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

"Critics very often say, '"They just teach people how to sell things.' Actually, the curriculum is very well-defined," he says, and as he speaks, he pages through an overflowing binder of course outlines and curriculum goals. "The idea that funeral directors '"sell' things gets good press, but you find that people have remarkably good instincts on the worst day of their lives.

"Obviously, we're not lifesavers, but I want everyone so satisfied with what I do that they will remember and come back 11 years later, drive 40 miles to do it, and send their friends. I want people walking out saying, '"That's not nearly as bad as I thought it would be.' Then I've won."

Although an increasing number of his students have no funeral service in their personal or familial backgrounds, Dimond is an old-fashioned, third-generation funeral director who has operated mortuaries in Arizona and Southern California. He's been hooked on the business since he was a small child, when he grew up answering the phones in his father's funeral home and occasionally riding along on ambulance calls.

Mortuary science students hone their "restorative art" skills on these models.
Anthony Pidgeon
Mortuary science students hone their "restorative art" skills on these models.
James Murphy, 19, enrolled in the San Francisco College of Mortuary Science because of his lifelong fascination with death.
Anthony Pidgeon
James Murphy, 19, enrolled in the San Francisco College of Mortuary Science because of his lifelong fascination with death.

"I remember whining because I couldn't take my ice cream cone into the ambulance, so they let me blow the siren," Dimond recalls. "When you're 6 years old, that's heady stuff. It gets in your blood."

Dimond is full of interesting trivia about the industry -- "Nobody likes to think about the fact that they have refrigerators on cruise ships," he says, "but people die on cruise ships, and you have to have a plan for it" -- but he's also pragmatic about the pressures morticians face. "If there's anyone who isn't at times affected by working in this business, I don't want 'em," he says. "At the same time, if there's someone who gets so emotively involved with every family they take care of, I don't want 'em. Dealing with people's sorrow, if there's no release from it, can get to anyone. And there are times when I'm working in a funeral home when I need to back away."

Relieving the pressure through humor, however, is a touchy subject. Dimond warns his students that funeral directors must conduct themselves with an unusual amount of self-restraint.

"A friend of mine always had a joke, and it was always at my expense," Dimond says. "We'd be sitting around at our Saturday morning breakfast, spinning quarters for the coffee tab, and he'd tell his usual jokes. But I never participated in it. Well, one afternoon he walked to the front door and said his brother had died. As I finished making the arrangements, I walked him out to his car, and he said, 'Incidentally, I now know why you never participate in the jokes.' And I said, 'Yeah, Bill, if I make jokes about what I do and the people I take care of, how would you feel about walking up to my front door today?' That's what I try to communicate to the class.

"People trust funeral directors, and you can't abuse that trust."

In a Mission District coffee shop only a half-dozen blocks from the school that will soon become their alma mater, James Murphy and Felicia Ortiz are trying to explain why they want to be morticians. Lowering his dry, deadpan voice, Murphy struggles to articulate his self-avowed "fascination with death."

"All my life, there's been a relationship there," says the 19-year-old Murphy, pale, slender, and still dressed for class in tight brown slacks, a blue corduroy shirt with a matching tie, and sharp-toed black dress shoes. "One day it just clicked. It just seemed like the right thing to do. Before this, I'd never been to a funeral. Nobody close to me had ever died."

Now Murphy lives above Valencia Street Serra Mortuary, in a tiny dorm room just steps away from the funeral home's vast casket selection area, where aisles of coffins adorned with photographs and flowers wait for potential buyers. Murphy is adamant that you can't just be death-obsessed to work in the business; you must respect its traditions and customs. But, he adds, a perverse sense of humor and a persistent fascination with the great unknown will help.

"I remember on the first day [working as an apprentice], I had to glue this old lady's lips shut," Murphy says. "And you know, it just made my day. You get to go home and tell all your friends that you Super Glued someone's lips shut. And I knew from then on I wanted to pursue it further. It's like when you're younger, and you're passing by a crime scene. You look because you want to see some blood and gore. Most people just tend to deny it -- why not fully embrace it and have a good time doing it?"

Ortiz, 23, took a more circuitous route to her chosen field. A former stripper who danced in San Francisco clubs for three years, Ortiz professes a profound enthrallment with the human body. She wanted to become a gynecologist, in fact, but was drawn to the mortuary school when she realized she could study all the hard science she wanted, earn a degree within a year, and begin a career almost immediately. Like Murphy, she lives above a funeral home in San Francisco and says she's always been interested in the darker side of mortality. She also enjoys the theatrical aspect of funeral directing: the makeup, props, lights, and ceremonies that link death and drama.

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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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