You know what's really weird? Lifting a warm body and putting it in a cooler,” says 32-year-old student mortician Lisa Klein. A former waitress now in the final months of a three-semester program at the San Francisco College of Mortuary Science, Klein has segued from serving meat to slicing corpses in her burgeoning career as funeral technician.
Leaning across the table of a Mission Street donut shop, Klein drops her voice to a low whisper as she describes in sanguinary detail the embalming process — from splaying the body on the porcelain table (positioned at a slight angle to aid in fluid drainage) to puncturing vital organs and decanting their juices to applying specialty makeups on the deceased's cold and colorless lips.
Klein recalls the difficulties of a fellow student — a second-semester male — who couldn't master the techniques of applying makeup to anyone who wasn't in the prone position. Frustrated by his failure, he ordered Klein to lie on a cot at school.
“Don't move,” he said.
Spackling her face with copious amounts of rouge and lipstick, he proceeded to paint Klein into the living dead.
“I looked like I should've been in the movies,” she reminisces.
Married with four kids, Klein moved from Phoenix to enroll in the San Francisco College of Mortuary Science, located at the corner of 29th Street and Dolores, upstairs from Reilly Co. Funeral Directors. Like many of her 64 fellow students, Klein acknowledges an obsession with death and murder, but morbid fascination was not the sole draw in her career choice.
“I read morticians have better job security than computer programmers,” she says, claiming to have discovered her calling by consulting a reference book for careers in science. There it was — funeral director — nestled between fundraiser and furniture manufacturer in the Encyclopedia of Careers and Vocational Guidance.
Outside the funeral industry, the stereotype of the mortician — a creepy male who is efficient yet aloof — is fed by a series of infrequent yet unforgettable stories about morticians who re-use caskets, lop off the extremities of extra long bodies and indulge in necrophilia. The image of the ghoulish mortician was perhaps embalmed best by Jessica Mitford, whose 1963 book The American Way of Death portrayed them as monsters, exploiting the grieving process for their own personal gain.
Of course, Mitford was right. Morticians are vultures, maybe worse than vultures, who only torment the odiferous dead. Funeral directors, on the other hand, routinely gouge the living by convincing them that before the deceased can be allowed to rot six feet under they must first be rendered lifelike, stuffed into a hand-tooled mahogany box and made the centerpiece of a $9,000 floral pageant.
We all know that the dead have no material needs, but this understanding prompts few of us to drag dad down to the beach for a Viking funeral when he dies, wrapping him in a sheet and pushing him out to sea in a flaming canoe. Societal guilt provides morticians with the very job security that attracted Klein to the field: When a relative croaks, we automatically clear a space for the portly scavenger from the funeral home, saying yes to his suggestion that we buy extra flowers; yes to that offer of an all-bronze casket; yes to the Cadillac hearse; and yes to a prime funeral plot.
Rapacious as he may be, every funeral-home vulture was once a cuddly nestling — like first-semester mortuary student Beth Lyon, who has yet to handle a corpse in the line of duty; a fledgling like Lisa Klein, who gripes about the difficulty of simultaneously lifting a dead person's head and blasting it with a hair dryer; and like Chuck Hayse, a soaring new mortician who graduated at the top of his class in January. Hayse is now serving his two-year apprenticeship at Arthur J. Sullivan & Co. Funeral Directors in the Castro as he prepares for his licensing exam.
Three short semesters — just 12 brief months — is all it takes for the faculty of six at the San Francisco College of Mortuary Science to transform the ambitious student into an apprentice undertaker. At the bargain price of $8,400 for the entire course of study (coincidentally the cost of a “decent” funeral), teachers like Hugh McMonigle and Marj McClure, the dean of students, assist students in mastering four areas of study to “educate the trainee for a lifetime of service to his fellow man in bereavement,” as the course catalogue puts it.
To put a blunter point on it, your dying is their living.
First-semester student Beth Lyon traces her fascination with undertaking to her early years, when she witnessed an accident in which a 10-year-old friend was crushed by an 18-wheeler while walking his bike across the street.
“His head had been smashed in and it was very weird seeing it — it was in slow motion,” Lyon says. But her grief was relieved by the scene created by the morticians at the funeral home. “Seeing him in the casket just lit something inside me,” she says. “He looked so beautiful and peaceful and I knew this was something I wanted to do.”
Now 24, the Southern Californian completed her associate degree in math and science at the College of the Canyons before proceeding to the San Francisco College of Mortuary Science.
“The reason I went into other schooling before I came here is because I didn't think I was mentally ready to accept this as a career. I wanted a broader spectrum of life,” Lyon says.
But don't ask such probing questions of Chuck Hayse.
“You don't need to ask a [student] mortician why he's here,” he says. “You just know.”
Female students like Lyon and Klein represent the growing numbers of women entering the trade.
“Artificial barriers had existed against women in the field,” explains college president Jacquie Taylor, who was one of a handful of female students when she graduated from the school in 1973. Women were deterred from the business for the usual sexist reasons: suspicions that they would engage in hanky-panky with the male work force and their alleged physical limitations. [page]
“People didn't think women were strong enough to handle the heavy lifting required on the job,” says Taylor, who adds that 30 percent of the current student body is female.
“I don't fit the stereotype of the funeral director, who is reserved and wears a dark suit,” says Dean McClure. As a woman, she believes that she can stretch the fabric of her role. “It is socially acceptable for me to put my arm around a client. It is socially acceptable for me to shed a tear with a client, whereas my male counterparts would not be as comfortable both with himself and with society.”
It's a good time for both men and women to be enrolled in undertaking school, says Gordon Bigelow, executive director of the American Board of Funeral Service Education.
“Over the last three or four years, new student enrollment in the programs has increased from about 2,100 a year to 3,000 a year,” says Bigelow. “The increase is roughly consistent with when the recession began,” he says, lending credence to the U.S. Labor Department's prediction that “employment opportunities in mortuary science [will] be excellent through the year 2005.”
“The old-timers in the field are dying off themselves, making space for people like us,” observes Hayse.
You may possess the aptitudinal wingspan of a mortician and not even know it. Richard Beery, a Berkeley career counselor, says that between 5 and 10 percent of his clients who complete the Strong Interest Inventory indicate some predisposition for mortuary work.
“When people score high on the funeral director scale, they're pretty spooked,” Beery says. A couple of years ago, the Strong Interest Inventory substituted “funeral director” for “mortician,” but it had no statistical effect on the outcome.
“High scores in that area actually indicate an interest in both business and social service, suggesting some empathic connection with others,” Beery says.
The job's appeal doesn't appear to be money: Average starting salaries for funeral technicians range from $19,000 to $25,000, with the scale topping out in the $60,000 range for owner/operators of funeral homes. Morticians could make as much money arranging weddings and christenings as they do ripping and stitching stiffs.
“We make what teachers make,” says Hayse, although an efficient embalmer can prepare four to six bodies a day, charging $100 to $200 a corpse.
The 40-year-old Hayse made more than a teacher's salary during his 15 years in sales at AT&T, but he grew dissatisfied with the corporate life and dropped out several years ago and worked odd jobs, including stints as a house cleaner. After two-and-a-half years, he'd had enough.
“My friends got sick of hearing me ask what I was going to do with my life,” he says. He had thought about mortuary science since childhood and decided to give it a try.
“I've always liked the aesthetics of funerals,” says Hayse, whose home is decorated with secondhand funeral-parlor furniture. “I have an attraction to flowers and velvet. It's nice to work in an environment you like.”
The practical advantage of presenting your corpse to these student morticians for its final dressing is economic: The College of Mortuary Science — the only student-run, nonprofit working mortuary in the world, according to Jacquie Taylor — prices its services at wholesale. The average college funeral costs between $500 and $700, accounting for the cost of a pressboard casket, service and cremation. The school even maintains its own chapel for funeral services. Meanwhile, the professionals downstairs at the Reilly Co., to which the school has no official connection, charge $4,000 for a low-end funeral; there is no upper limit for body preparation with all the trimmings.
“I know a lot of people who couldn't afford to have a haircut, perm or coloring unless they went to a beauty college. It's the same concept,” says Dean McClure.
Established in 1930, the College of Mortuary Science is one of 42 mortuary science programs in the U.S. accredited by the American Board of Funeral Service Education. Formerly located on Divisadero at O'Farrell, the college moved to the second floor of Reilly Co. about two years ago when it lost its old space to Walgreens.
The Reilly Co.'s founding family lived in the second story of the Dolores Street site, which explains the homey feeling of the 12,000-square-foot floor of classrooms.
The first semester of study at the college is strictly textbook — no lab — mostly because the shock of handling dead flesh might accelerate the modest attrition rates currently recorded by beginning pupils.
“Some students simply discover they don't want a career in funeral service, and that's okay,” says McClure. “I would never say to anybody, 'Oh, yes you do!'”
First semester is comprised of 11 introductory classes in science, history and procedure. Anatomy, of course, is essential. What could be worse than a mortician confronted with an extra or missing body part, unable to discern its proper location? Chemistry, microbiology, pathology and psychology round out the science coursework, as do lectures in embalming and restorative art techniques. Also covered is mortuary law — “to protect the rights of the deceased when they no longer can express those rights for themselves,” says McClure.
“There's a couple [of first-semester students] that just don't seem to get the classroom stuff,” says Lyon. “Even the simplest definitions like what is anatomy.”
Survivors of the first semester who earn at least a 2.0 GPA advance to the second semester, where textbook learning is augmented with embalming work.
“I'm excited about going into lab,” says Lyon, who will be doing just that in a few weeks. “Apprehensive and excited at the same time. I don't know what I'm going to see.” [page]
“I went to lunch with a third-semester student and talked about cases he had done,” she says. “What people look like — skin slits and sores and the smell. I can talk about anything when I'm eating,” she says.
Lyon worked as a Candy Striper as a teenager, but that isn't a great predictor of how she'll actually do when she handles, cuts and buffs the stiffs.
“I've seen dead bodies … and a lot of gross stuff,” she says. “But to actually do it, it's something I want to do but still have reservations about.” She also worries that she won't be able to handle the smells.
“It depends on how long they've been dead and what sort of decomposition there is. They can smell real bad. I've smelled a dead body before.”
Lyon once worked in a veterinarian clinic, where “the stenches were just unbearable. You'd have to walk out because you feel you were going to gag.”
Klein isn't bothered as much by the smell of dead bodies as she is by fluids. “The chemicals are sometimes so strong it just burns your eyes,” she complains.
Many College of Mortuary Science students are preparing for their second if not third career, making them older than the average college student body. In 1971, only 9 percent of the school's students were 30 or older. Today, 25 percent of the student body is over 30, and 80 percent has taken college courses before attending the school.
The courses start out slow, helping the students re-acclimate themselves to school. But by the third semester, dead bodies are largely irrelevant as students advance to classes in communications, merchandising, management, accounting and business law.
Communications, which is also taught in the first semester class, is “dorky,” says Klein.
“Basically, it teaches you how to shake hands. I know how to shake hands.”
One reason funerals at the College of Mortuary Science are so cheap is because the school isn't a full-service, full-time institution.
“We can't tell people you can only die between 8:00 and 4:30,” says Klein. During school hours, all students attend class in semiformal attire should they be needed by the college to work an emergency shift. (Some students, like Hayse, work part-time downstairs at Reilly Co.) Former embalming prof Hugh “Mac” McMonigle doubles as the school's body dispatcher, fielding calls for pickups from around the Bay Area after closing time.
Home removals require two workers: one to console the family and fill out the legal release and complete paperwork; the other to prepare the body for transport. For discretion's sake, mortuaries dispatch unmarked vans or station wagons, not hearses, for pickups.
Serving on the body brigade, Klein scans the street for children before rolling the empty steel gurney into the house and rolling out the dead body.
“We have to be very careful,” says Klein. “How many times have you seen a body being wheeled out of a house?”
Fetching bodies from hospitals and the coroner's office is a cinch because the remains come prepackaged in plastic pouches. Home pickups require more discretion since zipping a loved one into an air-tight baggie could ignite family hysteria. At residences, the home-pickup artists don gloves (since the stiff may be infectious) and unfurl white sheets to cover the body.
Klein remembers her first home removal, which came two weeks after starting school.”There were no maggots or anything, but he was definitely ripe and smelled bad,” she says.
McMonigle, who taught embalming lab until a few years ago, recalls the time a bereaved family member “jumped in the air and landed on the cot” as the body was wheeled out the door. “We set [the body] on the floor, stepped back and let the family take care of it,” McMonigle recounts. “The other family members got her off the top, held her, hugged her and then signaled it was okay.”
Klein doesn't much like the pickup work: She's a self-declared blood person.
“I prefer working in the back,” she says, referring to the embalming room. Hayse, whose brother is a butcher, feels likewise.
“I want to see what cancer does to a body, what AIDS does to a body,” says Klein.
Klein's interest in the death trade extends to her support of assisted-suicide artist Dr. Kevorkian.
“We don't let people die because society says it's not right, but we don't let animals suffer. We put them to sleep. As far as I'm concerned, we're placing animals above humans,” she says.
Meanwhile, back at the mortuary, your typical corpse ferments and turns gaseous from the breakdown of carbohydrates. This causes it to bloat and smell like … death. If the school's two embalming tables are occupied when the occasional stinky stiff arrives, the students slide it onto one of six shelves in the walk-in refrigerator for later draining and preparation. The top shelf is reserved for babies, since they're lighter.
Second-semester students are taught how to tap an artery or vein running close to the skin's surface, either in the base of the neck or groin. The cut vein is connected to an embalming machine and the blood runs off the embalming table, down into a bucket and into San Francisco's sewer system. To retard human spoilage, formaldehyde is pumped through the corpse's circulatory system.
Organs are not removed during embalming, but because they may harbor infectious diseases, the young morticians are taught to break down the vital parts and sluice away the fluids. This is accomplished with an extraordinarily sharp, two-foot-long device called the trocar. The trocar punctures the skin, penetrates the organs and a vacuum sucks out the body liquids.
There's a different routine for post-autopsy corpses, Lyon notes.
“When you get autopsied, they take everything out,” she says. “They put 'em in a bag like a chicken.” [page]
Trocar incisions are plugged with a white or tan cap. Normally, only one hole is created per embalming, but because students will be students, things can go amiss when students attack a body with the instrument. Embalming lab prof Kim Hamelberg tells pupils the story about a student who went a little loopy with the trocar: Hamelberg came across 10 trocar buttons in the deceased's genitals. Not to worry, though, since the holes are never seen by anyone but the embalmers.
Still, students must exercise artful caution. “Injecting too much fluid will bloat the hands and face,” says McMonigle, ruining the “memory picture” presented in an open casket.
Today's students at the San Francisco College of Mortuary Science don't get as much practice as classes in the '80s did. Prior to 1989, the school participated in the University of California's Willed Body Program and prepared more than 700 corpses a year to be used as cadavers throughout the state-wide UC system. Since the bodies weren't shown for service, the aspiring morticians didn't have to bury their mistakes, they just passed them along to anatomy students. McMonigle still laments the day the College of Mortuary Science lost its unclaimed corpse contract.
“The students aren't doing as many embalmings as they had previously. They used to do five a week,” he says, “and were crowded to finish. We'd say, 'Do another, make room for the next one.' They didn't have time to think …. Now they have to be more careful, slow down.”
The embalming lab convenes at 11 am, just before lunch, on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. This is the heart and soul of mortuary science, the thing that differentiates the College of Mortuary Science's matriculants from the students of car mechanics or locksmithing.
“Kim [Hamelberg] told us we'd be hungry when we leave lab, and it's true,” says Klein. “Everybody can't wait to leave for lunch.”
An introductory round of fainting is de rigeur for embalming students. This year, two tossed chunks, one of them the daughter of a mortician. But soon the entire class learns to regard the human remains as meat.
“Bodies don't seem like people to me,” says Klein, who graduates June 7. “They never have. They're still human beings … but to me, it looks like meat. I always get corrected in class. My teacher say, 'Tissue, Lisa. It's tissue.'”
Klein says she speculated just the other day with another student about what human flesh would taste like.
“I could probably taste a person but I don't think I could chew on it,” she says. “We put a lot of chemicals in our body. Animals don't.”
Depending on the deceased's body type, weight, musculature and cause of death, the corpse may be slightly stiff. When rigor mortis contorts a dead body, morticians remedy the situation the same way one does a living person's cramp: Massage and manipulation disperses the chemicals causing the muscles to seize up.
Klein, who loves raising veins for the embalming machine, isn't keen on massaging the dead's hands.
“When their fingers curl up it feels like they're trying to hold on to you,” she says.
Klein remembers visiting a lab and watching the action before she took the class herself.
“The first time I saw a posted [autopsied] case and they were removing the head and pushing the scalp down over the face, I thought that was really neat. I kind of got a rush out of that. I couldn't believe I was actually getting to see that.”
Fondly, she recalls her “first time” wielding the knife in embalming lab.
“It was cool. It was everything I thought it would be. That's just the gore part of me,” she says. “I dug right into my first bodies. There was no holding me back.”
The first thing embalming students learn, Klein explains, is how to scrub down the corpse with green antiseptic soap when it pops out of the fridge.
“We set [facial] features first, because once you embalm you can't move them,” she says.
A quick shave follows. Then, because eyes lose their natural moisture and collapse after death, embalmers must fit the sockets with jagged plastic caps that snag the eyes' interiors and keep them closed. Matching the contour of the eye from the inside, the caps stop the lid from descending into the void created by the dehydration.
“We clean out the nose, we clean the fingernails, nail file them — toenails, too, just to be absurd,” she says. “Make sure the jaw looks straight. Then you're going to cock the head toward the body's right, just slightly, so the deceased is “looking” at those who come to pay their respects.
After the trocar has evacuated the remains and the embalming fluid has been injected (to firm up the drooping flesh), the morticians wash and shampoo the corpse again.
“This is all granted you don't have obese people,” says Klein. “Embalming times are different for different people.”
Embalming fluid dehydrates the skin: It's important to rub massage cream into the skin, Klein says, “So it lasts and looks good.”
Lab students invariably worry that they might “hurt” a body as they position it, but they eventually get over it. Hayse gets testy with the dead folks he handles, almost wishing they would make his life easier by moving a little bit.
“The attitude I've developed with dead people is the attitude a lot of people have developed toward kids,” he says. “You have to do everything for them.”
To prevent drooling, the jaw of the dearly departed is set by an injection of embalming fluid. For slightly older stiffs, whose muscles have lost their elasticity, mouths can be stapled or stitched shut. Once the mouth is properly posed (pushing up the corners could give a corpse the expression of the Joker in Batman, according to McMonigle), the embalming is complete and the corpse is ready for makeup. [page]
Classes in the restorative arts are taught all three semesters, as students learn how to interpret personality and temperament from the deceased's outward appearance, as well as learn color matching, cosmetic application, hairdressing and plaster casting of lost limbs. Without these restorative art techniques, many trauma cases — car-crash fatalities and “floaters” (drowning victims whose bodies have swollen to the size of a life raft) — could never be shown in an open casket.
“It really is a miracle considering we don't use difficult technology,” says Klein. She is particularly proud of a car-crash victim whose nose she helped rebuild with wax last semester.
Once it's injected with embalming fluid, the body must set for eight hours to firm the flesh. Then, specialty makeups, such as NuLife, can be lightly massaged into the skin. Color can be restored to the lifeless in two ways: through the injection of dye in the embalming fluid or via cosmetics.
Makeup is usually applied in the embalming lab, but Klein likes to apply it in the chapel where the body will ultimately be shown. The quality of the light is everything, she insists. And she hates it when relatives request elaborate styling jobs on the thinning hair of older women. Actually, doing the hair of any dead person can be a drag.
“Heads are heavy,” says Klein.
Photographs provided by the family offer the most reliable information on hairstyle and cosmetics, although in the case of older people, current snapshots are often unavailable.
“We embalmed someone using a 40-year-old picture, and the family was delighted,” Hayse says.
Precisely because dead people have so few needs, the student morticians learn how to minister to the grieving survivors in the second-semester lab course, Funeral Principles, Arranging and Directing (FPAD).
“There are two types of families: They either pull together and draw strength and support from each other or they use it as a forum to express grievances,” says Dean McClure, who teaches second semester FPAD. “Sometimes I feel I'm the only person taking care of the deceased.”
It's a steady business, but people do die in spurts. According to Vital Statistics of the United States, December and January are the biggest months for deaths. Nobody has compiled the numbers on the most popular time of day for people to buy the farm, but Hayse thinks people die most often on hot Friday afternoons.
“It must be Murphy's Law,” he says. “I can't tell you how many times the phone has rung at 4:15 on a hot Friday, saying 'Go get that body.'”
Mac McMonigle teaches the second-semester course on ethics, which he calls “a lot of fun.” Its 300-plus “issues” include what to do with an extra-large body. Put it in a normal-size casket and bend it at the knees or buy an extended casket? What to do when you're out of cardboard crib cremation containers — use a recycled paper container such as an empty Clorox box and refund the money to the parents? There are no right or wrong answers, McMonigle counsels. You just have to use your best judgment.
“What can you say about ethics?” he says. “You either have good ethics or you don't. You're either moral or you're not.”
McClure teaches a third-semester course in communications, instructing students in, among other things, the finer points of relating with the family and obituary writing. In smaller cities, funeral homes often provide local newspapers with obituary copy.
“There's a need for more knowledge about the death process and funeralization because it's going to happen to everybody,” says McClure. “It is inevitable. If you have no knowledge, you could make poor choices when you're not in a frame of mind to make good choices. Knowledge is power.”
McClure advances this philosophy in her merchandising class, anticipating the Mitfordian critique of her profession by adding that it is not the funeral director's job to sell caskets but to assist families in selecting something that is suitable for their needs.
“Sometimes people have the type of funeral they do because they're meeting some sort of social expectation,” McClure observes. “You can get married in a $29.95 dress from J.C. Penney's and be just as married. Why do people spend thousands on a dress? People say you can't equate the two, but they're both … social events.”
Social events, yes, but also religious events. Christians anticipate resurrection after death, Hindus believe in reincarnation, Jews maintain that this life is our only shot. The third-semester Funeral Principles, Arranging and Directing course also teaches students the intricacies and practices of various religions.
“We are in a community of so many cultures,” says McClure. “We try to serve them all.”
Graduation from the San Francisco College of Mortuary Science is an informal occasion. Hayse says his class held a brief ceremony and a sit-down lunch in a downtown hotel, with instructors, friends and family making up the gallery.
Klein is already thinking beyond her June graduation and a return to Phoenix, where she'll complete her two-year apprenticeship and find work as a trade embalmer. Spreading her wings, Klein now has the soul of a mortician.
“I look at people differently,” she says. “They told us you would do that. If I was a plastic surgeon, I'd be looking at someone and saying I could fix that nose.”
“I'm an embalmer. We look at people and think, 'How in the hell am I going to get that mouth closed?'