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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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"He's a legend," Ron Hast says. "There are certain people in our field whose reward in their work is not financial, but rather to keep something going. Hugh McMonigle is one of those people."

"He would have been a great research scientist somewhere, he's that intellectual and that bright," says Tim Bachman, an alum who now works at a funeral home in Sioux Falls, S.D. "When you talk to him and draw information from him, he just lets the floodgates open."

One current student puts it in even plainer terms: "Mac lives to embalm."

And fortunately, he also lives to tell about it.

McMonigle, seated in the school's cramped library and surrounded by past issues of Southern Funeral Director, takes less than 10 minutes of conversation to ease into his first embalming story. And it's preceded by an intriguing caveat, delivered in his matter-of-fact drawl: "Because the school is willing to take the time to deal with low-cost services, we get a lot of the problem cases that regular mortuaries would pass up."

"For instance," he begins, shifting in his chair and warming to his topic, "a young man was joy riding with some of his buddies some years ago. They were horsing around, speeding, and they hit a curb. He was ejected and came head-to-fireplug, just caved in his whole head." McMonigle locks his eyes on his hands, rubbing them against each other. "The family went to the medical examiner, and they were advised not to have a service. They came to the mortuary school and we said, '"Give us a chance. When we finish, if he looks OK, why, you can have an open casket.' Well, we had to restore the broken skull, rebuild the head with cotton and plaster and Styrofoam, brace it on the inside with the bones. Then suture up all the holes in the scalp, disguise those with cosmetics. But when it was done, the family came in and looked, talked it over, and two days later they had a full service. Hundreds of people showed up, because it was a high school kid." He clears his throat, never letting his words stray from their even tone and measured pace. "Over the years, we've had quite a few cases similar to that -- shotguns and car accidents and things. It's good training for the students, that they see this stuff."

Prodding, pulling, and feeling his own well-lined face, McMonigle illustrates how one might salvage a particularly blemished visage. "When someone who's Caucasian has the color of my black shoe, you have to use quite a bit of chemicals to bleach it. It's like stage makeup -- you put light where you want it to stand out," he says, touching the tip of his nose, "and dark where you want a wrinkle." He slides a finger down the sides. "We had one woman who was homeless, on drugs. Her daughter hadn't seen her for six years, although they talked on the phone, and she gave her some money, until one night the mother died in one of those hotels, just slumped against the wall at the end of a hallway. Took six or seven days before somebody discovered her.

"Well, she had had a color change, she was in bad shape, and when I first looked at her I said, '"We're not going to embalm this.' But the students who made the arrangements said her daughter would really like to see her, so we did it. Well, by the time we got through bleaching the skin, it looked like someone with bad skin problems, but there was no longer the dark pigmentation. We put the normal wrinkles on the face, the nose, colored the eyebrows, did her hair and lipstick. A little bit of cosmetic got in the hair, and they combed it out to the end, so she had this streak in her hair that matched her cosmetic. I thought, '"Wow, that's great.' The daughter came in and everyone was waiting to see what her reaction would be. And she said, '"You only did one thing wrong: My mother never fixed her hair up like that.'"

McMonigle breaks into a long, full-throated laugh, which turns into a cough and back into a chuckle. "Early in my career, there were times when I was surprised. But now nothing surprises me."

There have also been times when McMonigle has wondered whether this was the right business for him. When he was about 23, in his second year of teaching, St. Joseph's School of Nursing held a Halloween dance and (naturally enough) invited the mortuary students, who were mostly male. At one point a girl asked him where he went to school.

"I said, '"I don't go to school, actually. I teach. At the San Francisco College of Mortuary Science.' Boom! The hands went in the pocket. '"I'm not going to shake hands with any mortician,' she said. And that really traumatized me. I thought, '"I'm going to spend the rest of my life with people like this.'"

But his wife, who moved with him from Idaho to San Francisco, always encouraged him in his fledgling career, and often accompanied him on removals. In later years he'd bring his kids to sit in the front seat while he loaded bodies into the back of the van, and gradually children in his Pacifica neighborhood began clamoring to ride along, too. "It was something different for them to do," he says, "or maybe it was because every time we finished I'd stop and buy ice cream for them."

About The Author

Matt Palmquist

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