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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 moves (gulp) into the great beyond

Wednesday, Apr 24 2002
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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.

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Matt Palmquist

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