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It's a bright mid-March morning in Noe Valley, but the second-floor halls of the San Francisco College of Mortuary Science remain suffused in a soft, golden murk, the only light coming from dim wall lamps and a few shafts of sunlight slipping through the blinds. The atmosphere is certainly appropriate -- would you want to stroll the corridors of a well-lit college of mortuary science? -- and in line with the school's other obvious attempt to establish the proper mood: Students must always wear business attire, to reinforce the notion that they attend class in a functioning mortuary, where a bereaved client could round the corner at any time.
The college's final class -- half of which is composed of women -- fills the school's solitary classroom, where plastic skeletons and models of internal organs would hearken back to a high school science lab, if high school science labs had vintage undertaker clothes and miniature caskets in the back of the room. While the students receive a lecture on regulatory law, 69-year-old Hugh McMonigle offers a whispered -- but exuberant -- tour of the class portraits that span the college's 72-year history and line its gloomy halls. "Since 1954, I've been in every picture," says McMonigle, tapping his finger against his earliest black-and-white head shot among the college's all-white, black-tuxedo-clad graduating class.
Today, the mostly bald McMonigle -- who introduces himself by declaring, in a slow, gravelly voice, "Around here, they call me Mac"-- looks every bit the mortuary science instructor in a dark blue suit over restrained vest and tie. He describes his entry to the field as a "devious process": After earning a zoology degree from Idaho State, he came to San Francisco to conduct cancer research with Dr. Hosford, the college's founder. As a backup, McMonigle enrolled in the mortuary science school and taught microbiology part time. Since then, he's been the mainstay of the college, attaining celebrated status among morticians nationwide.
"He's a legend," Ron Hast says. "There are certain people in our field whose reward in their work is not financial, but rather to keep something going. Hugh McMonigle is one of those people."
"He would have been a great research scientist somewhere, he's that intellectual and that bright," says Tim Bachman, an alum who now works at a funeral home in Sioux Falls, S.D. "When you talk to him and draw information from him, he just lets the floodgates open."
One current student puts it in even plainer terms: "Mac lives to embalm."
And fortunately, he also lives to tell about it.
McMonigle, seated in the school's cramped library and surrounded by past issues of Southern Funeral Director, takes less than 10 minutes of conversation to ease into his first embalming story. And it's preceded by an intriguing caveat, delivered in his matter-of-fact drawl: "Because the school is willing to take the time to deal with low-cost services, we get a lot of the problem cases that regular mortuaries would pass up."
"For instance," he begins, shifting in his chair and warming to his topic, "a young man was joy riding with some of his buddies some years ago. They were horsing around, speeding, and they hit a curb. He was ejected and came head-to-fireplug, just caved in his whole head." McMonigle locks his eyes on his hands, rubbing them against each other. "The family went to the medical examiner, and they were advised not to have a service. They came to the mortuary school and we said, '"Give us a chance. When we finish, if he looks OK, why, you can have an open casket.' Well, we had to restore the broken skull, rebuild the head with cotton and plaster and Styrofoam, brace it on the inside with the bones. Then suture up all the holes in the scalp, disguise those with cosmetics. But when it was done, the family came in and looked, talked it over, and two days later they had a full service. Hundreds of people showed up, because it was a high school kid." He clears his throat, never letting his words stray from their even tone and measured pace. "Over the years, we've had quite a few cases similar to that -- shotguns and car accidents and things. It's good training for the students, that they see this stuff."
Prodding, pulling, and feeling his own well-lined face, McMonigle illustrates how one might salvage a particularly blemished visage. "When someone who's Caucasian has the color of my black shoe, you have to use quite a bit of chemicals to bleach it. It's like stage makeup -- you put light where you want it to stand out," he says, touching the tip of his nose, "and dark where you want a wrinkle." He slides a finger down the sides. "We had one woman who was homeless, on drugs. Her daughter hadn't seen her for six years, although they talked on the phone, and she gave her some money, until one night the mother died in one of those hotels, just slumped against the wall at the end of a hallway. Took six or seven days before somebody discovered her.