a funny thing about funeral homes…

stiffners mortuary

Originally uploaded by jayfherron.

In general circumstances no one ever thinks about funeral homes-unless one has worked in one. As a matter of fact I notice peoples reactions when they learn that I once was a mortician,a somewhat startled reaction-I guess I just don’t look the part….I’m not sure.
I do believe there is a stigma that morticians must be the coldest darkest person there can be-but in every aspect of life,or death-there is a source for humor….funeral homes are not exempt and morticians have senstive ‘funny bones’.
Funeral homes are interesting to me-the various types of architecture each mortuary takes shape in…I’ve seen many great examples as I traveled back and forth across this country-seeing grand old homes that became family funeral parlors and store front funeral homes and have even seen an old 7-11 store converted into a mortuary.
I learned the business in an old family home-a building that looked more like a three story office structure than a home-but the moement you came in off the street the interior took you to the comforts of an old grandmothers living room The people I learned it from were the sweetest people-the old man called me Junior,a nick name I was not to pleased with but was proud that he felt enough about me to call me that.
I walked into this families office-a husband and wife and thier two sons…and asked for a job (1973) and the old man took me back into his office and we chatted and eventually we made an arrangement-I would work there for a month and if everyone seemed okay with me-and I seemed okay with the surroundings and the duties then we would talk again about me staying on.
It was way over a month before anyone died but by then we all seemed attached to each other and the old man was beginning to compromise his attitude about my staying on-so we agreed….a second month.
The first trip to the morgue for me seemed almost like it was in slow motion. I felt like someone so special riding in that hearse that I was’nt going to let anything bother me about the morgue ar seeing this dead guy or any of it….I wanted to drive that hearse!
I ended up having to live in the funeral home. That part was not as fun to me as being able to drive the hearse-but it did have its moments.
The building was right down town in the city-out of respect,I need to keep the city private-but it was a river city and a coastal city so there were ships that actually came up the river and docked near by and the area was not the best for downtown so sometimes the morning would start and there would be a drunk sleeping it off on the front steps of the place. We were told at night if ever we needed to have a security check that phoning the police would bring a cruiser around and the cop would sweep the building with his light and the police department would call and say that all was well.
One night I had to call because someone was ringing the back door bell on a delivery door on the ground floor in the back of the building. I started hearing noises and called the cops a second time-and then while I was on the phone with the police department I hear glass breaking and the dispather on the phone told me to find a safe place and that the officer had to be there soon.
I went to a little sitting area at the back of the building where there was a few windows that offered a view of the parking lot-but not much else. There was an exit door there-that was at the top of the fire escape and then I heard a noise that was downstairs and I was’nt about to stand there any longer-so I went for the door and there on the other side was the cop and we both jumped backwards and screamed…he falling backwards down the fire escape.
After he collect himself from the fall-embarressed more than skinned up…we did a tour of the funeral home and there in the chapel was a drunk seaman from the port sleeping it off on a pew. Good thing these drunks did’nt find the casket show room!
After a few years there I went to the big city-back to Washington DC and had pre-arranged a job at a huge funeral home there.
The place was like comedy central-truthfully!
There were so many people working in that place we did not all know each other-because of the shifts and schedules,and things frequently got mixed up….bringing the wrong priest to the wrong funeral,or goung to the wrong cemetery with the wrong funeral with the usual one mile long procession following and snakeing through the cemetery and back out onto the roadway again to find the proper place. We had one funeral director that would always insist on driving the preacher in the lead car-the hearse and the family in the limo following-and behind that would be thirty or forty or more cars all loaded with mourners and this guy would never miss going to the beltway and screaming across all the lanes to the HVO lane because of the funeral following….giving the preacher a for sure chance to test his faith….and loosing everybody else in the traffic behind.I think it was something he did on purpose-to loose most of everyone in the cars…the hearse and the limo would catch up-but everyone gave up at the entry of the beltway,no one was going to risk that. It ensured that it would be a short term funeral and we would be able to get done faster-no one around to act like undertakers with.
We had a guy named Fred-an old time funeral man from back when the funeral parlors were located in furniture stores in small towns where there would not be a call for a full time establishment. Fred was a space cadet-his mind was a vast space that held distant thought but lost track with this moment….but the founder of the funeral home kept him around because he was one of the last of the hand crafters of coffins-a skill he learned in his families funeral parlor where they hand made every coffin for every person they cared for.
Fred once was supposed to drive a hearse to Union Station and send a casket in a shipping crate to somewhere.
He was so absent minded that he forgot to close the back door of the hearse and also forgot the stop that holds the caskets steady during travel-and as he pulled out onto Georgia Avenue with all of us chasing after him as he was driving away-screaming stop…stop,the casket in the crate rolled right out onto Georgia Avenue and Fred kept driving on oblivious to anything in this world.
After several cars screeched to a halt avoiding the crate-we managed to get it into a second hearse and hurried it off to meet its train at Union Station. In the meantime we all sat around and plotted the exact way we were going to goof with Fred….he was’nt that daft that he would’nt notice there was a major part of his task missing.
When he finally called the owner of the funeral home kept him in a stammering postion-the boss kept saying ” Fred-how are you going to explain to the family how YOU lost thier loved one?” and then the boss would hold the phone up so everyone could hear Fred try to talk but sounding like a stammering fool. The poor man must have smoked two packs of cigerets on his drive home pondering up an idea…the boss never letting on the casket in the crate was well on its way to where it was supposed to be going-and Fred even had a few hair brained ides ( which troubled every body ) about how we could sort this problem out but eventually he caught on that all was well and the boss was the one playing the joke on Fred.
As a matter of fact-now I think about it,it was Fred who led the funeral procession to the wrong cemetery-usually there is a guy in a golf cart that meets the funeral at the front gate of the cemetery,but of course-there was not one then…and thats when Fred figured it out we were in the wrong grave yard so with about a hundred cars following him we all snake through and as we are makeing the full circle through the cemetery we are passing other cars in the procession who have yet to catch up and make the circle-oh,now that I think about it WAS Fred who left a priest and loaded another from another funeral into his car-the lead car that took the funeral procession way out to Olney Maryland before any one realized the priest was the wrong guy!
One day I will tell some other stories from within the walls of the mortuary-for example the time one of my lady neighbors said she was a spiritualist and always wanted to visit a mortuary to see if she could contact spirits. I took her there one night-after hours,which was the best idea….she entered the place and saw we had a few dead folk layed out and requested seeing one. We did that and the moment she saw this human remains in the casket it became obvious her abilities in the mediums lifestyle were only something she had read in the National Enquirer and thought she could do herself….it was about one of the nuttiest things I’d ever seen-she laid her hands on the guys body and did this hoo-doo sort of chant and kept calling this guys name as if he was going to sit up and come back from the dead.
Yeah-I could probrebly go on for six months writing the funnys from the funeral home. You had to have them to keep it together!

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