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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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In a Mission District coffee shop only a half-dozen blocks from the school that will soon become their alma mater, James Murphy and Felicia Ortiz are trying to explain why they want to be morticians. Lowering his dry, deadpan voice, Murphy struggles to articulate his self-avowed "fascination with death."

"All my life, there's been a relationship there," says the 19-year-old Murphy, pale, slender, and still dressed for class in tight brown slacks, a blue corduroy shirt with a matching tie, and sharp-toed black dress shoes. "One day it just clicked. It just seemed like the right thing to do. Before this, I'd never been to a funeral. Nobody close to me had ever died."

Now Murphy lives above Valencia Street Serra Mortuary, in a tiny dorm room just steps away from the funeral home's vast casket selection area, where aisles of coffins adorned with photographs and flowers wait for potential buyers. Murphy is adamant that you can't just be death-obsessed to work in the business; you must respect its traditions and customs. But, he adds, a perverse sense of humor and a persistent fascination with the great unknown will help.

"I remember on the first day [working as an apprentice], I had to glue this old lady's lips shut," Murphy says. "And you know, it just made my day. You get to go home and tell all your friends that you Super Glued someone's lips shut. And I knew from then on I wanted to pursue it further. It's like when you're younger, and you're passing by a crime scene. You look because you want to see some blood and gore. Most people just tend to deny it -- why not fully embrace it and have a good time doing it?"

Ortiz, 23, took a more circuitous route to her chosen field. A former stripper who danced in San Francisco clubs for three years, Ortiz professes a profound enthrallment with the human body. She wanted to become a gynecologist, in fact, but was drawn to the mortuary school when she realized she could study all the hard science she wanted, earn a degree within a year, and begin a career almost immediately. Like Murphy, she lives above a funeral home in San Francisco and says she's always been interested in the darker side of mortality. She also enjoys the theatrical aspect of funeral directing: the makeup, props, lights, and ceremonies that link death and drama.

"I'm a total metalhead, and every band I listen to sings about death and gore and stuff like that," says Ortiz, draped in an all-black suit. "Once I got into it, I realized this was my calling, this was fate. Nobody believed me, because they thought I'd be a stripper forever, but I made it into the school, and now I'm earning top grades."

Even a harrowing experience during her first embalming couldn't dissuade Ortiz. The corpse -- brought into a mortuary where she was serving an internship -- was an older woman, still warm, and Ortiz was instructed to perform the cavity aspiration, draining the inner organs of blood and waste and pumping in replacement embalming fluid. As she was attaching the hose to the bottle of fluid, she accidentally knocked the bottle over and sent it bouncing across the floor. Solution splashed everywhere, including up Ortiz's skirt.

"I had to undress from the waste down and turn on the quick-jet shower," Ortiz recalls with a laugh. "My inner thighs were absolutely burning, and my boss comes in with me standing in my underwear and suit jacket, trying to get this cavity fluid off my thighs. My leg was embalming the whole night, my right inner thigh was red hot. So I think when I'm an old lady, I'll be all wrinkled except for this one young, supple spot where I'm embalmed."

"Happens to everyone," Murphy adds. "Sooner or later, you're going to get embalming fluid on you."

And sooner or later, you're going to see some corpses that can't help but turn your stomach. Among the worst, Murphy and Ortiz agree, are shotgun blasts and fetal deaths. Ortiz was particularly shaken by a 19-year-old girl. "Because she was so close to my age, she didn't look as dead as the rest of them. You start thinking of your own mortality because she was pinker, the look on her face didn't seem like she was ready for it. And you can sense that, you can really see it. In a way, we get to know these dead people because we're working right there with them."

Most students who have passed through the San Francisco school agree that the college exposed them to the extremes of the trade. The school always needs corpses, and often that means taking weeks-old bodies that have been abandoned and mangled by advanced decomposition.

"We got everything: trauma, gunshots to the head, car accidents," says Tim Bachman, the Sioux Falls funeral director who graduated from the school in 1988. "In our region, I'm now called upon by other funeral homes to help with their reconstructions, because I've seen it all in San Francisco."

Bachman, born and raised in Sioux Falls, also remembers seeing some grief-stricken live people who stood in stark contrast to the folks he grew up around. "One man had died of AIDS, and his companion came in to make the arrangements," he recalls. "I must have looked like just some redneck kid from the Midwest, and I had a hard time breaking through the wall that was built up between us. Finally I just laid my pen down, took him by the hand, and said, '"I'm not here to judge you.' From that point on, everything went very well, and I take that as a big lesson in how I deal with people. They might not have my value system, but I want to help them through this."

About The Author

Matt Palmquist

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