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

Now the corpse is ready for its close-up. After the mortician again washes the body and smears cream over the hands and face to prevent dehydration, he shampoos the hair, polishes the fingernails, and reshapes or reconstructs any disfigured features with clay, cotton, plaster of Paris, Styrofoam, or wax. If necessary, an entire hand or head can be built and bound to the body. Then the face gets a big helping of makeup (most of the natural color drains away with the body's blood), and the hair is combed and set.


Is all of this necessary, from a sanitation or health point of view? No. In fact, there's not a state in the union that requires embalming by law, except in certain special cases. Critics of the death trade, most notably Jessica Mitford in her seminal investigative work The American Way of Death, have charged that the public health benefits of embalming are virtually nonexistent. In turn, many modern funeral directors have begun arguing that embalming is principally a matter of mental health rather than public safety, that creating a "memory picture" of the corpse enables loved ones to better cope with the loss of the dear departed.

Anthony Pidgeon
Korn's Jonathan Davis (center) says the dress code was the hardest part of attending the S.F. College of Mortuary Science.
AP Wide World Photos
Korn's Jonathan Davis (center) says the dress code was the hardest part of attending the S.F. College of Mortuary Science.

When the first few mortuary science schools cropped up before the turn of the 20th century -- the real boom came in the 1920s and '30s -- they were called embalming colleges, and the focus was almost entirely on the hard sciences and the semisurgical aspects of the trade.

Seeking to bring a comprehensive mortuary science curriculum to the West Coast, Dr. L.W. Hosford opened the San Francisco College of Embalming in January 1930, with only two students in its first class. Always considered ahead of its time, San Francisco was among the first schools to offer business administration classes to supplement its technical courses.

"The curriculum has expanded as the world has changed," says Dimond, the college's current president. "In 1900, by the time someone reached 20 years of age, they would have been to 20 funerals. We are now dealing with people in funeral colleges who are 40 years old, and they've never experienced a death."

Gradually, the college gained a reputation as one of the best in the world. Says Ric Newton, an alum and funeral home director in Chico: "San Francisco had this elitism about it -- out-of-state funeral directors would send their kids to the school."

Its unique model -- students essentially attended college in a funeral home -- fit perfectly with its location at 1450 Post St., in a building constructed specifically as a mortuary science school. The structure's most breathtaking feature was its large amphitheater, capable of seating hundreds of students; five stainless steel embalming tables stood on the stage.

"It would rival anything from any Bela Lugosi movie," says Jacquelyn Taylor, a former student and president of the college from 1990 to 2001 who now heads the funeral service program at Mount Ida College in Boston. "On my first day, when I walked into that room, I was terrified -- absolutely terrified. I thought I was either going to faint or vomit. But when I sat in a seat and looked down, all the fear went away. I was just intrigued."

Because the college never owned the building where it operated, skyrocketing land values forced a relocation to Divisadero Street and another, in 1993, to its current Noe Valley location, on the top floor of a building it shares with Reilly Co./Goodwin & Scannell funeral home. The program still takes only one year to complete, but the curriculum now includes as many social science, business management, legal, and ethics courses as hard-science classes.

Students, who vary in age and background from recent high school graduates to discharged military personnel to retirees, must complete 65 units over three semesters to receive an associate arts degree certifying them as funeral directors/embalmers. They must then pass the required board exams and complete two years of apprenticeship in mortuaries before getting their licenses.

As the 1990s rolled around, the college's trustees began to realize that the school couldn't continue in San Francisco.

"It's been a constant struggle for them to develop the funds that would provide for the best up-to-date equipment and the people of quality to teach," says Ron Hast, publisher of the industry trade journal Mortuary Management.

Hast, for one, isn't thrilled by the trend of formerly independent schools latching onto community colleges. "It's concerning to some degree when someone can just pick this out of a college manual and not really, truly understand what's involved," he says. But because there are only two other West Coast mortuary science programs -- at Cypress College in Southern California and at Mount Hood Community College in Gresham, Ore. -- the administration at American River jumped at the chance to keep a program in Northern California. Although American River won't duplicate the school's trademark on-site mortuary (students will instead log their embalming time in Sacramento funeral homes), the community college will try to preserve San Francisco's tradition.

"Let's face it: The San Francisco school has been there for a long time, has a history, and a lot of graduates are a part of that history," says Stephen Peithman, a spokesman for American River. "It's an emotional issue, and we're sensitive to that."

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I use to service a duplicater above the ampitheater at 1450 post street and knew mr Sly and mr Grim who taught there back in the late 60's.They were some characters but really nice men.I was the only guy at A&M who would go there as everyone else could'nt handle seeing the various cadavers out on the tables.I definetly enjoyed the expierence and the students off the wall sense of humor during those years .Jim Salkeld

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