The Student Body

Bring out your dead ... for a budget funeral at the San Francisco Collegeof Mortuary Science.

You know what's really weird? Lifting a warm body and putting it in a cooler," says 32-year-old student mortician Lisa Klein. A former waitress now in the final months of a three-semester program at the San Francisco College of Mortuary Science, Klein has segued from serving meat to slicing corpses in her burgeoning career as funeral technician.

Leaning across the table of a Mission Street donut shop, Klein drops her voice to a low whisper as she describes in sanguinary detail the embalming process -- from splaying the body on the porcelain table (positioned at a slight angle to aid in fluid drainage) to puncturing vital organs and decanting their juices to applying specialty makeups on the deceased's cold and colorless lips.

Klein recalls the difficulties of a fellow student -- a second-semester male -- who couldn't master the techniques of applying makeup to anyone who wasn't in the prone position. Frustrated by his failure, he ordered Klein to lie on a cot at school.

"Don't move," he said.
Spackling her face with copious amounts of rouge and lipstick, he proceeded to paint Klein into the living dead.

"I looked like I should've been in the movies," she reminisces.
Married with four kids, Klein moved from Phoenix to enroll in the San Francisco College of Mortuary Science, located at the corner of 29th Street and Dolores, upstairs from Reilly Co. Funeral Directors. Like many of her 64 fellow students, Klein acknowledges an obsession with death and murder, but morbid fascination was not the sole draw in her career choice.

"I read morticians have better job security than computer programmers," she says, claiming to have discovered her calling by consulting a reference book for careers in science. There it was -- funeral director -- nestled between fundraiser and furniture manufacturer in the Encyclopedia of Careers and Vocational Guidance.

Outside the funeral industry, the stereotype of the mortician -- a creepy male who is efficient yet aloof -- is fed by a series of infrequent yet unforgettable stories about morticians who re-use caskets, lop off the extremities of extra long bodies and indulge in necrophilia. The image of the ghoulish mortician was perhaps embalmed best by Jessica Mitford, whose 1963 book The American Way of Death portrayed them as monsters, exploiting the grieving process for their own personal gain.

Of course, Mitford was right. Morticians are vultures, maybe worse than vultures, who only torment the odiferous dead. Funeral directors, on the other hand, routinely gouge the living by convincing them that before the deceased can be allowed to rot six feet under they must first be rendered lifelike, stuffed into a hand-tooled mahogany box and made the centerpiece of a $9,000 floral pageant.

We all know that the dead have no material needs, but this understanding prompts few of us to drag dad down to the beach for a Viking funeral when he dies, wrapping him in a sheet and pushing him out to sea in a flaming canoe. Societal guilt provides morticians with the very job security that attracted Klein to the field: When a relative croaks, we automatically clear a space for the portly scavenger from the funeral home, saying yes to his suggestion that we buy extra flowers; yes to that offer of an all-bronze casket; yes to the Cadillac hearse; and yes to a prime funeral plot.

Rapacious as he may be, every funeral-home vulture was once a cuddly nestling -- like first-semester mortuary student Beth Lyon, who has yet to handle a corpse in the line of duty; a fledgling like Lisa Klein, who gripes about the difficulty of simultaneously lifting a dead person's head and blasting it with a hair dryer; and like Chuck Hayse, a soaring new mortician who graduated at the top of his class in January. Hayse is now serving his two-year apprenticeship at Arthur J. Sullivan & Co. Funeral Directors in the Castro as he prepares for his licensing exam.

Three short semesters -- just 12 brief months -- is all it takes for the faculty of six at the San Francisco College of Mortuary Science to transform the ambitious student into an apprentice undertaker. At the bargain price of $8,400 for the entire course of study (coincidentally the cost of a "decent" funeral), teachers like Hugh McMonigle and Marj McClure, the dean of students, assist students in mastering four areas of study to "educate the trainee for a lifetime of service to his fellow man in bereavement," as the course catalogue puts it.

To put a blunter point on it, your dying is their living.

First-semester student Beth Lyon traces her fascination with undertaking to her early years, when she witnessed an accident in which a 10-year-old friend was crushed by an 18-wheeler while walking his bike across the street.

"His head had been smashed in and it was very weird seeing it -- it was in slow motion," Lyon says. But her grief was relieved by the scene created by the morticians at the funeral home. "Seeing him in the casket just lit something inside me," she says. "He looked so beautiful and peaceful and I knew this was something I wanted to do."

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