Working Through A Crisis

by Ann Heinz | Aug 13, 2018
Chelsea Hayes: Working Through a Crisis

A Texas funeral director shares her insight for handling a tragic situation

On May 18, 2018, ten people were fatally shot at Santa Fe High School in Santa Fe, Texas. This tragedy shook the local community and the nation, but funeral professionals in the area still had a job to do. Chelsea Hayes, from the Hayes Funeral Home in Santa Fe, worked with her local community to help them grieve and heal during this difficult time.

Ann Heinz, the FuneralCE product manager, recently spoke with Chelsea Hayes, who shared her insight and advice so other funeral professionals can learn from this tragic event.

Ann Heinz:  As you know, we read your story in Buzzfeed News and it hit home, and I was just very impressed with the job you were tasked to do and how you reacted to it. It was a tragic situation and you stepped up to the plate. We thought this would be a really good opportunity for our students to get a little bit more in-depth information about what happened and your role as a funeral professional. Tell me about your background; I believe you got into the funeral industry with your family, right?

Chelsea Hayes: I was born in Houston, but I was raised in Santa Fe, [Texas]. I was a graduate of Santa Fe [High School] in 2008. I went to college at Sam Houston State University and got my bachelor of business administration. Once I came back from college, I joined my dad at the funeral home, seeing how the funeral industry works. I would always come back and work at the funeral home, doing odd-end jobs, so I had already been around the business. I pretty much grew up in the funeral home.
I really enjoyed working with my dad and seeing the changes that made positive effects in people’s lives. I just thought, “You know, I want to be a part of that.” I quickly realized that in order to do that and get further in the industry, I would have to eventually get my funeral director’s license and embalming license. We’re a small funeral home, we’re local [so] we have to do both. We can’t just be a funeral director or an embalmer. I made the decision to go to [the] Dallas Institute of Funeral Service, and I worked at UT Southwestern for the Willed Body Program.

Ann Heinz:  What was that like?

Chelsea Hayes: It was a really cool job. I got to see a different aspect of the death industry. They also contracted with the Dallas County Medical Examiner, and so we would not only pick up willed bodies, but we would also do the pickups for the medical examiner. That really opened my eyes to a lot of other things that not traditionally just a funeral service training would show you.
I graduated from the Dallas Institute and came back to the funeral home in 2017, when I started my apprenticeship. I actually got to do it under my dad’s license.

: What would you say that you enjoy most about working in the industry?

: My favorite part would have to be restorative art. People, when they get so sick, they just don’t look like themselves anymore. People will say, “We don’t want to have an open casket. That was not Mom. She did not want people to see her like that.” I really do enjoy restoring people to leave a positive lasting memory that people can have. I find more often than not that people will want to have the casket open after you’re able to restore them to how they would look normally. I think it’s just the finalization of seeing them and it really helps, not end the mourning process, but actually begin the mourning process.

Ann: I’m impressed that you obviously have to have a lot of compassion and empathy. It’s a very challenging industry to work in day in and day out, where you see tragedy quite often. Then you find yourself in a difficult and emotionally charged situation, such as the Santa Fe shooting. As a funeral director, you still have a job to do. When you learned of this tragedy right in your hometown, in your high school, did you feel like there was any training that prepared you for that day?

Chelsea: The one thing that I think really helped prepare me was when I was working in the Willed Body Program in Dallas. I was part of the crew that picked up the police officers in the 2016 shooting in Dallas. I just remember that time there was a lot of confusion and unanswered questions. People really didn’t know what to do. One of the head medical examiners rode with us to the hospital and I just remember the way we had to act, very professional and just calm. Just do what you need to do and get it done. So that’s what I kind of fell back on and how I approached that situation and handled that back then.

Ann: How did you stay focused after the Santa Fe shooting, when this hits incredibly close to home?

Chelsea: You fall back on your training and what you’ve been taught in school. That was really what helped me. What got me through was just knowing that if I stay calm, stay professional, it would help the people in my community to grieve through the right channels. It’s important for you to be someone who can help them get through the proper channels and do it the right way so there won’t be lasting grief down the road that could have been helped at the beginning.

Ann: What did you do to help the families plan a meaningful funeral for a child who died tragically? The families must have been just completely lost.

: Everyone reacts in different ways. One family couldn’t even talk, all they could do was cry, then you just sit there and cry with them. Or talk to them. I just asked, “What did she do?” I kind of did the same thing I do for each family that I meet with, but I just took it a little slower. I let them lead the way. I followed their lead and felt them out first.

Ann: Who were you able to rely on or lean on for support?

Chelsea: Professionally, I leaned on my colleagues and my staff. They were so great during all of that. Everyone was willing to go the extra mile. People who don’t normally work services offered to help. We had lots of people who used to work for us call and donate their time. 
Personally, I leaned on my grandfather a lot. My dad was out of town, but we were still able to communicate. I relied on him and my mom and my fiancé. I was able to kind of decompress with him, so that really helped as well.

: Unfortunately, it does seem like these types of shootings and tragedies are occurring more regularly today, and so we know that other funeral professionals may find themselves in this similar situation. What advice would you have for other funeral professionals?

Chelsea: I would say just to be active from the start. Go to all the [community] meetings, find out when the meetings are. Make your presence known, make your availability known. And by doing that, you can collaboration with others. They're all trying to reach for the same goal, and if you get with others and know what your resources are, the better you'll be equipped to answer questions, because that's what we got hit with the most was just questions.

Ann: Questions about?

Chelsea: Oh, just everything. We had news reporters calling all time. We had people calling all the time about donating because they started a Santa Fe fund for victims. "How do we do that? Where's the next meeting going to be? What do you all know?" There was a crisis center set up, and people would ask, "What are the hours for that?” Just knowing all that information, being able to answer people's questions so that people stay calm, they know what's going on. And then it helps you, too, so have your resources available so you can help the families that do come in and use you.

Ann: Since the tragedy occurred, how has it affected your business?

Chelsea: I can say, at least for us in the office, it affected us in a way that we realize even in crisis mode, we work extremely well together. We were able to pull together as a team and help the families out. That’s been a lasting effect on us here. 
I just think knowing the right people, knowing the resources – we will make sure we have those kinds of things stowed away.

Ann: What have you learned from this experience?

Chelsea: I learned the community of Santa Fe is much stronger than I realized. There's been fundraiser after fundraiser held here in Santa Fe, and you can't go 100 feet without seeing a yellow and gold ribbon tied around something. It's just how the community really pulled together and has stayed together since. It wasn't just a week thing and then everybody went on about their business. They are still to this day trying to help, not only those victims that were killed, but the ones that were wounded, as well. They set up a fund for them at the local bank and I know they've raised a ton of money for them. And I think that's just really what I realized the most from all this is that although we are a small community, we do still have a much stronger bond than we realized.

Ann: Is there anything else you would like to add?

Chelsea: We got so many calls from different companies. I want to note that the casket companies, flower shops, newspaper, police department, cemeteries and pastors called and offered their services, if not at a discount, for free.

You probably heart about the J.J. Watt Foundation. He paid for everyone’s services up to $10,000. That pretty much covers any kind of service you’re getting now. Mattress Mack offered to pay for services as well. He’s well known in Houston and a really sweet guy. I called Academy to ask if they wanted to donate something to make the service special. That’s something I’m pretty passionate about, getting crafty with making stuff for keepsakes for people to take home from the visitation or service. If the person liked M&M’s, I’ll have a big bowl of M&M’s out, stuff like that. Academy donated a bunch of stuff to help personalize the keepsakes we made for one of the services. 

I had personal friends help get stuff together for another service. I would suggest on that note to make sure you’re writing down everything and everyone that donates or offers their services. The family can know and you’ll know who to give credit to. When all the rush is done, you can make sure you know who did what.

: This is really good information that I think other funeral directors will listen to and see and just get some more insight into how you responded to the situation, so thank you so much for all of your time today.

Chelsea: Absolutely! I hope it does help someone that ever finds themselves in a situation. It's not a fun one, but it's one that we are going to be faced with as funeral directors.

If you are interested in donating to the victims of the Santa Fe shooting and their families, donations can be sent to the following address:

                Santa Fe Texas Education Fund
                C/O Texas First Bank
                P.O. Box 608
                Santa Fe, Texas 77510

About FuneralCE®: FuneralCE, a service of WebCE®, offers a large selection of online state-approved funeral continuing education courses for funeral professionals nationwide. Courses from FuneralCE have been approved by the state boards and the Academy of Professional Funeral Service Practitioners (APFSP) for Certified Funeral Service Practitioners (CFSP). Our courses are always up-to-date and provide the knowledge funeral professionals need to be successful in their careers.