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

"Well, she had had a color change, she was in bad shape, and when I first looked at her I said, '"We're not going to embalm this.' But the students who made the arrangements said her daughter would really like to see her, so we did it. Well, by the time we got through bleaching the skin, it looked like someone with bad skin problems, but there was no longer the dark pigmentation. We put the normal wrinkles on the face, the nose, colored the eyebrows, did her hair and lipstick. A little bit of cosmetic got in the hair, and they combed it out to the end, so she had this streak in her hair that matched her cosmetic. I thought, '"Wow, that's great.' The daughter came in and everyone was waiting to see what her reaction would be. And she said, '"You only did one thing wrong: My mother never fixed her hair up like that.'"

McMonigle breaks into a long, full-throated laugh, which turns into a cough and back into a chuckle. "Early in my career, there were times when I was surprised. But now nothing surprises me."

There have also been times when McMonigle has wondered whether this was the right business for him. When he was about 23, in his second year of teaching, St. Joseph's School of Nursing held a Halloween dance and (naturally enough) invited the mortuary students, who were mostly male. At one point a girl asked him where he went to school.

Hugh McMonigle, the school's legendary 69-year-old instructor, has taught mortuary science since 1954.
Anthony Pidgeon
Hugh McMonigle, the school's legendary 69-year-old instructor, has taught mortuary science since 1954.

"I said, '"I don't go to school, actually. I teach. At the San Francisco College of Mortuary Science.' Boom! The hands went in the pocket. '"I'm not going to shake hands with any mortician,' she said. And that really traumatized me. I thought, '"I'm going to spend the rest of my life with people like this.'"

But his wife, who moved with him from Idaho to San Francisco, always encouraged him in his fledgling career, and often accompanied him on removals. In later years he'd bring his kids to sit in the front seat while he loaded bodies into the back of the van, and gradually children in his Pacifica neighborhood began clamoring to ride along, too. "It was something different for them to do," he says, "or maybe it was because every time we finished I'd stop and buy ice cream for them."

When his mother was in her eighties, McMonigle would bring her on late-night removals to get her out of the house. On one cold night, with his frail mother bundled up in a coat and stocking cap and perched in the passenger seat, McMonigle explains, he had to pick up a corpse from a hospital. As McMonigle loaded the remains into the back of the van, the security guard went around the front of the car, to make sure it had the required parking placard on the dashboard.

"He looks at the sign, looks up, and sees my mom sitting there. Well, I finished what I was doing in the back of the van, came around, and he was gone. I asked my mom where he was and she said, '"Oh, he just looked in here, turned around, and went back inside.' I figured he must have been paged or something because he didn't lock the gate or anything." McMonigle's thin lips stretch into a broad smile, hinting at an impending roar of laughter. "Well, I was there later in the week, and he got up the nerve to ask me, "When you get really busy, do you just sit 'em up on the front seat?'"

McMonigle slaps the library table, the twinkle in his eyes spreading to the rest of his face. "So I said to my mom, "If anyone looks through the front seat, move a little.' She thought that was so funny, she told all her friends that story. Anybody who'd listen." When the laughter passes, he turns the tale into another important lesson about life in the funeral business. "You have to be able to laugh at situations if you get grim. Otherwise, you just chew it up, chew yourself out."

"If I've heard the story about the body sitting up ...," Donald Dimond, president of the San Francisco College of Mortuary Science, says, shaking his head in frustration. "Someone always tells the story: '"I was in a funeral home one time, and I walked into the prep room, and a body sat up.' You have to kind of smile, because you can't say, '"You're a damn liar.' But bodies don't sit up. They can't sit up. Forget convulsive movement; it takes a lot of muscular action to twitch a nose, move a finger. And there's something else that's required: blood flowing."

Like the hallway outside, Dimond's spacious office is bathed in the subdued amber of dim lamps and sunlight against shuttered blinds. Bookcases line the walls, showcasing trade journals dating back to the 1930s -- when side-loading hearses were briefly in vogue -- and modern-era curriculum guides thicker than most dictionaries. Dimond's tan suit blends perfectly into the muted glow, and his voice carries a naturally smooth, pedantic tone as he discusses and dismisses many of the misconceptions the public holds about his livelihood.

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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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