Sunday, January 10, 2016

Chapter 26: You Can’t Spell Funeral Without “REAL” and “FUN”

Chapter 26: You Can’t Spell Funeral Without “REAL” and “FUN”

Jobs 77 – 79

2002 -2003

Job #77: Temp Agency/Packaging Company

Shortly after I was laid off from Walmart, my sciatica was sufficiently healed to allow me to look for a new job. I had registered at several temporary staffing agencies. The most famous one (let’s call them “Smelly Services”) actually found me a job, albeit not the kind I was hoping for.

After the debacle of the Walmart truck crew, I wanted a job that was a little more…gentle. I had plenty of clerical experience, and was hoping for something where I could sit down, indoors, and not sweat so much, and not throw out my back. I took Smelly Services’ test for clerical work, and while my typing and other mundane office skills were fine, I didn’t have any experience with 10-key operation or data entry. Despite that, my handler – Curtis – explained that with my college degree, I was rather over-qualified for such work.

So I thought it was interesting that they didn’t consider me over-qualified for the job they did find me – at a company that made paperboard packaging. Their biggest contract was making six-pack holders for College Town’s world-famous brewing company. They also made six-pack carriers for other breweries, as well as packages for all kinds of products, food and otherwise.

I wasn’t thrilled with the prospect of factory work, so I was pleasantly surprised by what a decent place to work it turned out to be (at least temporarily). The work wasn’t particularly strenuous, everyone was  nice, and they had a great lunch/breakroom, with a decent variety of snack vending machines. They even gave Christmas hams to the temporary staffers.


During this time, I even attempted to return to college. I figured that my best chance of getting any kind of geospatial job was to get a Master’s Degree. Even though most graduate courses are held at night, I knew I couldn’t work full-time at the packaging company during the day if I was going to have any time to read the endless required amounts of dry scholarly books and reports. I needed a part-time job to supplement my financial aid package.

Job #78: Mortuary Transportation Driver

I saw an interesting item in the local want ads: someone needed an on-call mortuary transportation driver. I wasn’t even sure what that might entail, but I figured, “What the heck?” and applied. I was a little confused when I went in for the interview, because it was held at the owner’s day business – a small auto repair shop and used car dealership.

The owner was a guy named Ken, and he had a contract with a mortuary in O-Town to do all their after-hours transportation. When someone passed away, and they were slated to be handled by this mortuary (who shall be named later when I can think of an appropriate alias), Ken and/or one of his employees would transport the decedent in a black van from the place of their death to the mortuary. Most of this type of business came from nursing homes and hospitals, but death can happen anywhere, so Ken also had to transport accident and crime victims. He asked me if I had a strong stomach. I wasn’t sure I did (I didn’t, really, at least not at first), but I lamely told him that my wife liked to watch surgery shows, so I had at least seen lots of blood and guts there. He thought that was funny.

During the course of that interview, I learned some things I had never really thought about before. For one thing, I found out that Butt County didn’t have a morgue. In movies and television, bodies are always shown being hauled away, either my ambulance or a coroner’s vehicle, to some mysterious place full of drawers full of dead people. That may be true in better-funded communities but in Butt County, the various mortuaries in the county took turns acting as a de facto morgue on a monthly rotating basis. If an unsupervised death occurred, the county medical examiner would travel to whichever mortuary was hosting him that month and perform the autopsy in their embalming room.

Despite my lack of experience, I got the job. I have a feeling not many other people had applied. I made Ken aware of my plans to attend school, and he said it would be no problem working around my schedule there.

I went with Ken on my first few calls, to learn the ropes, and for him to see how I handled myself. I had seen a couple of dead bodies before, including, sadly, Mrs. R’s grandmother, Mildred, who had passed away not long before, and whose final arrangements had been handled by the very mortuary Ken was contracted to. Still, it was a little weird actually handling someone who had just passed away.

Most of our first few runs together were pretty cut and dried – hospitals and nursing homes. There was one fellow who had passed away unexpectedly on the floor of his bedroom. He was a bearded guy, and was laying face-down. When we turned him over, I was a little creeped out to see his whiskers slowly relaxing en masse from the unnatural position they had been in.

Pretty soon I was ready to go solo, as it were. Ken supplied me with a pager and cell phone. If the call was at a hospital or nursing home, I could do it alone, since those places are designed to handle gurneys. One person could easily slide a normal-sized body from a hospital bed onto the gurney. If they were large, I could get a facility employee to help me. However, if the body was in a private home, or at an accident or crime scene, I had to take a helper. Even though the gurney could be lowered to just a few inches high, it usually took two people to lift the body that far. Then there might be stairs or other difficult access which would require a person at both ends of the gurney.
I had a number of helpers over the two years that I worked for Ken, including my own Step-Rimpyette. The work was strictly on-call, and I made 25 dollars per call. That may not sound like much, but I got enough calls, whether they were solo or team, that it was actually a pretty decent part-time income. However, my helpers only got 20 dollars per call, and team calls were much less frequent. It was difficult to retain people who were willing to get up at odd hours of the night and schlep dead bodies for such meager and inconsistent earnings. More than once, my boss Ken had to be my helper when no one else was available.

Ken let me keep the van (which I sensitively dubbed “the Death Mobile”) at home. He also said I could use it as I needed for errands. Ken had made the questionable choice of putting landau bars on the sides of the van. He said he wanted it to look appropriate because he occasionally used it for funerals, either as the hearse itself, or a flower van. If it hadn’t been for those bars, no one would really have had any indication that it was anything other than a black, windowless utility van.

Once I was coming back into town after picking up a body at the College Town hospital. There were two chubby hillbillies whose car had broken down or run out of gas at the off-ramp I used. I stopped to see if they needed any help. I offered to call someone for them, but told them I couldn’t offer them a ride because I had a “passenger” with me. One of the yokels was staring at the van, and when he saw the landau bars, he loudly exclaimed to his brother, “Dang, Butch, this thing is a hearse! It’s a full-on hearse!”

Another time I picked up Grandrimpy in the van from his elementary school. It was the practice at this school for a staff-member to walk the child to his or her vehicle. The staffer couldn’t tell that my van only had a front passenger seat, and since any child would ride in the back, as California law required,  she opened the side door before I could stop. She was greeted by the sight of a gurney covered by a tasteful gray velour shroud. She said, “Oh my”, while my grandson excitedly shouted, “See!? I told you it was a death mobile!” I was somewhat embarrassed.

There are many other blackly humorous and down-right gruesome tales I could tell you of my time under Ken’s employ, and perhaps I’ll include some more in subsequent drafts of this memoir. My work for Ken wasn’t my only experience in the business of death, however. I had rather quickly given up on my graduate school plans. Much like my experience with evening classes during Army AIT, I couldn’t stay awake in class at night, and I was bored to death by all the reading. All in all, I only lasted a few weeks into the semester.

Now that I was a free agent, I was able to pick up more work with Ken, including day runs. During business hours, the mortuary handled their own transportation, when they could. If they were tied up, however, they called Ken, which meant me. Because of this I got familiar with the staff at the mortuary, particularly the manager, Mike. He liked me, and more importantly, the owner liked me. The owner, a nice lady named Susan, along with her husband, had purchased the mortuary – or memorial chapel – in O-Town from a family named Lear (not their real name) and had kept the name, because it was a well-established business. They also owned a memorial chapel, named after a type of flower, in Mountain Town. Susan’s husband also ran a successful computer repair business in Mountain Town, where they lived.

Job #78: Funeral Director

I began talking to Mike about the possibility of me coming to work for Lear Memorial Chapel, and after a few months he hired me as an assistant funeral director. I continued to work for Ken for the next several months. It was an odd arrangement, to say the least. I spent my days at the chapel, which of course included making transportation calls in their vehicle. If we were too busy to pick up a body, we had to call Ken himself, which he grumbled about. He had originally hired me to take some of the burden off himself. At night, I was on-call for Ken, and was transporting bodies in Ken’s van to the same funeral home for which I worked during the day.

One of the best things about this whole arrangement was that the memorial chapel was only a block from my house. By day I would walk to and from work. At night, after a call, I didn’t have far to drive back home. It was the easiest commute I’ve ever had.

Eventually the unusual nature of the relationship between my two jobs created some problems. Ken’s resentment about having to pick up bodies during the day because I was unavailable finally caused him to cut me out of day runs, and he hired someone else to do that job. Then Susan’s lawyer pointed out that as an employee of Lear, if I was injured on the premises while doing a call as an employee of Ken, I wouldn’t be covered by their workers’ compensation insurance. This meant that I essentially I couldn’t work for Ken anymore, so I had to give him my notice. Amazingly, my last day was exactly two years after my first day, just like the time I left the paratransit driving job.

But at least I still had my day job, which paid a decent wage. For my first few months there, I did not have any kind of license to be a funeral director, and it didn’t seem like I needed one, because all I was doing was assisting with funerals and their arrangements. I certainly wasn’t an embalmer, which requires two years of schooling. At first, I wasn’t sure I this was something I was interested in. I would sometimes help out in the embalming room, and even assisted the medical examiner with a few autopsies. The first few times I got a little light-headed and turned an interesting shade of green, but I never actually passed out or threw up. I was used to seeing gore after having already worked for Ken, but there was something about watching someone slicing or poking a human body, especially if they were so recently deceased as to still be warm. Eventually I got used to it enough to the point of wishing I could go to embalming school. Not only would I have made more money, but I would have been more useful to the business. As a funeral director, I was supposed to be in the rotation of on-call directors for after-hours calls. Most arrangements were handled the next day, but it was desirable that any embalming, if requested, or just setting of facial features (which is way more involved than just shoving the corners of someone’s mouth into a smile) be done as soon as possible. I couldn’t do any of that stuff, so the other funeral directors, who were all also embalmers, had to take extra days on-call, which didn’t make them happy.

Susan used to be willing to finance her funeral directors’ embalming training, but had been burned by a former employer who let her pay for his education, then quit and opened a competing funeral home in O-Town. There was no financial aid available for private schooling of that kind, and I couldn’t afford it myself, let alone the fact that the nearest embalming school was in Sacramento. So I contented myself with my informal status, until one slow day I was reading up on the laws pertaining to funeral directing, and I came across a passage which said that anyone who acted as a funeral director, but who did not have a license, was guilty of a crime. I thought that described my situation exactly. I showed this to Mike, who said, “Well, I guess we’d better get you a license, then.”

Getting a license as a funeral director is pretty easy: you read up on the rules, pay 100 dollars (which Susan put up), get a background check (which was actually less involved than the one to become a cab driver), and take a test in Sacramento. If you pass, you’re a licensed funeral director. Once I had my license, a framed copy was displayed on a wall of the funeral home alongside the other directors’. I didn’t get any more money for being licensed, but I got something almost as good: my very first business card, with my funeral director’s license number right on it (as required by California law). I felt more excited about getting a real business card than I had about getting my Bachelor’s Degree.
I worked for Lear for a total of two years and a couple of months. I had many interesting experiences there, but this is getting over long, and there is one other thing which transpired there which I wish to share with you, for it was one of my proudest accomplishments.

It is well that I am writing this pseudonymously (I love any chance to use that word), for the information I am about to reveal could get me rubbed out by some secret cabal of funeral home owners. It often happens that funeral homes become the unwilling long-term custodians of cremated remains, or cremains. This can happen for a variety of reasons. Sometimes a person dies without anyone to handle their final arrangements. In cases like these, the county will pay for disposition of the body, which is always cremation. Butt County has what is often called a “potter’s field” for indigent decedents, but there has not been a burial or inurnment of cremains there for many, many years. Despite this, Butt County is disinclined to actually take responsibility for the cremains. Perhaps if they had a morgue, they would have a place to keep unclaimed cremains, but as it is, the funeral homes get stuck with them.

Another reason cremains get abandoned is due to family dynamics. A survivor may have arranged for the cremation, but then either flat out refuses to take charge of the “ashes”, or can’t deal with it right away, and so leaves them at the funeral home. A week goes by, then it’s July, then it’s a couple of decades and, well, “out of sight, out of mind.”

This may not sound like much of a problem for the funeral homes, and on a practical level, it isn’t. Cremains don’t take up much room, and require no special storage. The only real problem is that in California (and probably other states, as well) it is actually against the law for a funeral home to keep cremains indefinitely. However, the funeral home cannot dispose of the remains themselves, not without something signed by a survivor. So funeral homes are in this Catch-22 of having no choice but to illegally hang on to people’s unwanted cremains, which is a lesser crime than unauthorized disposal. The keepers of the laws are no doubt aware of this conundrum, and mercifully turn a blind eye to it. So I’m sure every funeral home, at least in California, has this dirty little secret of abandoned cremains hidden away in some dark corner. In Lear’s case, the cremains were kept in a locked cabinet in the basement.

This situation bothered me. I thought it was awful that the last mortal remains of these people were just gathering dust in some musty cellar – abandoned, forgotten and un-memorialized.  I also hate an unresolved mystery, and that’s what these cremains felt like to me. I think I would have made a great detective (but a lousy police officer). Here was a chance to put my amateur sleuthing skills to work. I got Mike’s permission to undertake (see what I did there?) the task of finding the responsible parties for all those cremains, which totaled about 20 urns. He said I could try, but he didn’t think I’d have much luck. The other funeral director on the staff agreed with him.

I gathered up all the files I could find regarding the abandoned cremains, and then I began making some phone calls. A few of the cases were actually quite easy. Those were mainly the result of simple forgetfulness. Sometimes survivors said they thought that one of their siblings had picked up the cremains. That may have been just an excuse, but one lady was genuinely upset that her sister had not done what she said she would do, and came right in to get her mother’s ashes.

Other cases proved more difficult. Often the survivors had relocated, and it took a bit of digging to track them down. The first case of that kind was willing to pay for us to ship the cremains to them, but others balked at the expense. I got Mike to agree to Lear paying for any shipping to facilitate the egress of the cremains. Pretty soon ashes were practically flying out the door. Mike seemed to like to pretend as though none of this was happening. I think he was worried that word might get to the wrong ears. The other funeral director had to admit he couldn’t believe I was having as much success as I was.

One sad case turned out to have a burial plot waiting for his cremains in Susanville, California, but none of his survivors could be bothered to transport him up there. On a slow day at the funeral home, I grabbed a shovel from home, drove up there and personally buried him.
I began keeping separate files for each of my searches, with a log in each one of what I had done and the dates, so that I wouldn’t accidentally repeat some phone call or letter. After a few more months, I was down to one last stubborn case, which became quite personal to me. The decedent shared my first name: Rimpy (not my or his real first name) – Rimpy Johnson. His cremains had been there the longest - almost 20 years - so it’s not surprising that it was so difficult to find any information on his descendants. I dug and I dug and tried everything I could think of in my limited arsenal. I even consulted with a local private investigator and a detective at the Butt County Sheriff’s office (the sheriff is also the coroner for the county – which just means he is responsible for investigating suspicious and unattended deaths and signing death certificates for same) for any tips and tricks I hadn’t thought of. The private investigator told me about an amazing professional investigator’s database program, but Susan was unwilling to pay for a subscription to it.

I did manage to find a couple of sisters of Rimpy Johnson’s. I almost had some luck with the family of one of them, but suddenly they stopped answering my calls. The other sister was living in a nursing home in Texas. Unfortunately, she was too far gone with Alzheimer’s for me to talk to, and the staff couldn’t give me any information about her immediate family. Finally I just had to put Rimpy’s file away in a drawer and try to forget about it as a lost cause. One day, a few months later, I suddenly had a feeling. My funeral director/private detective sense was tingling! I pulled out Rimpy’s file and called the sister’s nursing home. I was informed that she had passed away. That was the intuition I’d had! Now that she was no long a patient, they were able to give me her granddaughter’s phone number. When I called and explained who I was and why I was calling, she was very gracious. Even though she had barely known her great-uncle Rimpy, she was willing to take responsibility for his cremains.

So Rimpy Johnson had been the first one in and he was the last one out. I had successfully found resting places for all 20-odd abandoned cremains. The other members of the staff said something to the effect of “cool, good job” and went about their business, and of course, it wasn’t something I could brag about too much, because of the weird laws regarding cremains. After an initial feeling of pride and elation on my strange and secret accomplishment, I experienced a let-down – a feeling of emptiness after all those months of obsessive work. That low feeling may have contributed to my eventual decision to leave Lear. But I’m getting ahead of myself, again.

I did get a bit of recognition for my mystery-solving skills from an unexpected source during the time I was still “working cases”. The sheriff’s detective whom I had contacted called me one day. There was a peculiar case of someone throwing a container of cremains in a dumpster behind a gas station. The security cameras had caught the act, but the resolution of the footage wasn’t great. A local man was incorrectly identified as the culprit, but he was able to prove that he wasn’t near the area at the time. The detective called me because he knew I was well now versed in identifying the owners of cremains. The answer to his problem didn’t require the skills of an amateur cremains detective – any funeral director knows that each container of cremains includes a metal tag with the name of the crematory and a unique number identifying the decedent stamped into it. Then it was a simple matter of contacting that funeral home (which was all the way in Florida) and finding the name. The falsely accused man also called me and thanked me for proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that he wasn’t involved, since no connection between him and the cremains could be found.

I don’t remember if they ever caught whoever it was who so unceremoniously disposed of somebody’s ashes that way. That’s such a shitty thing to do to someone. He could have just emptied the cremains out on the ground somewhere (which is not always legal, depending on the location, but who’s going to know?) and then thrown the empty container away (which isn’t illegal). Maybe he was just squeamish about ashes (like I was as a kid with that woman’s cremains in my garage), but it seems like you must really have to hate someone to just trash their earthly remains in such a callous manner.
I think that’s about enough for now. In the next chapter, I will try to explain my stupid reasons for leaving Lear (I’m not sure I understand them myself), and briefly relate the brief job which immediately followed it. Then I have to deal with…DUNT DUN DUNNNN...Osmosis! Until then, you can read the long version here, or just wait for the condensed version. Tah!

The end

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