Death Wrangler

For Daniel Defoe’s two certainties, death and taxes, a financial planner can help with the latter. Heck, there are even iPhone apps for that! But what about Life’s Last Call? That’s where Brenau alumna Holley Kelley applied her journalism background to gerontology.

Holley Kelley
Holley Kelley

“The inevitable awaits us; but its time we do not choose. So how we spend each day, and put each one to use, makes our life a story – the story of our truth.”

–Holley Kelley, Sunrises and Sunsets

Brenau University alumna Holley Kelley, who earned her Master’s in 2013, expressed this simple but powerful sentiment in her book Sunrises and Sunsets: Final Affairs Forged with Flair, Finesse, and FUNctionality The work compiles research and recounts experiences of individuals dealing with the preparation of passing on. With more “senior citizens” alive on the planet than at any time in history, smaller percentages of them actually are imminently knocking at death’s door. The “Boomer Generation,” just now reaching an age that vast numbers of their parents never saw, face prospects of decades of health and clarity of mind. So for them this is a how-to book for departing this vale of tears with a bit more style and grace, a virtual Baedeker’s for a retirement trip toward “the undiscover’d country, from whose bourn no traveler returns.”

Kelley wrote the guide as her capstone project for a Master in Applied Gerontology degree at Brenau. The book outlines steps an individual should take to put in order all affairs of life – and death. She wants readers to come to terms with the most frightening unknown of one’s existence. Through a combination of research, anecdotes, historical quotes and poetry, she forged a work that incorporates the technical with the emotional.

Kelley, who lives in Toney, Alabama, created the project while attending Brenau via online classes – the only way Brenau offers the unique gerontology degree. Although she earned her undergraduate degree in journalism from Brenau in 1987, it was a field with limited career prospects, and she found the unique Brenau degree appealing. “It was different from the usual classroom setting,” Kelley says. “It is an inspiring way to go about education. Everyone is valued equally. It was an excellent camaraderie.”

From the outset, she continually thought about a topic for her capstone project, which in the gerontology program substitutes as a thesis requirement found in some other graduate degree programs. She started with the basics: what her talents were, what she was most knowledgeable about and what she could create that was relevant. It boiled down to the most universal aspects that all people share – birth and death. Although we have no say in the design of our births, we do have choices in the planning of our deaths. Kelley realized how few people carefully plan and prepare for their final event, and she wanted to find a way to make the process engaging and meaningful.

“Holley demonstrated the power of online learning with this project. Her resilience, tenaciousness and perseverance, so important in online work, came shining through with this project,” says Dr. Bonnie Kin, the psychology professor who founded the gerontology master’s program. “She took the issue of death and dying, which is a taboo subject for many, and developed a step-by-step way of helping everyone to prepare for the end of their lives in a warm, compassionate, empathic way.”


Sunrises and Sunsets is more than a guide; it is also a workbook, or a “call to action,” including sections encouraging readers to write down “bucket lists,” daily thoughts, funeral/memorial plans and family histories. Although it did not start as a workbook, Kelley quickly discovered how much more effective the book would be when made interactive with the reader.

“It is easy to procrastinate [on executing plans] when the book isn’t interactive. Without the reader’s contributions to the book, it is only words on paper,” Kelley notes. “I wanted the workbook to give the reader a voice.”

Much of Sunrises and Sunsets recounts Kelley’s personal journey in dealing with death. In her book, she candidly states, “I hate death.” She discovered it was a tough subject to write about because of her own experiences with death.

For years, she was a funeral officiator. She met with families to arrange funeral plans for departed loved ones. She attended funerals that, in her opinion, were not given enough substance and tribute to truly honor the deceased, and she wanted a hand in giving the deceased a “voice” for their final goodbyes. She felt that such ceremonies should be a celebration of the departed’ s life ­– they should create joy, not sadness.


With the book, Kelley says she wanted to become a sort of “death wrangler,” to identify humankind’s hatred of death and to overcome the fear of it by exploring it. Ultimately, through reflection and taking time to truly contemplate it, not ignoring or overthinking it, do we prevail. Kelley found herself “free [of the fear] after writing this book.”

For one story in the book, she interviewed the family of a recently deceased military colonel to arrange his funeral, but no one in the family thought favorably of the man. They described him as miserly, selfish and impatient, and he had been estranged for a long time. But as Kelley asked more questions and dug deeper, she found out that the colonel had led a very interesting life. She perceived the reasons for why he may have grown reclusive in his later years. She put together a service and eulogy that centered on the positive aspects of the man, showing him in a new light to his children and family. After the ceremony, the children approached Kelley and asked, with tear-filled eyes, “How did you do that? How did you make us feel things we hadn’t felt about him in so many years?”

Kelley replied, “Because I told HIS story and made today, THIS day, all about him.”

In the same way, we should work to make our stories the means to share joy and good memories with others. Often, by postponing facing the fact that death will come to us someday, we miss out on fully enjoying life and the present. We tend to dismiss it because we fear it, but if we can address is, we can be relieved.

Kelley currently is a senior care insurance adviser and is exploring publishing venues for Sunrises and Sunsets, hoping to share it with a wider audience. Sunrises and Sunsets is her way of teaching people how to leave a written legacy, so that family and friends will know their wishes upon leaving the earth. In Kelley’s mind, “It’s so freeing and cleansing.”

Kelley returned to Brenau for the 2014 Research Symposium on April 11 to present her capstone project to the faculty, staff and students. She will always treasure the time she spent as a student at the university.

“Brenau is, to me, a special college,” she says. “It is a nurturing, safe place – I am a fan. It is one of the few places that allowed me to be the woman I could be.”

One Response to “Death Wrangler”
  1. Brenda says:

    I purchased this book from Amazon when I learned you were coming to Gainesville for a book signing. I am not that familiar with Gainesville and not at all familiar with Brenau campus. I was running just a bit late and then I was overwhelmed by the buildings and traffic? Never found the library. Just wanted to send my thanks to Holley for writing this book. It is a job well done!

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