a black and white photo of Kelly Keel, a young white woman with blonde straight hair and glasses wearing a black turtleneck

Meet Midwest Regional Spinal Cord Injury Care System research assistant, Kelly Keel


Kelly Keel is someone who truly follows her heart, and it’s taken her on quite a unique journey.

Keel spent her childhood in Los Angeles, Southern California and Phoenix with her four brothers and sister. “I’m a child of the Southwest,” she says. 

When Keel was 22, the sudden death of her older brother, Erich, eventually spurred her to a career as a funeral director. “My brother died very suddenly in 2006. And every single thing that happened, from the moment I found out he was dead until the moment that his body was disposed of, every single thing that happened felt wrong to me. I felt like I had no control over the situation. And that was the first dead body that I saw. And the experience of seeing his dead body was extremely traumatizing,” Keel says.

She spent the next several years processing her brother’s death and her experience with his funeral service. “I was not in a good space at all,” she says.

Keel decided to learn everything she could about what happens to a body after death. “I wanted to cope with how I was feeling about my brother and what happened in a healthy way,” she says. She considered the different ways she could pursue her goal. “I thought of all the different routes you could go that would put you in situations where you would be in the world of death. Like you could be a medical examiner, or you could be a police detective or maybe a crime scene investigator, but I went with funeral directing and embalming.”

In 2014, Keel earned her associate degree in funeral service from Commonwealth Institute of Funeral Service. The coursework included both technical studies (how to embalm, how to do funeral makeup, chain of custody of the body, Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations, anatomy and physiology) as well as how to support grieving families. Afterwards, she worked as a funeral director and embalmer in Houston, Texas.

During this time, the mother of her husband’s son passed away, and the son was living with Keel, her five-year-old daughter, Scout, and her husband. The stress of managing a blended family, together with being a funeral director was overwhelming. Keel was ready for a change. 

Pursuing a long-time desire to become a homeowner, in 2016, Keel moved her family from Texas to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, where she and her boyfriend had vacationed once. “On that vacation, I could see myself living there,” Keel says. She bought a house in Lake Linden along with three acres of land. “We went from having a balcony to all this space,” she says.

Once they settled in, Keel became a licensed funeral director in Michigan. But the town where she lived was small and no jobs were available. “I wasn't really upset about that because I had had enough for a little while. I decided to go back to school,” Keel says. She enrolled in Madison Area Technical College and took classes online. After two years, she transferred to the University of Wisconsin-Parkside. 

When she made the switch, she had to pick a major. “I had taken a few sociology classes before and thought it was different, and it turned out I really liked it,” Keel says. She took classes on topics including race, public health, mental illness, criminal behavior and death and dying. “And that's what I focused on, the death and dying classes. It kind of was a natural progression for me from wanting to understand the very basics of what happens when people die, literally, where does their body go, and what happens to a dead body? To now wanting to understand how we're doing this as human beings together and what are the factors that influence how we interact around death,” Keel says. 

She earned her bachelor’s degree in sociology in December 2021 graduating summa cum laude. She was awarded the Outstanding Graduate Award for her independent research on the conditions people find themselves in when there is a death of a loved one. She was the first person in the online sociology degree program to win this award.

However, Keel felt like she wasn’t finished learning. She wanted to enroll in the University of Chicago’s Master of Arts in Social Science program to continue her sociology studies. The due date for the application was January 4th – just a few weeks after she graduated. She put together her materials on her proposed area of focus: death and dying. She was accepted and moved with her husband, teenage daughter and cats to Hyde Park in August to start school in September. 

Keel conducted an original, qualitative study on family interactions during death and dying for her thesis. She focused on Gen Z and Millennials who are believed to be more open and communicative than older generations. Keel found that despite this widely-held belief, death remained a taboo subject within their lives and families, and almost all her subjects were never taught about death by an adult. “Ninety percent of the families in my study relied on religion to help give structure to death, but, it just doesn't work,” Keel says. “The main point is that no matter how much we are faced with death constantly, in media, popular culture, through war and disease or a pandemic, people just do not deal with it until they absolutely have to. And that's a problem.”

After graduation, Keel started applying for jobs. One day while she was out running errands in Streeterville, she passed Shirley Ryan AbilityLab. Curious, she looked it up at home, and saw that there were a few job openings that seemed like a good fit. She applied and was hired as a research assistant helping to enroll people into the National Spinal Cord Injury Model System Database. The role involves working with people who are at an especially difficult time in their lives– spinal cord injury patients in inpatient rehabilitation soon after their injuries. Keel approaches patients to ask them to participate in the database project, which has been ongoing for more than 50 years. Data collected by Keel and her coworkers – demographic information, injury characteristics, health conditions, and more – helps researchers identify trends in spinal cord injury incidence and outcomes and is used by researchers seeking to improve the health and wellbeing of people with spinal cord injury.

“Being a funeral director and embalmer really gives you the skill to deal with people when they're not having a good time, and I feel like that transfers really well to exactly what I'm doing because when I walk into a patient's room, they might be having a terrible day and I need to either walk away and give them more time, or encourage them to participate in research that doesn't immediately benefit them,” says Keel.

Outside of work and parenting, Keel describes herself as a movie super fan. “During awards season, I go to the movies three times a week. I watch all the award shows and I also vote on the films.” She recently saw the movie Poor Things starring Emma Stone, which she has seen four times in the theater (“a record for me”) and highly recommends it. She is also planning on doing stand-up comedy again, something she has greatly enjoyed in the past. And, unsurprisingly, she says there might be a memoir in her future.