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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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And in turn, not everyone shares the value system of aspiring funeral directors, a fact that can lead to social isolation for students at the San Francisco school. Ric Newton, who graduated from the college in the early 1970s and also taught embalming labs, lived in an apartment above the school's Post Street building. One night, after meeting a nice Italian girl and taking her to dinner in North Beach, Newton brought her back to his place. But when they got out of the car and she saw where he lived, any prospects for a nightcap came to a screeching halt.

"She would not come up to my apartment," Newton says. "Needless to say, the relationship didn't go very far."

But like many morticians, Newton -- who runs a funeral home in Chico and has served as president of the California Funeral Directors Association -- says the varied aspects of the job make it worth the occasional social awkwardness.

"It's so multifaceted," he says. "One day I can be involved with homicide people and forensic law enforcement agents, the next day I'm meeting with a Hindu family about a ceremony. We care for the dead, of course, but we're also caregivers for the living. The funeral director plays a vital role in coping with grief and loss, and it's a great feeling to know you can affect people at those times."


Donald Dimond flicks a light switch, throws open a pair of large wooden doors, and says: "This is why the college couldn't stay here."

The doors open on an enormous chapel -- the largest nondenominational chapel in Northern California -- that has the musty vastness of an old single-screen movie palace, replete with glowing candelabras. Pews that were originally designed to accommodate the packed houses at longshoreman funerals stretch on and on, capable of seating 400 with room to spare. But when Dimond looks at the airy chapel, he sees only wasted space and a potential parking lot.

"Think about how many cars you could get in here," Dimond says, his voice echoing as he strides down the center aisle. "This was built for a time that doesn't exist -- our average funeral has 30 people in it."

Although he doesn't profess any sentimental emotions about the closing of the school, Dimond predicts the city will miss it when it's gone.

"There's such diversity in this school -- that's one of the reasons it's such a loss for San Francisco, because it's the ultimate in diversity and nobody pays any attention to it," he says. "Nobody notices a little school that has 75 to 80 students, no matter how long you're around. But what they're going to notice is the loss of the low-income service program. We have provided a very important pressure-relief valve for people who want something but couldn't afford it."

Low-income residents aren't the only ones who will miss the school. McMonigle, who never looks dour when discussing the corpses that wind up on his embalming table, appears visibly shaken when the conversation turns to the school's closing.

"I learned the school was moving the day before they announced it to the students," he says quietly. "I'm not in the circle, you see? So I was greatly disappointed. Because when they get to Sacramento, they won't have this operating mortuary for the students to take part in. The students will be farmed out to mortuaries to observe, and that's just what every other mortuary school in the nation does. So it's no longer going to be unique, which to me is kind of sad.

"Commuting to Sacramento is just too far for me. But if the school had stayed here, I would have continued to teach until I dropped."

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Matt Palmquist

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