun reading it before fully digesting who I was reading about, when suddenly my brain kick started and recognition came flooding back. DYLAN. This post was about my second cousin, young Dylan, who had passed 8 years prior. His mother had written a truthful and heartbreaking post about the events and happenings the night her son died, and was sharing his story in hopes it would resonate with an audience and make a difference in someone else’s life.
Here is the post in its entirety, written by Dylan’s mother, Jamie, and shared here with her permission. You can find it on my facebook as well, and we encourage you to share it- to reach the masses. Links are below the message.
“I realize that I have shared this story many times. When I do share it, I do so publicly with prayers that it will touch someone out there in this world, maybe even teens; and their life will change. I urge each of you to please SHARE this story if not publicly but with your friends and family. I am throwing a rock into a body of water in hopes that it will ripple out and continue to touch those it needs to.
Alice: How long is forever?
White Rabbit: Sometimes, just one second. — Alice In Wonderland
Always remember that whatever you are walking through in your life, it is not for nothing. One day, it will all make sense.
On April 19, 2008, in a small Texas community Dylan attended an after party of Lockney High School Prom in which he and some of his Floydada friends were invited. It was held out in the country at a Senior’s house. The kids who had the party had given the parents money to go buy the alcohol. However none of this could ever been 100% proven by the Texas Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms due to nobody being willing to step forward to testify.
Dylan as well as the other Floydada boys had called their parents and asked if they could spend the night at different friend’s homes. All of us agreed to this having not suspected that they had just lied to us and were going out to this party instead. I had called Dylan to bring me some spaghetti sauce at 10:30 PM on from Allsup’s (convenience store), which he did. At that time, he had not been drinking and was not drunk. We engaged in small talk. He then asked, “Well can I go now? Can I go now?” while giving me that crooked smile of his. I said, “Yeah I guess and don’t forget to come home early tomorrow.” He said, “Love Ya and See Ya!”
At about 4:00 AM, five boys from both Floydada and Lockney decided they needed something to eat, so they went into Allsup’s in Floydada. While there, a Floydada Police Officer was in the store who did absolutely nothing to the boys for being out that late. He also claimed all of them looked as if they were of age and did not act or seem drunk. Instead he was too interested in messing with a car full of girls outside. A younger friend of mine happened to be there and in line behind Dylan. She talked to him and asked to use his phone because she wanted to text her friends in the car who the officer would not leave alone. I asked her to tell me the truth about Dylan and if that he was drunk. She said no that he wasn’t, but he was VERY nervous about the officer being there. Later when the officer was questioned about the boys he said, “They didn’t seem drunk at all and looked to be 17, which is the age you can be out past curfew.” Well 3 were 18, 1 was 17, and Dylan was 15!!
On their way back to their friend’s house early morning hours of April 20th, we do agree that most of them had been drinking that night. However as to whether they were drunk at this time, we do not truly know for sure, but the driver had not been drinking at all. Therefore regardless of who and had not been drinking, they did have a designated driver. They were on a dirt road when a rabbit ran out in front of them. There was some swerving for the rabbit whether it was to hit it or avoid it. The driver lost control & flipped the pickup. All but one were ejected. Dylan was asleep when it happened, died immediately and never knew the wreck occurred. The survivors tried to give Dylan and the other boy CPR out in that field that night till they knew they were gone. The other boy died in one of the other boy’s arms. When the police, EMTs, and firefighters arrived; there was not much they could do but help get the three survivors to the hospital. They all were having such a terrible time because they had known these boys all of their lives. Even the police dispatcher was a good friend of mine.
Come Monday morning at school, many classes had 3 empty chairs in them at FHS and 2 at LHS. It was horribly tragic for the families of these 5 boys as well as the entirety of these 2 communities. Dylan was a 15-year-old Freshman who had just been moved up to a starting Varsity Football position when spring practices had begun. The other boy was a 17-year-old Senior who was planning to go off to college and begin a whole new independent life. There were roughly about 2500 people who attended each funeral that day Wednesday, April 23, 2008.
Each of these kids chose to lie about their whereabouts in order to go to a place that they knew full well was NOT a place they had any business being. They then chose to get into a pickup and NOT put on their seatbelts, which caused them to be ejected that resulted in their deadly injuries, and their friends trying to revive them. I still cannot imagine what the survivors went through that night being in the middle of nowhere, having just had a horrible wreck and knowing 2 of their friends were dead. When the driver arrived at the hospital, they thought he had a collapsed lung due to the fact that he had blood all over him and was spitting up even more blood. However the blood was Dylan’s and not his.
Our family chose to blame no one except Dylan because he alone made the wrong choice. I had given him ample warning about these things because I too had been there myself and had buried 8 friends up to that point.
Teens need to learn that their VERY OWN actions DO HAVE consequences and sometimes it is deadly, even if you are trying to do it the right way. Remember these kids had a designated driver, but a teen DD in a car full of teens who had been drinking that night is STILL dangerous because teens are more likely to do stupid stunts with a sober friend than if it had been an adult!!
Six hours after Dylan said “See Ya” and walked out the door, he was dead on April 20, 2008, at 4:30 AM. I will see him again, but it will be in Heaven. The next time I saw him was the afternoon of April 21st in a casket, very cold and full of embalming fluid. Of course it was just his shell, but I had given birth to him, raised him, and I was not yet finished!! However God thought otherwise because He had other plans for Dylan and my family.
For those who think it cannot happen to them, IT CAN! For those of you who think you know it all, YOU DO NOT!!
I had these exact conversations with my son the VERY week he died. He assured me that he DID KNOW IT ALL, and it would NEVER EVER happen to him. Whatever … I had already buried 8 friends, I believe that I KNEW BEST!!
I BEG ALL TEENS TO PLEASE DO NOT BE STUPID AND PUT YOUR PARENTS THROUGH WHAT WE HAVE HAD TO GO THROUGH. IT IS HELL ON EARTH TO BURY YOUR CHILD!
Dylan never finished his Freshman year of High School. He never played a Friday Night Football game, which was his dream. He never attended a Prom. He never graduated High School or got to go to College. He will never marry or have children. ALL of Dylan’s dreams were shattered instantly as were ours.
However what broke my heart most was when Tana said to me one day through tears, “Mom, my kids will never get to know my Bubba or get to go visit at Uncle Dylan’s house and get to play with their cousins as they grow up!” All I could say was, “I’m so sorry Sweetie.” She said, “It just is not fair, and it sucks.” Tana never again slept in her bed and rarely visited her room, which was right next door to Dylan’s room. The memories and security of him being just right next door were shattered! She moved into the living room where she remained for the next three years until we moved. Tana will never get to be an aunt or have support from her brother as we grow older. She will never get that “brotherly advice” as she navigates through life. Her only sibling is dead!
For weeks after Dylan’s death, one of our dogs (Maggie) would lie by the front door waiting for him to come home every night. I would have to coax her into bed telling her over and over again that he was not coming home again. She would go into his room and lie on his bed. When we moved to a different town just 30 miles away for healing, she went crazy because she could not find him and did not have the comfort of his room to flee to. She hung herself on her collar trying to escape out of the fence, so I guess she finally found him.
Teen Death affects every single person in your family, friends, school and community. It is a burden they will carry for the rest of their lives. To parents and siblings it is a wound that does not ever heal no matter how long time has passed. Time along with your FAITH in God above does allow some understanding and the ability to deal with it better. However there will always be those bad moments, days, weeks and/or times of the year when it all comes flooding back, and the loss is just as raw and painful as it were the very day it had occurred. That, my friends, will NEVER change. This is my child, and I will always remain his Mom always.
The loss of a child is an absolute nightmare! May God Bless each of you, and I do hope that you will realize that your actions DO have consequences!! Teens need to think beyond each weekend realizing that in an instant life as they knew it could be changed forever while on this earth!! This is a message I want to get into their heads. If you find yourself in a similar situation, call an adult. I had always told Dylan to just call me, but he did not. Now he is my Angel until once again we will be reunited, and our family will no longer be broken.
Again, please share. Make it go VIRAL!! Nothing this week would make my broken heart happier.”
(Written by Dylan’s mother, Jamie. Shared with her permission.)
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