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

"I'm a total metalhead, and every band I listen to sings about death and gore and stuff like that," says Ortiz, draped in an all-black suit. "Once I got into it, I realized this was my calling, this was fate. Nobody believed me, because they thought I'd be a stripper forever, but I made it into the school, and now I'm earning top grades."

Even a harrowing experience during her first embalming couldn't dissuade Ortiz. The corpse -- brought into a mortuary where she was serving an internship -- was an older woman, still warm, and Ortiz was instructed to perform the cavity aspiration, draining the inner organs of blood and waste and pumping in replacement embalming fluid. As she was attaching the hose to the bottle of fluid, she accidentally knocked the bottle over and sent it bouncing across the floor. Solution splashed everywhere, including up Ortiz's skirt.

"I had to undress from the waste down and turn on the quick-jet shower," Ortiz recalls with a laugh. "My inner thighs were absolutely burning, and my boss comes in with me standing in my underwear and suit jacket, trying to get this cavity fluid off my thighs. My leg was embalming the whole night, my right inner thigh was red hot. So I think when I'm an old lady, I'll be all wrinkled except for this one young, supple spot where I'm embalmed."

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.

"Happens to everyone," Murphy adds. "Sooner or later, you're going to get embalming fluid on you."

And sooner or later, you're going to see some corpses that can't help but turn your stomach. Among the worst, Murphy and Ortiz agree, are shotgun blasts and fetal deaths. Ortiz was particularly shaken by a 19-year-old girl. "Because she was so close to my age, she didn't look as dead as the rest of them. You start thinking of your own mortality because she was pinker, the look on her face didn't seem like she was ready for it. And you can sense that, you can really see it. In a way, we get to know these dead people because we're working right there with them."

Most students who have passed through the San Francisco school agree that the college exposed them to the extremes of the trade. The school always needs corpses, and often that means taking weeks-old bodies that have been abandoned and mangled by advanced decomposition.

"We got everything: trauma, gunshots to the head, car accidents," says Tim Bachman, the Sioux Falls funeral director who graduated from the school in 1988. "In our region, I'm now called upon by other funeral homes to help with their reconstructions, because I've seen it all in San Francisco."

Bachman, born and raised in Sioux Falls, also remembers seeing some grief-stricken live people who stood in stark contrast to the folks he grew up around. "One man had died of AIDS, and his companion came in to make the arrangements," he recalls. "I must have looked like just some redneck kid from the Midwest, and I had a hard time breaking through the wall that was built up between us. Finally I just laid my pen down, took him by the hand, and said, '"I'm not here to judge you.' From that point on, everything went very well, and I take that as a big lesson in how I deal with people. They might not have my value system, but I want to help them through this."

And in turn, not everyone shares the value system of aspiring funeral directors, a fact that can lead to social isolation for students at the San Francisco school. Ric Newton, who graduated from the college in the early 1970s and also taught embalming labs, lived in an apartment above the school's Post Street building. One night, after meeting a nice Italian girl and taking her to dinner in North Beach, Newton brought her back to his place. But when they got out of the car and she saw where he lived, any prospects for a nightcap came to a screeching halt.

"She would not come up to my apartment," Newton says. "Needless to say, the relationship didn't go very far."

But like many morticians, Newton -- who runs a funeral home in Chico and has served as president of the California Funeral Directors Association -- says the varied aspects of the job make it worth the occasional social awkwardness.

"It's so multifaceted," he says. "One day I can be involved with homicide people and forensic law enforcement agents, the next day I'm meeting with a Hindu family about a ceremony. We care for the dead, of course, but we're also caregivers for the living. The funeral director plays a vital role in coping with grief and loss, and it's a great feeling to know you can affect people at those times."

Donald Dimond flicks a light switch, throws open a pair of large wooden doors, and says: "This is why the college couldn't stay here."

The doors open on an enormous chapel -- the largest nondenominational chapel in Northern California -- that has the musty vastness of an old single-screen movie palace, replete with glowing candelabras. Pews that were originally designed to accommodate the packed houses at longshoreman funerals stretch on and on, capable of seating 400 with room to spare. But when Dimond looks at the airy chapel, he sees only wasted space and a potential parking lot.

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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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