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...

In contrast to the guttural, throat-searing screams he unleashes onstage, Jonathan Davis, lead vocalist for the multiplatinum rap-metal band Korn, sounds downright dejected. Although he's swamped with work — putting the finishing touches on the band's next album and planning the last-minute logistics for a summer tour — the 31-year-old Bakersfield native has taken a few minutes to mourn, over cell-phone static and Southern California traffic, the closing of his old school: the San Francisco College of Mortuary Science.

“I heard it's going, and it's fuckin' horrible,” says Davis, his voice high-pitched and plaintive. “It was a great school. Now that I'm older, I realize what a cool place it was.”

Like many of the students who have flocked to the college since its founding in 1930, Davis became interested in the death-care business at an early age. “I don't really know why,” he says, “but I was always into horror movies and gory shit.” He got a job as a coroner's assistant when he was 16, and after graduating high school immediately enrolled in the San Francisco college's one-year program “because it was known as the best,” he says. Although he dropped out after two semesters to apprentice at a mortuary closer to home, Davis says he relished his time in San Francisco, where he spent his days poring over embalming textbooks and his nights living and working in funeral homes (experiences that provided ample material for his future lyrics, many of which dwell, not coincidentally, on themes of violence, death, and violent death).

Although he would later suffer post-traumatic stress disorder from the sights he encountered during his six-year career in mortuaries and coroner's offices, Davis offers nothing but enthusiastic reminiscences about the San Francisco school, inquiring after former teachers, genially bemoaning the “floaters” fished out of the bay and dragged into the embalming lab, and labeling his stint at the school a “weird, cool time.”

“I was scared shitless, 'cause I was just a boy from Bakersfield, and suddenly I was living in San Francisco,” he recalls. “But I was doing something I loved.

“Man, it's sad to see that school go.”

But go it will, after 72 years and more than 5,000 graduates. In June, the San Francisco College of Mortuary Science will bid farewell to its last, 30-student class, vacate its longtime home, a yellow Romanesque building on the corner of Dolores and 29th streets, and, like the untold number of cadavers that have lain on its embalming tables or roasted in its cremation ovens, pass into another realm.

Of the 52 accredited funeral service education programs in the United States, the San Francisco college, often called “the Harvard of mortuary science schools,” is one of a kind. For starters, it's the only program whose students run their own on-site mortuary; there, each year, about 300 low-income families pay between $500 and $1,000 for a stately, no-frills memorial. (Comparable services at regular funeral homes can cost five to 10 times as much.) It's also one of the few mortuary schools that has remained private and independent, charging about $10,000 for its year's worth of classes in every subject a mortician needs to master — not just embalming, science, and the “restorative arts,” but also accounting, small business management, communications, the psychology and sociology of funeral service, ethics, and several different areas of law.

But, it seems, even a school that teaches death can't escape it; over the past decade, rising costs have made it too difficult for the little college to remain in San Francisco. Although most students live above one of the city's funeral homes, where they also work as interns, pricey housing has made it tough to attract top-flight faculty; parking is scarce during funeral services and classes; and constantly escalating property values have put a huge burden on the tiny school. “We're operating a small, single-purpose college on some of the most expensive real estate in the United States,” says Donald Dimond, who became president of the school last August after serving a 10-year stint on its board of trustees. “I've been trying to get this institution moved out of San Francisco for a number of years, because I saw this as a never-ending problem.”

When the landlords who own the college's 1920s-era building announced last year that they wanted to redevelop the property as condominium complex, the school's board of directors decided it was time to shut down. Although the condominium proposal was scrapped after Noe Valley residents raised heated objections to the project's size and traffic implications, the college is still moving out, merging its curriculum — and some of its faculty — into Sacramento's American River College, which this fall will begin offering a two-year program in funeral service education.

Although their business tends to harden them against sentimental goodbyes, many of the college's students, alumni, and instructors nevertheless view the death of the death school as the end of an era, and a harbinger of broader changes within the funeral industry. Most agree that the school couldn't possibly survive much longer in San Francisco, but still regret that future aspiring morticians won't get the chance to explore the college's truly distinctive charms.

“Going to that school was the best thing I could have done,” says Leonard Zacharias, a 1997 graduate who lives and works in Williams Lake, British Columbia. “They had the best teachers and the best system in North America. I now own two funeral homes, a cemetery, and two crematoriums, and I never would have been able to do it if I hadn't gone there.”

Since the emergence of anything that might be said to constitute culture, humans apparently have studied and practiced wide-ranging — if fundamentally similar — methods of discarding their dead, comforting grief-stricken survivors, and finding the proper balance between ceremony and sanitation. Archaeologists have discovered burial grounds dating back to 60,000 B.C., when Neanderthals surrounded their corpses with medicinal plants and antlers — suggesting that even human ancestors conceived of an afterlife, conducted interment ceremonies, and concerned themselves with hygienic treatment of the dead. [page]

That concern can take forms that seem strange to current Western thinking. Some Australian Aborigines, for instance, place their dead in trees; the Parsis, an Indian religious sect that originated in Iran, bring corpses to hilltop enclosures called towers of silence, where vultures pick the bodies clean. When it comes to unusual and obsessive care for the dead, however, the ancient Egyptian civilization stands head and shoulders above the rest. Because they believed death was simply a lull in life while the soul departed the body to travel through time, Egyptians sought to ensure immortality by preserving the corpse for the soul's eventual return. Although ancient Egyptians credited the jackal-headed god Anubis, protector and judge of the dead, with inventing embalming, mortal priests began practicing mummification as early as 4,000 B.C.

It was an intricate process, as reconstructed by modern embalming textbooks and historians, beginning after the corpse was dunked in the Nile and purified in a special shelter. In the embalming workshop, priests placed the body on a narrow table and used a variety of metal probes and hooks to remove the brain, bit by bit, through the nostrils. After repacking the skull with resin, the embalmers made an incision in the left flank and fished out all of the internal organs (except the heart), which they cleaned, perfumed, and placed in jars to be buried with the mummy. The body was then packed with sand, rags, and grass, covered in a salt called natron, and left to drain for upward of 40 days. Once the natron had absorbed the corpse's water, the body cavity was repacked with dry materials. Then the wrapping began: Over a two-week period, workers clothed the body in more than 1,000 yards of bandages — inserting jewels and amulets between the layers — before a priest dressed as Anubis performed a few final ceremonies. Then the mummy was placed in its sarcophagus and loaded into a tomb.

Forms of embalming progressed over the centuries in Europe, but didn't catch on in the United States until the Civil War, when the sheer volume of dead soldiers forced doctors to pitch battlefield embalming tents, where they preserved bodies for the long ride home. President Lincoln, in particular, took a great interest in corpse preservation, and it was his assassination and subsequent embalming — for a groundbreaking funeral procession that coursed from Washington, D.C., to his home in Springfield, Ill. — that ignited the American public's new awareness of the death trade.

By the turn of the last century, undertakers had assumed the separate death-care tasks previously performed by carpenters, clergy, and doctors. Today, the National Funeral Directors Association estimates that there are more than 22,000 funeral homes in the United States, employing about 35,000 licensed funeral directors and 89,000 additional funeral service and crematory personnel.

As the profession has evolved, so too has the embalming procedure. Now, as in ancient Egypt, the corpse is first placed on an embalming table, washed and disinfected on all sides, and shaved where necessary. Then the eyes are closed, usually with a perforated cap under the eyelid that grips the skin and holds it in place; next the mouth is wired shut so the jaw won't go slack. The embalmer then glues the lips together, fixing the corners into an expression of serenity, and fills in any wounds with a puttylike compound. After depressing the diaphragm to evacuate air from the lungs, the mortician packs the corpse's orifices with cotton or plugs to prevent the escape of gases or waste. Then the cadaver gets a massage to relieve rigor mortis from the arms and legs, which are then spread and straightened in preparation for the embalming fluid — a solution of formaldehyde, borax, phenol, glycerin, alcohol, and water that comes in a variety of tints, scents, and concentrations to suit almost any manner of death. (A jaundiced corpse, for instance, requires a stronger dose.) By no means a permanent preservative, embalming fluid is designed to eliminate odors and slow tissue decomposition long enough to hold an open-casket funeral.

After the mortician makes an incision in one of a few chosen arteries, the fluid seeps into the body from an embalming machine, which consists of a several-gallon reservoir and an electric pump. One tube conveys fluid into the artery, under pressure by the embalming machine, while another tube connected to a vein carries away displaced blood into a sewer hookup. After 3 to 6 gallons of embalming fluid have dribbled into the corpse, the tubes are removed and the incision sutured. But that's not all: The embalmer slices open the stomach and probes internal organs, such as the bladder and liver, with a hollow tube called a trocar, which sucks out any lingering blood, waste, and gases. Then these organs each get a shot of fluid before the last incisions are sewn shut.

Now the corpse is ready for its close-up. After the mortician again washes the body and smears cream over the hands and face to prevent dehydration, he shampoos the hair, polishes the fingernails, and reshapes or reconstructs any disfigured features with clay, cotton, plaster of Paris, Styrofoam, or wax. If necessary, an entire hand or head can be built and bound to the body. Then the face gets a big helping of makeup (most of the natural color drains away with the body's blood), and the hair is combed and set.


Is all of this necessary, from a sanitation or health point of view? No. In fact, there's not a state in the union that requires embalming by law, except in certain special cases. Critics of the death trade, most notably Jessica Mitford in her seminal investigative work The American Way of Death, have charged that the public health benefits of embalming are virtually nonexistent. In turn, many modern funeral directors have begun arguing that embalming is principally a matter of mental health rather than public safety, that creating a “memory picture” of the corpse enables loved ones to better cope with the loss of the dear departed.


When the first few mortuary science schools cropped up before the turn of the 20th century — the real boom came in the 1920s and '30s — they were called embalming colleges, and the focus was almost entirely on the hard sciences and the semisurgical aspects of the trade.

Seeking to bring a comprehensive mortuary science curriculum to the West Coast, Dr. L.W. Hosford opened the San Francisco College of Embalming in January 1930, with only two students in its first class. Always considered ahead of its time, San Francisco was among the first schools to offer business administration classes to supplement its technical courses.

“The curriculum has expanded as the world has changed,” says Dimond, the college's current president. “In 1900, by the time someone reached 20 years of age, they would have been to 20 funerals. We are now dealing with people in funeral colleges who are 40 years old, and they've never experienced a death.”

Gradually, the college gained a reputation as one of the best in the world. Says Ric Newton, an alum and funeral home director in Chico: “San Francisco had this elitism about it — out-of-state funeral directors would send their kids to the school.”

Its unique model — students essentially attended college in a funeral home — fit perfectly with its location at 1450 Post St., in a building constructed specifically as a mortuary science school. The structure's most breathtaking feature was its large amphitheater, capable of seating hundreds of students; five stainless steel embalming tables stood on the stage.

“It would rival anything from any Bela Lugosi movie,” says Jacquelyn Taylor, a former student and president of the college from 1990 to 2001 who now heads the funeral service program at Mount Ida College in Boston. “On my first day, when I walked into that room, I was terrified — absolutely terrified. I thought I was either going to faint or vomit. But when I sat in a seat and looked down, all the fear went away. I was just intrigued.”

Because the college never owned the building where it operated, skyrocketing land values forced a relocation to Divisadero Street and another, in 1993, to its current Noe Valley location, on the top floor of a building it shares with Reilly Co./Goodwin & Scannell funeral home. The program still takes only one year to complete, but the curriculum now includes as many social science, business management, legal, and ethics courses as hard-science classes.

Students, who vary in age and background from recent high school graduates to discharged military personnel to retirees, must complete 65 units over three semesters to receive an associate arts degree certifying them as funeral directors/embalmers. They must then pass the required board exams and complete two years of apprenticeship in mortuaries before getting their licenses.

As the 1990s rolled around, the college's trustees began to realize that the school couldn't continue in San Francisco.

“It's been a constant struggle for them to develop the funds that would provide for the best up-to-date equipment and the people of quality to teach,” says Ron Hast, publisher of the industry trade journal Mortuary Management.

Hast, for one, isn't thrilled by the trend of formerly independent schools latching onto community colleges. “It's concerning to some degree when someone can just pick this out of a college manual and not really, truly understand what's involved,” he says. But because there are only two other West Coast mortuary science programs — at Cypress College in Southern California and at Mount Hood Community College in Gresham, Ore. — the administration at American River jumped at the chance to keep a program in Northern California. Although American River won't duplicate the school's trademark on-site mortuary (students will instead log their embalming time in Sacramento funeral homes), the community college will try to preserve San Francisco's tradition.

“Let's face it: The San Francisco school has been there for a long time, has a history, and a lot of graduates are a part of that history,” says Stephen Peithman, a spokesman for American River. “It's an emotional issue, and we're sensitive to that.”

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. [page]

“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.

“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.

“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.” [page]

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.

“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.

“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.

“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.”

“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.” [page]

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.

“Think about how many cars you could get in here,” Dimond says, his voice echoing as he strides down the center aisle. “This was built for a time that doesn't exist — our average funeral has 30 people in it.”

Although he doesn't profess any sentimental emotions about the closing of the school, Dimond predicts the city will miss it when it's gone.

“There's such diversity in this school — that's one of the reasons it's such a loss for San Francisco, because it's the ultimate in diversity and nobody pays any attention to it,” he says. “Nobody notices a little school that has 75 to 80 students, no matter how long you're around. But what they're going to notice is the loss of the low-income service program. We have provided a very important pressure-relief valve for people who want something but couldn't afford it.”

Low-income residents aren't the only ones who will miss the school. McMonigle, who never looks dour when discussing the corpses that wind up on his embalming table, appears visibly shaken when the conversation turns to the school's closing.

“I learned the school was moving the day before they announced it to the students,” he says quietly. “I'm not in the circle, you see? So I was greatly disappointed. Because when they get to Sacramento, they won't have this operating mortuary for the students to take part in. The students will be farmed out to mortuaries to observe, and that's just what every other mortuary school in the nation does. So it's no longer going to be unique, which to me is kind of sad.

“Commuting to Sacramento is just too far for me. But if the school had stayed here, I would have continued to teach until I dropped.”

Tags: , , , ,

Related Stories