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Death of a Death School 

The 72-year-old San Francisco College of Mortuary Science -- perhaps the country's premier institution of funeral service education -- has its last graduation and moves (gulp) into the great beyond

Wednesday, Apr 24 2002
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In contrast to the guttural, throat-searing screams he unleashes onstage, Jonathan Davis, lead vocalist for the multiplatinum rap-metal band Korn, sounds downright dejected. Although he's swamped with work -- putting the finishing touches on the band's next album and planning the last-minute logistics for a summer tour -- the 31-year-old Bakersfield native has taken a few minutes to mourn, over cell-phone static and Southern California traffic, the closing of his old school: the San Francisco College of Mortuary Science.

"I heard it's going, and it's fuckin' horrible," says Davis, his voice high-pitched and plaintive. "It was a great school. Now that I'm older, I realize what a cool place it was."

Like many of the students who have flocked to the college since its founding in 1930, Davis became interested in the death-care business at an early age. "I don't really know why," he says, "but I was always into horror movies and gory shit." He got a job as a coroner's assistant when he was 16, and after graduating high school immediately enrolled in the San Francisco college's one-year program "because it was known as the best," he says. Although he dropped out after two semesters to apprentice at a mortuary closer to home, Davis says he relished his time in San Francisco, where he spent his days poring over embalming textbooks and his nights living and working in funeral homes (experiences that provided ample material for his future lyrics, many of which dwell, not coincidentally, on themes of violence, death, and violent death).

Although he would later suffer post-traumatic stress disorder from the sights he encountered during his six-year career in mortuaries and coroner's offices, Davis offers nothing but enthusiastic reminiscences about the San Francisco school, inquiring after former teachers, genially bemoaning the "floaters" fished out of the bay and dragged into the embalming lab, and labeling his stint at the school a "weird, cool time."

"I was scared shitless, 'cause I was just a boy from Bakersfield, and suddenly I was living in San Francisco," he recalls. "But I was doing something I loved.

"Man, it's sad to see that school go."


But go it will, after 72 years and more than 5,000 graduates. In June, the San Francisco College of Mortuary Science will bid farewell to its last, 30-student class, vacate its longtime home, a yellow Romanesque building on the corner of Dolores and 29th streets, and, like the untold number of cadavers that have lain on its embalming tables or roasted in its cremation ovens, pass into another realm.

Of the 52 accredited funeral service education programs in the United States, the San Francisco college, often called "the Harvard of mortuary science schools," is one of a kind. For starters, it's the only program whose students run their own on-site mortuary; there, each year, about 300 low-income families pay between $500 and $1,000 for a stately, no-frills memorial. (Comparable services at regular funeral homes can cost five to 10 times as much.) It's also one of the few mortuary schools that has remained private and independent, charging about $10,000 for its year's worth of classes in every subject a mortician needs to master -- not just embalming, science, and the "restorative arts," but also accounting, small business management, communications, the psychology and sociology of funeral service, ethics, and several different areas of law.

But, it seems, even a school that teaches death can't escape it; over the past decade, rising costs have made it too difficult for the little college to remain in San Francisco. Although most students live above one of the city's funeral homes, where they also work as interns, pricey housing has made it tough to attract top-flight faculty; parking is scarce during funeral services and classes; and constantly escalating property values have put a huge burden on the tiny school. "We're operating a small, single-purpose college on some of the most expensive real estate in the United States," says Donald Dimond, who became president of the school last August after serving a 10-year stint on its board of trustees. "I've been trying to get this institution moved out of San Francisco for a number of years, because I saw this as a never-ending problem."

When the landlords who own the college's 1920s-era building announced last year that they wanted to redevelop the property as condominium complex, the school's board of directors decided it was time to shut down. Although the condominium proposal was scrapped after Noe Valley residents raised heated objections to the project's size and traffic implications, the college is still moving out, merging its curriculum -- and some of its faculty -- into Sacramento's American River College, which this fall will begin offering a two-year program in funeral service education.

Although their business tends to harden them against sentimental goodbyes, many of the college's students, alumni, and instructors nevertheless view the death of the death school as the end of an era, and a harbinger of broader changes within the funeral industry. Most agree that the school couldn't possibly survive much longer in San Francisco, but still regret that future aspiring morticians won't get the chance to explore the college's truly distinctive charms.

"Going to that school was the best thing I could have done," says Leonard Zacharias, a 1997 graduate who lives and works in Williams Lake, British Columbia. "They had the best teachers and the best system in North America. I now own two funeral homes, a cemetery, and two crematoriums, and I never would have been able to do it if I hadn't gone there."


Since the emergence of anything that might be said to constitute culture, humans apparently have studied and practiced wide-ranging -- if fundamentally similar -- methods of discarding their dead, comforting grief-stricken survivors, and finding the proper balance between ceremony and sanitation. Archaeologists have discovered burial grounds dating back to 60,000 B.C., when Neanderthals surrounded their corpses with medicinal plants and antlers -- suggesting that even human ancestors conceived of an afterlife, conducted interment ceremonies, and concerned themselves with hygienic treatment of the dead.

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Matt Palmquist

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