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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 his mother was in her eighties, McMonigle would bring her on late-night removals to get her out of the house. On one cold night, with his frail mother bundled up in a coat and stocking cap and perched in the passenger seat, McMonigle explains, he had to pick up a corpse from a hospital. As McMonigle loaded the remains into the back of the van, the security guard went around the front of the car, to make sure it had the required parking placard on the dashboard.

"He looks at the sign, looks up, and sees my mom sitting there. Well, I finished what I was doing in the back of the van, came around, and he was gone. I asked my mom where he was and she said, '"Oh, he just looked in here, turned around, and went back inside.' I figured he must have been paged or something because he didn't lock the gate or anything." McMonigle's thin lips stretch into a broad smile, hinting at an impending roar of laughter. "Well, I was there later in the week, and he got up the nerve to ask me, "When you get really busy, do you just sit 'em up on the front seat?'"

McMonigle slaps the library table, the twinkle in his eyes spreading to the rest of his face. "So I said to my mom, "If anyone looks through the front seat, move a little.' She thought that was so funny, she told all her friends that story. Anybody who'd listen." When the laughter passes, he turns the tale into another important lesson about life in the funeral business. "You have to be able to laugh at situations if you get grim. Otherwise, you just chew it up, chew yourself out."


"If I've heard the story about the body sitting up ...," Donald Dimond, president of the San Francisco College of Mortuary Science, says, shaking his head in frustration. "Someone always tells the story: '"I was in a funeral home one time, and I walked into the prep room, and a body sat up.' You have to kind of smile, because you can't say, '"You're a damn liar.' But bodies don't sit up. They can't sit up. Forget convulsive movement; it takes a lot of muscular action to twitch a nose, move a finger. And there's something else that's required: blood flowing."

Like the hallway outside, Dimond's spacious office is bathed in the subdued amber of dim lamps and sunlight against shuttered blinds. Bookcases line the walls, showcasing trade journals dating back to the 1930s -- when side-loading hearses were briefly in vogue -- and modern-era curriculum guides thicker than most dictionaries. Dimond's tan suit blends perfectly into the muted glow, and his voice carries a naturally smooth, pedantic tone as he discusses and dismisses many of the misconceptions the public holds about his livelihood.

"Critics very often say, '"They just teach people how to sell things.' Actually, the curriculum is very well-defined," he says, and as he speaks, he pages through an overflowing binder of course outlines and curriculum goals. "The idea that funeral directors '"sell' things gets good press, but you find that people have remarkably good instincts on the worst day of their lives.

"Obviously, we're not lifesavers, but I want everyone so satisfied with what I do that they will remember and come back 11 years later, drive 40 miles to do it, and send their friends. I want people walking out saying, '"That's not nearly as bad as I thought it would be.' Then I've won."

Although an increasing number of his students have no funeral service in their personal or familial backgrounds, Dimond is an old-fashioned, third-generation funeral director who has operated mortuaries in Arizona and Southern California. He's been hooked on the business since he was a small child, when he grew up answering the phones in his father's funeral home and occasionally riding along on ambulance calls.

"I remember whining because I couldn't take my ice cream cone into the ambulance, so they let me blow the siren," Dimond recalls. "When you're 6 years old, that's heady stuff. It gets in your blood."

Dimond is full of interesting trivia about the industry -- "Nobody likes to think about the fact that they have refrigerators on cruise ships," he says, "but people die on cruise ships, and you have to have a plan for it" -- but he's also pragmatic about the pressures morticians face. "If there's anyone who isn't at times affected by working in this business, I don't want 'em," he says. "At the same time, if there's someone who gets so emotively involved with every family they take care of, I don't want 'em. Dealing with people's sorrow, if there's no release from it, can get to anyone. And there are times when I'm working in a funeral home when I need to back away."

Relieving the pressure through humor, however, is a touchy subject. Dimond warns his students that funeral directors must conduct themselves with an unusual amount of self-restraint.

"A friend of mine always had a joke, and it was always at my expense," Dimond says. "We'd be sitting around at our Saturday morning breakfast, spinning quarters for the coffee tab, and he'd tell his usual jokes. But I never participated in it. Well, one afternoon he walked to the front door and said his brother had died. As I finished making the arrangements, I walked him out to his car, and he said, 'Incidentally, I now know why you never participate in the jokes.' And I said, 'Yeah, Bill, if I make jokes about what I do and the people I take care of, how would you feel about walking up to my front door today?' That's what I try to communicate to the class.

"People trust funeral directors, and you can't abuse that trust."


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Matt Palmquist

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