Merchants of Death

Dec 6, 2006 at 12:00 am

No one escapes death alive.

Unless, of course, they're just visiting.

Attended annually by some 3,000 morticians, embalmers and funerary exhibitors, the National Funeral Directors Association's Convention and Expo is the largest congregation of deathcare professionals in the world. And while Michigan has been a hub for undertakers-turned-bureaucrats (its political graveyard boasts two former mayors, a lieutenant governor and a half dozen senators and state reps), Detroit has only hosted the convention once — 24 years ago. For the 125th anniversary festivities, NFDA bedded down in Philadelphia.

Over those five days, I met embalmers and florists, life insurers and grave diggers, casket makers and professors of mortuary science. I attended a seminar on selling paw-printed urns to bereaved pet owners, airbrushed rouge on a "dead" person and saw a group of drunken morticians dance the conga and the electric slide.

I even heard NFDA senior vice president John Fitch estimate that up to 1.9 million of us could die of the avian flu sometime in the next year.

"You think this is just Chicken Little, SARS all over again, Y2K, much ado about nothing — so why do we need to worry about it?" he bellowed from the podium during the "Pandemic: Are You Prepared?" lecture. "This is a deadly, deadly virus ... And let me tell you, folks, your federal and state governments don't have a clue how death is handled."

In the worst-case scenario, where the death rate doubles in a compressed period of time, Fitch said that Americans could be looking at 15-minute funerals with drastically truncated religious services, undertakers removing infected bodies in chemical suits and M95 respirators, and entire towns quarantined.

Like the influenza pandemic of 1918, bodies would be stacked like cordwood in warehouses and ice rinks.

But what are mass fatalities to undertakers if not good for business?

"Shoo-wee," the mortician to my left whistled under his breath.

Even he bought it. And as any entrepreneur at this convention can tell you, selling the salesmen is the most important sale of all.


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It is the first day of the convention and I am the only one wearing black.

It wasn't like I planned it this way. But standing before my closet at 5 a.m. on a Saturday, weighing the black dress against the red skirt, I applied the universal rule of fashion: When in doubt, wear black.

Black is the color of death, after all. Black is grief made tangible. Black is what one wears to meet thy maker.

Or in today's case, thy undertaker.

But now, standing at the registration desk of the NFDA's annual powwow, I look like Morticia Addams in a roomful of Florida tourists — a member of the Trenchcoat Mafia joining Jimmy Buffett's family for supper.

Everything I thought I knew about morticians was wrong. They're not the storybook serfs rolling death carts through plague-stricken villages or the constantly bickering Wissmillers of A&E's Family Plots. Nor are they half as macabre, smelling mostly of mothballs and formaldehyde. They wear black when business calls, yes, but to assume, as most of us probably do, that there's something categorically wrong with people who pickle dead bodies for a living is to underestimate the fortitude it takes to face one's own mortality on a daily basis.

On the whole, the morticians here are pale and heavily mustached, with white hair and liver spots, big gold watches and chunky class rings, hangdog jowls and the occasional cane wobbling underfoot. The nature of their services demands impeccable manners and euphemisms for everything: That's not a body; it's Mr. Romano. Mr. Romano's not dead; he's moved on. Coffins are caskets, hearses are coaches, ashes are cremains, embalming is restorative art, and so on.

As for their legendary conservativism, they're good Christians some of them, sure, but they're also good men. Ethical men. Their children are ethical, too, the heirs and heiresses of old-fashioned traditions and bygone values. Many of them are here today in the company of their parents, their suits wearing them. Already, they know never to chew gum or wear sunglasses, to always point with an open hand, and to say with a straight face and solemn conviction, "I'm sorry for your loss."

It's not like they're this way all the time. Many wear golf paisleys and speak in booming voices. They can be a merry lot — loading their arms with gummy skeletons and casket paperweights at the expo gift shop, cracking jokes at their own expense ("How's business? Dead?") and laughing like there's no, well, you know.

We all have our ways of coping.


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It seems I have the plague. It's green and satiny and hangs from my NFDA name tag like a fat spindle of anaerobic bacteria. It says PRESS, and the second the conference attendees glimpse the ribbon, they steer out of my way.

This is fairly typical of the relationship between morticians and the media. I'm asked repeatedly what I'm going to write, what I think of the conference so far, and if I'm here to "Mitfordize" them. (Investigative journalist Jessica Mitford's The American Way of Death was the most notorious funerary exposé of the last 50 years. The best-selling book, first published in 1963 and updated in 1998, outlined the industry's myriad unethical practices.)

At one point, I end up drinking alone at the martini bar in the lobby of the Marriott where most of the morticians are staying.

And that's when I see him, standing sideways at the bar, sipping a Yeungling and staring blankly into space. He's clean-cut and good-looking, slight of frame with fancy trousers hemmed one inch too short. He resembles a young Leonardo DiCaprio circa Titanic. I start to scribble his description on a hotel napkin, along with the phrase "helluva way to make a living," when he saunters over, sets down his glass and says, "Excuse me, are you a nurse?"

I glare. "Do I look like a nurse?"

"Well, I, there's just the nurses' convention in town and I thou—"

"Are you a funeral director?" I am not in the mood for flirting if this man does not make his living off dead people.

"Yes. Yes I am."

Well then, so nice to meet you. What's your name? Ah, Kenneth. Kenneth the Mortician. Kenneth the Mortician from Jersey City.

My head is starting to whir from the alcohol. I ask Kenneth the Mortician if he's also an embalmer.

Yes. Yes he is.

Well, it's nice to meet you too, Kenneth the Embalmer. Kenneth the Embalmer from Jersey City.

As it turns out, Kenneth is 35 — considerably older than he looks. He is an only child, and lives next door to his parents' funeral home, roughly 15 minutes outside Manhattan. He's never been frightened of the bodies in their basement, nor has he ever thought of them as anything more than work. He earned his funeral director's license in 2001, an about-turn after six years studying less moribund matters at Wesleyan University. Kenneth prefers cremation, although his family will be buried, and he thinks Six Feet Under is, surprisingly, "pretty accurate."

He takes long pauses between carefully selected words, sucking air sharply through his nostrils in an effort to buy time. He's not dating anyone at the moment ("It means lying. And I don't like lying to girls"), and complains that most women his age are looking for marriage. He's not the marrying type, not yet anyway. As he fishes croutons off my untouched salad plate, I can't help but notice his fingernails are immaculate.

We talk two, maybe three hours. I lose count. At some point, we leave the martini bar and head outside, past the Chinatown buses and the hulking Broad Street Ministry, and up to an oversized bingo chip at the plaza of the Municipal Services Building, where we sit admiring City Hall and talking death.

I tell him about the funeral of a friend who died in a mountain climbing accident four years ago — and how he lay there like a plastic doll, propped up in his gleaming white coffin, a popsicle shade of orange and stiff as an emery board, just a whisper of a human being. He was 21.

"Orange, hmm?" Kenneth says, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. "That's unusual."

I explain that when park rangers found Jeff and his climbing buddy, three days after they disappeared for the summit, they were roped together at the bottom of a 100-foot wall of ice. They'd frozen to death.

"Ah!" he says, finger wagging in the air. "He must've been black when they brought him in."

Eventually, we return to the Convention Center, where the NFDA President-Elect Party has converted the main terminal into a miniature Manhattan, replete with cash bars, glittery Broadway signs and makeshift ethnic neighborhoods serving buffet-style finger foods.

The party is pumping. A cover band plays "Twist and Shout" and "I Will Survive."

"These fuckers drink like fish!" hollers one guy, double-fisting two cocktails as he pushes past our table.

"They're really good, yeah?!" shouts Kenneth, pointing at the band and dancing like only white boys can.

I smile and nod, a bit unsure what the rest of this week will hold.

On the way out — me to my scooter, he to his hotel room, the cover band playing "My Girl" — I ask him to look me dead on and tell me he's sorry for my loss. He runs his hand over his face like a mime changing expressions, but his eyes crinkle and his mouth widens. He can't do it.


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The buzzword at this year's convention is personalization. As more and more Americans turn to cremation and alternative means of final disposition, fortune hunters are seeking new and innovative ways to turn a buck in the multibillion-dollar deathcare industry. The funeral directors begrudgingly follow suit.

"It's about having it your way," says Kurt Soffe, a stately mortician from Murray, Utah, and my personal guide for the expo floor.

By parlor standards, Jenkins-Soffe Funeral Chapels & Cremation Center is fairly progressive. Families can make arrangements online, order DVD tributes and casket shop from the comfort of their homes.

Soffe himself is well-preserved and animated — a dead ringer for Bob Barker. His teeth glow iridescently when he smiles, which is often, and he speaks in refreshingly frank terms, even when grilled about grisly topics. (In one challenging case, a man was on the ground checking a tire when his buddy accidentally threw the truck in reverse. The tire rolled right over the guy's head and "smashed it like a cantaloupe," says Soffe with the clinical remove of someone reading a cake recipe.)

The theme of this year's expo is "Honor Your Past, Shape Your Future," and as such, a number of booths are done up 1950s-style. Clip art of floating heads with dimpled smiles adorn NFDA promotional materials, and salespeople are dressed as malt shop waitresses and greasers. Poly Vault has stacked its crypts like a cheerleader pyramid beneath a black-and-white striped cemetery tent, and surrounded the monument with life-size cardboard cutouts of Elvis and Marilyn Monroe. Soffe thinks this is rather clever.

Our tour begins with an explanation of the grotesque putty-faced mannequin greeting passersby at the door. Attached to its wrists are Velcro bands, which, Soffe says, may be used as an alternative to sewing a corpse's hands together for the viewing.

Moving right along, we pass booths stocked with smocks, face shields, trocar buttons, three-tier mortuary fridges and body bags marked as low as $4.99 apiece. Eye caps are sold by the gross. Casket liners, stippling brushes and head blocks are displayed with the artistic care of a jeweler arranging engagement rings in a display case window. Booths sell gowns for the deceased, in such nauseating colors as "Seaspray Fantasia" and "Mauve Tizzie," and there is every type of urn and casket: Tony Soprano bronze, European toe-pinchers and infant coffins the size of diaper bags.

In the decomp department, there's Eckels Arrest for Tissue Gas ("destroys maggots, lice and vermin and eliminates tissue 'crunching'"), Frigid Safe Powder ("the economical choice for external embalming over gangrene, cancer sores, mutilation [and] autopsy cases") and Aron Alpha instant adhesive ("seals lips, eyelids and incisions [and] dries clear in 45 seconds").

"Do you like perfume?" asks one embalmer-salesman. I nod, and he spritzes me with a cadaver-friendly odor neutralizer. "You can use it on the skin, in the mouth, in the nose or for other ... problem orifices." It smells like orange-scented toilet bowl cleaner.

At the nearby Graftobian Professional cosmetics booth, I try my hand at applying blush to the cheeks of a faux cadaver head. The mortician to my left is doing the same, but he's too heavy-handed, making murky splotches where lips should be.

A few aisles over are Vantage's Advanced Interment Systems, which, if you believe the slogan, are nonporous polypropylene gaskets "engineered for eternity."

"Eternity, huh?" I ask a Vantage sales guy chomping on a Häagen-Dazs bar. His name tag says "Tommy."

"Yes, ma'am," he says in a deep Alabama drawl. "For e-ter-nity."

Well, yeah, OK. But eternity's a long time, Tommy. How do you know?

"How do I know?" he laughs incredulously, dropping half of his ice cream bar on the carpet. "I've been there and back!"

In the automotive arena, the usual suspects are offering the predictable selection of hearses, sedans and limousines with color-coordinated draperies, chrome wheel wells and Wig Wag lights. Like an El Dorado wearing a giant corsage, the Eagle Cadillac Coupe de Fleur is particularly eye-dazzling. I'm told it's popular with Italians.

I'm interested in price, but Harry, a salesman working the floor for Federal Coach, says they're not really for sale to everyday Joes. Or Jims, as was the case when the local "Jim the DJ" got his hands on a 1985 Caprice hearse, only to flame-detail the sides, jack up the rear and outfit the car with a dead-wakening stereo system à la Claire Fisher's pimped-out death wagon.

"We try to discourage that," says Harry.

This seems to be in direct opposition to all this talk about personalization. Not that I buy it. Stamping a carapace with an American eagle or a set of golf clubs does not a unique death make.

Just ask Concordia sales guy Kevin. The thirtysomething has already planned his exit strategy, and it involves a Rolls Royce, bagpipers and a big black lady in a low-cut dress, singing at the top of her lungs while sweat drips into her cleavage.

"That is the way to go."


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"Why do they look so ... dead?"

This is the single most common complaint funeral directors hear when presenting a body for visitation.

It's a fundamentally absurd question.

But to anyone who has stood over the casket of a stiff and wondered about his monochromatic skin tone, forced smile or perfectly folded hands, it's a question that begs the imagination.

Why do they look so dead?

I ask NFDA publicist Celine Clark if I can attend an eight-hour technical skills seminar on embalming and reconstructive surgery with Vernie Fountain, founder of Fountain National Academy of Professional Embalming Skills in Springfield, Mo. Fountain is, after all, "the man" when it comes to human pickling. Clark says I need a license for that workshop, but that Fountain would be happy to accommodate me at the "Expert Embalming Panel."

The goal of embalming is not permanent preservation, but to make the body "acceptable" and "identifiable" to interested parties. Like a designer supergluing the hem of a dress minutes before a runway show, embalmers pin bodies together just long enough to make it through a wake and funeral. Fountain shows us a PowerPoint presentation on how to do this in cases of severe head-crushing trauma or soft tissue damage.

He starts with the before-and-after photos of a decomp. In the top photo, Mr. X's mangled face resembles a bowl of black, oozy spaghetti, the ashen skin peeled away like leather on a baseball. His facial features are indistinguishable from one another. In the bottom photo, he's waxy white and rather sticky looking, but at least you can tell his nose from his mouth. He ain't winning any beauty awards, but the kids'll recognize him.

In a second example, Fountain shows us the aftermath of a gunshot wound to the face. It's like a sloppy joe with teeth. He earmarks the "knowns" (eyes, ears, etc.), before guessing the rest.

Like many a great embalmer, Fountain stresses the little things in body prep: Cleaning under the fingernails. Trimming the nose hairs. Using a neutral shade of lipstick on gentleman corpses.

In another lecture, "Tissue and Organ Donation: Legal and Embalming Considerations" with Jack Adams of the Dodge Company, we watch a long video on embalming donor bodies. The subject is a hefty 96-year-old woman who's had her heart, long bones and select deep tissues removed. She's been refrigerated for almost two weeks; her glassy stare and gaping mouth reflect this. Her nails are painted metallic rose, and I can't help but wonder if this is somebody's grandmother.

Adams wastes no time in the prep room. The woman is slit from ankle to thigh, wrist to armpit, the way one might scissor through a yard of fabric. She does not bleed; her insides have the consistency of strawberry jam.

Her eyeballs are scooped out with a scalpel, and dollops of morticians' putty are used to fill the holes. Eye caps are set, lids are closed and Kalip Stay Cream seals the lash line. The jaw is then sutured shut through the nostrils.

Foot-long needles are stuck into various crevices, and open plains of tissue are cauterized with chemicals squirted from clear ketchup bottles. Four, five and six pairs of forceps are used to pin back flaps of skin while rafts of meat are scraped, wadded and wrung like wet laundry. When the harvesting is complete, PVC pipes and absorbent gauze are molded into place, yellow beds of fat are patted down like housing insulation and the skin on either side of the incision is stitched together with hideous, wide loops using what looks like industrial-strength dental floss.

I've had only one cup of coffee today. The video is making me hungry. I've forgotten that this was somebody's grandmother.


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I have just witnessed the 212-pound body of a 96-year-old woman being gutted, deboned and chemically treated for all eternity. To say that James Earl Jones does not have my undivided attention at this particular moment would be an accurate statement.

The title of Jones' keynote luncheon lecture is "The Culture Quest: How Culture Affects Us and How We Affect Culture."

My brain is too racked with death to concentrate. Sitting on the sideline of the Convention Center ballroom, studying the contours of the directors' faces as they make small talk over mixed greens and beef tenderloin, I'm sucker punched with a profound sense of clarity: Every person in this room will die. Every last one of them.

And then what?

They too will look like that gutted, deboned and chemically treated hoagie of a woman from the video — zipped open, bones plucked, asses packed with cotton, insides dripping with germicides, insecticides and olfactants, laced shut and ultimately posed for a fond farewell to the fam.

I'm doing a tremendous job depressing myself when a thick man with a black goatee and a prison-green tattoo peeking from beneath his white polo pulls up a chair beside me. He tells me his name, tells me not to use it, then shakes my hand and tells me he's in the cemetery business.

"Funeral directors are so weird, man," he says, head cocked to one side. "Who can watch an embalming, then come upstairs and eat?"

With all due respect, I say, aren't you in the cemetery business?

"Yeah, but I don't gotta touch 'em."

He continues: "I can always pick a funeral director out of a crowd. They got this weird kinda phoniness. It's like, most of them are truly sincere, but they come off as fake."

I ask him what cemeteries are like. He says they're funny, mostly because the prejudices and insecurities people hold in life carry over into death. Where he comes from, in the southwestern United States, Catholics don't want to be buried next to Mormons. Mormons don't want to be buried next to Catholics. Blacks stick with blacks. Whites stick with whites. Jews stick with Jews. The rich continue to build bigger and bigger mausoleums to outdo the Joneses that can no longer keep up, and the poor just settle for a hole in the ground.

For his last hurrah, he wants Harleys — no, a horse-drawn hearse — and friends stretched as far as the eye can see. "Gotta do 'er up right," he says, head shaking. "You'll never eat again. Never drink again. Never have sex again — what's a few thousand bucks for a proper send-off?"


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At 16, I used to imagine my funeral any time I was mad at the world — which was most of the time.

I'd die young and beautiful, of course, and the entire thing would be orchestrated to Sisters of Mercy's "This Corrosion." Thousands of friends and lovers would file past the coffin, ladies wearing pillbox hats with black netting, men sniffling into handkerchiefs. The procession would stop traffic for miles, and when we finally reached the cemetery tent, pitched atop a tall hill with a single gnarled tree, the heavens would part, thunder would clap and a thousand black umbrellas would open at once. Remorse would wash over the crowd of tearful onlookers. Oh, the agony! Oh, the regret!

A few years ago, I revised my exit strategy: No service, no funeral and a no-nonsense cardboard box for easy cremation.

But after three days on the expo floor, running my fingers along the crepe lining of Starmark's $50 meatpacking boxes, and hearing in great, enthusiastic detail about the smoke-busting mechanics of Matthews Cremation Division's Power-Pak II cremator, I can't help but feel a little disappointed.

Like, what, no party?

On a practical level, I know there's no sense spending a lot of money just to throw your ass on the pyre. Egyptian cotton, tufted silk linings and other funeral finery — it doesn't matter when you're dead.

Still, as the Matthews salesman talks about fuel efficiency this and economically minded that, my head wanders ...

My dad is a big man. What if he doesn't fit in that box? Or what if the lid won't close? What if I have to stand in that cramped little viewing room at the crematorium and watch his body rolled into that giant oven, hands or ears or feet peeking out from between the lids?

"Then you've got the ECP-200 electric cremated remains processor ..."

He's still talking. My stomach flips.

"... and the Power-Pak II can do up to four cremations in eight hours!"

I want to scream. Maybe I do. Or maybe I just walk away thinking it's what you do with the ashes that counts.

My mom wants hers spread over Town Mountain, N.C. My dad wants the carbon extracted from his and turned into diamonds. And me, well, I like the idea of Floramorial, a process that converts cremains into plant food. Like reincarnation, it gives me the chance to come back as something better than what I am today. Karma depending, of course.


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If you hang around undertakers long enough, everything starts to look like death.

Vases look like urns. Garbage cans look like burial vaults. Butts in an ashtray look like somebody's husband.

I ask Kenneth the Mortician if this ever goes away. The question seems to catch him off-guard. We're drinking lagers at Finnigan's Wake, watching sauced undertakers grind it out to M.C. Hammer at the NFDA's Funeral Directors Under 40 mixer.

"Well, I don't know," he says, smiling that phony-sincere smile that cemetery men hate. "It's a job."

The barstool conversation switches to floaters and decomps, then to hairy maggots and beetles, then to the black market value of cigarettes dipped in embalming fluid. Soon, we will run out of things to talk about.

Outside, it's raining and the streets are streaked with color. From this vantage point, I see everything and hear nothing. People move in long shadows along the empty sidewalks, disappearing into themselves as if they'd never existed in the first place. It's not depressing or sad or profound or heartbreaking — it just is.

I ask the mortician to look me dead on and tell me he's sorry for my loss. He runs his hand over his face like a mime changing expressions, but his eyes crinkle and his mouth widens. He still can't do it.

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Ashlea Halpern writes for Philadelphia City Paper, the paper in which this story originally appeared. Send comments to [email protected]