It so happens I have inspected eight or nine funeral homes. I sense, but do not know for sure, that this is the result of the mortuary industry having undergone some fundamental changes in late years. Many funeral homes have apparently ceased their in-house embalming operations due to liability concerns involving bodily fluids and the AIDS virus. I am led to believe the embalming operation is usually and by some means sub-contracted out these days thereby reducing some business or investment risks. That is where my investigative and professional interest in this subject ends and where this story veers decidedly towards the anecdotal.
In any case, a few years ago larger companies began buying up individual funeral homes in my appropriately gothic area of New England and running them somewhat like McMortuary franchise operations. One of those larger, out-of-state companies engaged me to inspect a funeral home before they bought it. I must have satisfied their needs because that led to repeat business and my inspection of a string of their acquisitions. I’ve never considered myself to be a morbid or ghoulish person. On the other hand, I am not necrophobic. I am neutral and in the middle of the road when it comes to dead people as long as I don’t have to bear witness to their transition to lateness or mess around with them afterwards.
Notwithstanding the above, and in the interest of full disclosure, I guess I do have a mortuary skeleton in the closet of my life experience. When I was a high school kid in Ohio in the early 1960’s my buddies and I would upon occasion drive to a not-too-far-away small town on pheasant hunting expeditions. That particular rustic locale in Central Ohio was attractive because (1) it had lots of pheasants, and (2) (you can’t make up stuff like this) there was this funeral home with a most interesting and locally famous outbuilding with a weird public exhibit that was touted as an example of mortuary technology. The central object of the exhibit was a known-but-to god dead guy who was found outside of town during the depression years of the 1930’s. The funeral home basically performed what can only be called taxidermy on him and then waited for someone to claim the body. Nobody ever did so and they came to use him as a kind of business promo. He of course, fascinated us. He (I’ve long forgotten his nick name) looked very natural except for his rather tensely clenched hands and a mouth full of penny coins some person or persons had slipped into his mouth between his slightly opened lips.
Much later and from afar, I heard that the proprietors of the funeral home finally buried him. They tired of people depositing the hard-to-extract coins in his mouth and of college students stealing him and leaving him on park benches for cops to try to wake up or propping him against rival fraternity house doors and then knocking on the door, etc. You can only take so much of that kind of hassle before calling it a marketing failure and thinking about digging a hole in which to bury the problem. I can’t imagine he brought that much business through the door.
Let us return now to the somber subject of inspecting funeral homes. Firstly, funeral homes are very, very much like regular houses except they typically have more dead people in them. My advice to the newbie funeral home inspector is to avoid the dead people and all interactions with them. Ask some live person in the funeral home how many dead people there are in there and, importantly, where they are precisely located. Do this early into the inspection process.
Maybe it’s just me, but I really don’t like it when the cadaver is on a gurney parked in front of an electrical panel I have to get into. I just don’t feel right wheeling them around thereby risking an over-turned gurney. Worse, you really don’t want to come whistling into the prep room when the staff is working on the stiff. Even if they’re just putting a nice perm on some old lady’s blue hair or trimming the nose hair on an old guy, I really hate when that happens in front of me. It’s very distracting. Plan and control your inspection accordingly if you are as finicky as I am.
Tip: when you walk into the rear entrance of the building you will typically find a staff room with a coffee pot and some people with body heat above that of room temperature sitting around dressed in darker apparel. That’s a good place to start. They may even offer you a cup of coffee. On the wall in that area, you will probably see a chalkboard with very pertinent data on it such as the identity and number of dead people in the building and a schedule of events you want to steer clear of, e.g. wakes and such.
That reminds me of a funny story. I once walked into one such staff area of a funeral home only to recognize a name I knew on the chalkboard: Mary Griswald (name changed to protect). Now, Mary Griswald was a local realtor I had often worked with upon frequent occasion and I was completely unaware of her demise. When I voiced my shock and dismay, the trained staff members of course assumed a conditioned mood of professional condolence. Those guys were good and could turn it off and on like a light bulb. To make a long story shorter, Griswald is a very common name in these parts and it turned out that it wasn’t the same Mary Griswald I knew. That much came out when I questioned the circumstances of her passing.
The Mary Griswald they had and later showed me was much, much older. On that up-note the inspection proceeded on a more positive basis and we all had a good laugh. Even the late Mary Griswald seemed rosier cheeked afterwards but that might have been some quick rouge work on the part of staff. Like I said, those guys were good. Final Notes: Slow down a bit in the attics of old funeral homes. They can be extraordinarily interesting. Up there I have marveled over antique wicker or caned stretcher-like things with several sets of carrying handles on them. They come in sizes for Baby Bear, Mama Bar and Papa Bear and probably have not been used for well over a hundred years. I imagine they were used in lieu of caskets during the funeral ceremony or perhaps the caskets were simple plain boxes back then as opposed to the flashier modern, expensive things of beauty that constitute a lucrative revenue stream for modern undertakers. I have endeavored to discover the name of those things without success. My first guess was “pall” as in pallbearer but that proved wrong. I found that a pall is an old English term for a cloth that was placed over the coffin.
If anyone knows what those things are called, please let me know. The other neat thing about funeral home attics is that they tend to be genealogical treasure troves. There are reams and reams of very old obituary files up there. It never occurred to me before then that morticians play a primary role in writing obituaries. They have more information on people than does the census bureau.
- Bill Zoller