Death's Apprentices 

Long hours, weeping families, dead bodies. The unenviable trade of the young mortician.

A slight part in his lips gives the impression that he's about to whisper something profound. His gray hair has the dusky sheen of a lifelong smoker. Carl is lying in a casket, right arm draped peacefully across abdomen, blanket tucked to waist for his final slumber.

Earlier this morning, funeral director Tom Mills noticed that shaving had dehydrated Carl's skin, so he touched it up with makeup. Mills also dressed Carl, down to the watch on his wrist and wedding band on his finger. A retired custodian, Carl never cared for suits and ties, so he will spend eternity in Saturday afternoon attire: a plaid short-sleeve shirt and polyester slacks.

"I didn't button the top button," Mills says, pointing to Carl's shirt. "I didn't button the second button, so he could relax."

It's 9:30 a.m. Saturday at the Dovin Funeral Home in Lorain. Carl died Tuesday at age 64, and he's been in Mills's care since. On Tuesday, the day Carl's wife tried unsuccessfully to wake him, Mills embalmed the body as the family made arrangements. Wednesday, he dressed Carl and placed him in a cedar casket. Thursday, he prepared the parlor room. Friday, he choreographed afternoon and evening visitations.

The service begins in one hour, plenty of time for Mills to cue the music, brief the pastor, corral the Disabled American Veterans contingent, welcome the family, and point out the casket's special feature: Large-mouth bass figurines mounted in the corners. "I asked the family if they wanted to keep them after the service," Mills says, detaching one of the "interchangeable life symbols," in casket parlance, from its perch. "They said it was the most fish he ever caught, so let him have them."

Mills wants to be the funeral home's familiar face, so he positions himself at the door to help mourners with their coats. They arrive with two-liter bottles of pop and brownie trays for the post-funeral luncheon. A blue-collar crowd, only a few wear dresses or suits.

Mills strives to be an extraordinary funeral director. He's trying to make a name for himself, a name Lorain can trust, during his one-year apprenticeship. If he can't own a home in 10 years, he wants to manage one. Like many young morticians, Mills talks of undertaking as a calling, akin to joining the clergy. But if Mills were a priest, he would surely shepherd a large flock. His dedication and enthusiasm recall a young Orson Welles.

"You're the director, then direct!" says Mills, a 22-year-old with a bowl haircut. "One of the things a professor taught me is, you're getting paid to be a funeral director, so be a director."

As a student at St. Edward High School, Mills considered becoming a dentist. A brother-in-law promised a place in his practice if Mills dedicated himself to molars and gum disease. The youngest of nine, Mills watched his parents struggle. The brother-in-law's offer looked sweet.

Mills took pre-med classes at Cleveland State with an eye on the dentist's chair. At the time, he was dating a daughter of funeral director Walter Martens Jr. The Martenses lived in a funeral home, and the young couple played hide and seek in its many rooms.

Mills had a few weeks between jobs, and Mr. Martens asked if he wanted to help out at the home. He washed cars, shoveled snow. It was temporary, but Mills explored the places mourners never see. As the embalmers went about their business, draining blood and replenishing arteries with pink formaldehyde, Mills watched, curious as to how each subject died. He viewed an autopsy at the Cuyahoga County Coroner's Office. "I was looking inside the cavity and thinking, 'So that's what it looks like,'" Mills says. "It wasn't gross. I didn't want to puke."

Soon, Mills was more than a bystander. He dressed one body, put it in a casket, and sprayed the visiting room with flowers. "I met the wife, and she was crying all night," Mills says. "But before she left, she had the biggest grin on her face and was so pleased. She said, 'He looks so good. Thank you.' It was so awesome. What better satisfaction I could get out of that, I don't know. From that moment, I said, 'I'm good at this. Why stop?'"

It's not a vocation most would embrace. Morticians' hours are long and inflexible. The phone rings long after the 9-to-5 shift ends. They fetch bodies in the middle of the night. Vacations are canceled because Mrs. Jones had the big stroke. The dry-erase calendar in the Dovin Funeral Home office is only seven days long; death cannot be planned further than that.

Dating can also be a problem. One funeral director suggested that a mortuary student tell women he worked at LTV Steel.

And, of course, there's the dead bodies.

Morticians know theirs is an unusual job. They grow accustomed to fascination and disgust at what they do. People die, and in the simplistic view, morticians get work. But the job is more complicated than flushing and filling cadavers. Imagine funeral directors as grief counselors who know which shade of rouge to apply. Or pathologists who can tune a Cadillac engine. Or salesmen who manage a bed-and-breakfast for the deceased. Plying the art and business of death, they are druids in an anti-vocation age.

Bob Duda's high school friends called him "Lurch." He picked up the Addams Family nickname because he seems larger than his six-foot-one height, an effect that may be attributed to his dress -- he wears ironed shirts buttoned to the top -- and his hands, which are enormous. A 23-year-old with an easy nature and neatly parted hair, Duda's cell phone used to leave callers with the message, "I'll be the last one to put a smile on your face."

Duda grew up in Ohio City and, like Mills, is the youngest child of a large Catholic family. Dad worked in a factory, Mom made the home, and none of his seven brothers and sisters went to college. He wanted to be a funeral director since he was 16. A priest helped Duda get his first job, where he did the basics: parking cars, driving the hearse. As he debated an undertaker's life, funeral directors tried to steer him away, citing the 12-hour days and on-call workweek.

Duda and Mills didn't grow up in funeral-directing homes, which is, surprisingly, typical of young morticians. It used to be that 90 percent of undertakers-in-training were legacies; today, it's about 20 percent. Men dominated the trade's prior generations, but almost half of today's mortuary college students are women. And an increasing number of would-be funeral directors are in their 40s, looking for a new career. "We're getting an avalanche of people from nursing and medical school, because of what's going on with HMOs," says Dan Flory, president of the Cincinnati College of Mortuary Science. One of Flory's students was a doctor who closed his family practice after 15 years of frustratingly low income.

Lateefa Russell wasn't sure what she wanted to do when she graduated high school, putting in years at the federal building and the post office before becoming a medical assistant. During her training, she watched an autopsy at the coroner's office. "I was kind of nervous and anxious to see one," she says. "Something just told me I could do this."

Russell was amazed as the pathologist lifted organ after organ out of the cadaver. How do they all fit in there? When she looked up from the corpse, only a handful of her classmates were still standing; the rest had passed out or excused themselves at the sight of lungs being breadloaved. Russell, in contrast, wanted to tour the rest of the morgue. "It didn't bother me. I was just really interested."

School is difficult for Russell, now 25 years old; most of her classmates have some funeral-home experience. "I just hope I'm not making a mistake," she says. "I just hope it's the right thing."

Many students find it's not. Of the 3,000 people who attend mortuary school each year, Flory says, 2,000 graduate, and only 1,000 last five years in the business. (Ohio requires a bachelor's degree and at least a year's apprenticeship before certifying directors.) The committed students enjoy being surrounded by their own kind; they've all sensed the recoil of handshakes when they tell strangers what they do. "It's like a fraternity, in that you don't feel like a weirdo," says Michael Simon, the son of a funeral director and a student at the Cincinnati mortuary school.

They are aware that their trade speaks to a darkness of character, that others assume they watch slasher flicks when they're not inspecting dead pigeons in the park. Their friends usually collect at ends of the spectrum: Those who are intrigued by what they do, and those who think they've gone mad. "I hear all the dumb jokes all the time," Russell says. "They just can't understand why, like 'Couldn't you find something better?'"

Duda's mother didn't appreciate his job choice, so he showed her a video of an embalming. Now, she thinks she's going to get a free funeral. But when he tried to talk about the business with his former girlfriend, she put up a wall. "How can I come home at night and relax, if you're not interested?" he asked.

The morticians who creep out other morticians are those who aren't dedicated to the craft. They say it's easy to tell which ones dread unzipping a body bag or receiving a wife who just lost her husband. Aspiring directors who do not come from a funeral-home background look suspiciously at the silver-spooners who do. "I see a lot of people who don't want to be in the business," Mills says. "They're in the business because Daddy says, 'Join my business,' and the son doesn't know what to do with his life, so he says, 'Okay.' He's living a life he doesn't want to lead, and it runs off on everybody else."

A robotic sales pitch for the fanciest casket is one giveaway. That's why Duda is glad mortuary college, with its range of business, sociology, and science courses, is so demanding. "Some of them are in it for the money, not to serve. It's nice that it kind of weeds them out . . . You have to really want to do it."

Embalming dates to ancient Egypt, and it is believed the bodies of William the Conqueror and Alexander the Great were preserved with crude potions. In the U.S., embalming didn't become part of the death ritual until the Civil War, when soldiers fell in fields hundreds of miles from home.

Embalming is a three-part process: disinfection, preservation, and restoration. The last stage is where morticians show off their artistry. Mills boasts of re-creating an unlucky motorcycle rider's face with plaster of paris and putty. Without his skilled hands, the funeral would have been closed-casket. But Mills is quick to correct anyone who would mistake an embalming room for cosmetology school. "When you touch them, when you can smell them, when you smell the stench of blood, it's a whole different scenario," he says. "When you're actually having to maneuver them and position them and put them back together again to make them beautiful, it's a whole different scenario. Some people can't handle it."

Morticians may have strong stomachs, but a thirst for the macabre is not a prerequisite. "It's still a little hard," Duda says. "It is a human body. You do it with dignity and respect. You do it for the family . . . Still, making that first incision is hard and probably always will be."

"Something gets everybody," Simon says. "For me, it's kids. You never want to see anyone your age or younger on the table."

Simon describes the two hours it takes to embalm as "very taxing," especially if the body has been traumatized by an accident. Cancer patients and diabetics are chores, as are those who have suffered long illnesses; medication bloats their bodies. Autopsies are also difficult to overcome. Suffice to say that coroners aren't too interested in whether the casket is open or closed.

"There's tons more sewing," Mills says.

Michael Wright wandered directionless most of his life. A star halfback at Collinwood High School, he enrolled at Kent State too late to walk onto the football team, and his money didn't last until the next season. He left school and sold clothes, worked in a foundry, and joined the army. Discharged after tearing up his knee, Wright took classes at Tri-C for lack of anything better to do.

He is now a 44-year-old, first-year mortuary student with a salt-and-pepper beard. His funeral experience prior to school amounts to three months at the Wanton-Horne Chapel of Peace on Buckeye Road. Wright employs a preacher's language to describe his style of directing. "When I embalm, I don't look at it as making money. I look at it as preparing someone for God."

Because of his inexperience, Wright arrives at mortuary school early and stays late for tutoring. He eventually wants to cater to the poor and sees himself as a conduit between heaven and earth. "You pray for the families. You pray with the families. Preparing someone for their homecoming means a lot to me, because you're helping the family."

Other morticians echo Wright's thoughts about spirituality.

"I've had people say that you guys are unusual, that you guys are the priests of the mortuary," Mills says. His class ring is engraved with the symbol for mortuary science on one side, theology on the other. "We have to conduct everything with high respect, order, and form. We're caring for dead human remains, and we're responsible for having that burial be meaningful for that family."

"If an atheist ever came to me, I don't know how I'd ever comfort them," Duda says. In Cleveland for Christmas break, Duda stayed in the parish house of St. Augustine's Church, his second home. "I don't see how anyone can get through this business without a belief in whatever."

Morticians walk a narrow line. Absorbing grief all day, they can care too little or not enough. Simon says he challenged a professor who said funeral directors need to shut down their emotions, even when they embalm a dead toddler. "If you're not crying then, get out of the business," he says.

Surrounded by death, they learn to value life. Duda, in fact, would like to increase his exposure to mourning by offering grief-counseling sessions. Asking morticians how they handle wave after wave of sadness is like asking nurses how they get used to needles.

Job satisfaction is derived from a thankful family. At the post office, Russell felt like a number. As a mortician, "I'm making a difference. I know they need my help." Embalming, too, grants funeral directors a sense of accomplishment. "I like to get feedback on how I did, like 'Oh, she looks great,'" Duda says. "Some people do make better-looking corpses."

Humor is one survival tool. Mortician-related cartoons are posted on a cabinet in the upstairs office at the Dovin Funeral Home. (Sample: "How do you spot an inexperienced funeral director? He uses Hawaiian Punch instead of formaldehyde.") As Carl's service nears conclusion, the owner of the home, Launey Dovin, asks Mills what song he is readying on the CD player.

"'Amazing Grace,'" Mills says.

"Amazing!" Dovin says, lifting his palms in mock surprise.

Like auto dealerships, funeral homes tend to congregate on busy thoroughfares. The Golubski Deliberato Funeral Home stands next to a discount cigarette shop on Turney Road in Garfield Heights, its parking lot shoveled and salted. Guests are greeted by the familiar opened door and comforting smile. Today's deceased was 80 years old, so the visitation has the air of a church banquet. The afternoon callers have embraced the inevitable. They're not in the throes of despair, but steady on their feet, prepared to exchange hugs and kind words with the widow.

Matt Deliberato grew up in the home's second floor, the parking lot his playground. Unsure what the future held, he studied business at Loyola of Chicago. He considered broadcasting before deciding to carry on the tradition started by his great-grandfather. He is a licensed funeral director, who also earned a law degree from Cleveland State. Naturally, he specializes in estate and probate law. "I'm just happy to be doing two things I really enjoy."

As he runs his fingers over his goatee, Deliberato, 29, chooses his words carefully. Asked if he felt pressured to carry on the family business, he pauses. "I don't mean to hesitate, but it's one of the reasons why I did it. I don't think I felt compelled. I felt it was more of a plus than a minus."

The family's pride in the business is obvious. Portraits of the four husbands and wives who have run the home since 1913, including Matt and wife Katie, hang in one of the visiting rooms. Business cards emphasize the family's long tradition of service and independent ownership -- and with reason, for the corporatization of America has reached even funeral homes. Three chains -- Service Corp. International, Stewart Enterprises, and Loewen Group -- own 13 percent of the U.S.'s mortuaries. Chains have their hands in everything, from cemeteries to flower shops to crematoria.

Death care is a $14-billion-a-year industry. The average funeral, with casket and vault, runs about $5,500. Burial costs increase the price to $8,000. Recognizing that death waits for no one, acquisition-hungry Loewen and SCI overbid for underperforming homes. The spending spree peaked in 1998, when SCI's stock hit a high of $44 a share.

But longer life expectancy, the increasing popularity of cremation, and negative publicity (prices run higher at the chains, for one) have hobbled the Wal-Mortuaries. The Loewen Group filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, while the stocks of SCI and Stewart now trade for nickels and dimes. "It makes me wonder if funeral homes are as profitable as people think," Deliberato says, a trace of sarcasm in his voice.

Chains haven't penetrated Northeast Ohio as they have New York, Florida, and Southern California, but independent operators also labor under the suspicion they are grim-faced hucksters exploiting woe for dollars. When her muckraking classic, The American Way of Death, was published in 1963, Jessica Mitford became to funeral homes what Ralph Nader was to GM. Her cutting portrayal described homes as thick-carpeted car lots, with directors pressing customers to upgrade. Federal law now requires itemized pricing, and the options "begin to look like cruise control or rear-window defrost," in the words of Michigan poet/mortician Thomas Lynch. "I wear black most of the time, to keep folks in mind of the fact we're not talking about Buicks here."

Low-cost funeral advocates (lovingly referred to by Mitford as "Unitarians, co-op members, university professors, and other eggheads") say that embalming is a queerly American phenomenon with no public-health value. Nonprofit organizations like the Cleveland Memorial Society offer group rates on cremation and encourage members to take control of their services. "By planning ahead for yourself, you can ease your survivors' burden," its brochure reads. "You can also ensure that your wishes will be carried out, and that your choice for simplicity will not be mistaken for lack of respect." It's an obvious dig at funeral directors who sell the "traditional" package to those who "want what's best."

"A lot of them act like they invented the funeral," says Lisa Carlson, executive director of the Funeral Consumers Alliance in Vermont. The new Mitford, Carlson became an expert in funeral law after her husband committed suicide in 1981. She says caring for the dead has become overprofessionalized. The death rate doesn't support the number of funeral homes, so to compensate, funeral directors pile on the services and accoutrements. "There are too many who expect full-time pay for part-time work," she says.

A director's license isn't automatically lucrative. Gene Ogrodnik, president of the Pittsburgh Institute of Mortuary Science, says salaries are market-driven: Rookies are paid anywhere from $18,000 to $31,000 a year. According to a 1996 survey by the National Funeral Directors Association, the average salary was $33,500. Like everything, the real money is in owning the shop. "You don't get paid unless your name is on the sign," Simon says.

But even the best-intentioned, Carlson says, feel the weight of their mortgage when they meet with families. The industry also maintains the stigma that an inexpensive funeral is disrespectful of the dead -- and unbecoming of those picking up the tab. One of Carlson's mortician friends calls a simple, cloth-covered casket the "welfare casket."

Morticians are defensive about pricing. Every profession has its wormy apples, they say, but most funeral directors' profit margins hover between 5 and 10 percent. Duda says a Civil War-era embalming cost $100; 140 years later, the price is now just $295.

"The perception is, you're wearing a suit and driving a big car, but there's a cost with that," Deliberato says.

Adds Mills: "They think we're just cutting up bodies and putting them in a box. But if you sit down and look at everything we have to do for a family, you realize why it costs so much."

One gets the impression directors aren't bleeding grief as much as concluding that the ceremonies they offer are the only way of passage. To some directors, it just wouldn't be a funeral without a copper casket, a vault forged from 12-gauge steel, two nights of visitation, and a handsome headstone.

She loves to embalm, to remove the frailties of time and illness. "It's rewarding, especially when a family says their mom looks 30 years younger," says one Cleveland director.

She doesn't want her name printed, out of fear she'll be fired, but she regrets her decision to become a mortician. We'll call her Nancy.

Nancy concedes she is not a people-person. She'd rather be in a lab than across the desk from a Kleenex-clutching family. Still, Nancy wishes she had known the obstacles she would face as a woman. She feels she's not taken seriously. "The funeral service is a man's world, totally," she says.

Half of Nancy's mortuary-school classmates were women, and she wonders how they have prospered. Homes have flat-out told her that they don't hire women, ostensibly because they are too weak to move bodies. One female friend from school could find nothing but a job selling preplanned services, making straight commission. "I wasted all that money on school, and this is what I get," Nancy says. "I don't see myself staying in it much longer."

Ogrodnik often hears the knock that women can't hack the job because the corpse may outweigh them by 100 pounds. "Most of it, it's the old-timers who think women should be behind the stove," he says. "It's bullshit." He tries to warn women that jobs may be harder to find. But, he adds, the industry's acceptance of females has greatly improved in the last decade. One home called him to say only females need apply for internships, because it found women to be superior communicators.

But Nancy's experience at least taught her how she wants her remains treated. "It's something that's against funeral directors' belief, but I'll be cremated," she says.

Why don't funeral directors believe in it?

"Because they're not making enough money on cremation."

Three rounds of rifle shot rip through the sky above the cemetery. Tom Mills concludes Carl's service with thanks to everyone for attending, extending a special nod to the veterans and the pallbearers.

Mills drives the lead car, a black Cadillac. His boss, Launey Dovin, is seated in the passenger seat, poking fun at Mills's concluding remarks. They ride the rest of the way out of the cemetery in silence.

"That service went nice," Mills says at a stoplight.

"Very nice," Dovin says.

On the drive back, they pass a competing funeral home. In a business where immaculate housekeeping is the rule, the home looks unkempt and spooky. More than 50 years ago, Dovin's father, John, worked at the home and lived with his wife upstairs. The couple moved out when they were expecting Launey; the owner worried about a crying baby on the premises. Miffed, John quit and started Dovin Funeral Home, which now does the most volume in town.

A catered lunch awaits Carl's mourners in the wood-paneled basement of the home. The veterans' group was especially interested in whether a meal would be served. Grandchildren who were crying an hour ago are now tearing up and down the stairs. The basement is alive with chatter, food removing the sorrow.

Only a few details of the funeral need to be directed. Mills returns the Titanic CD that was played before the service to a daughter and her husband, their more formal attire suggesting a level of family authority. Their eyes are puffy, their throats catch. "Thank you so much," they say as Mills hands them the CD.

That afternoon, two families coping with recent deaths will discuss their options with the funeral home staff. Business may be hard to predict, but it is steady.


More by David W. Martin


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