The secret lives of undertakers

When you picture a funeral home, you probably expect silence — until suddenly all hell breaks loose

Topics: Books, Death, Funerals, Mortuaries, Undertakers, Editor's Picks,

The secret lives of undertakers (Credit: Fer Gregory via Shutterstock)

Even though I knew it was coming, it was still a shock—as it’s supposed to be—as my front doors crashed back on their hinges and policemen flooded in. I found myself staring into the business end of a lot of pistols and I think a shotgun or two. I don’t really remember. When there are guns pointed at me my mind tends to go to mush.

“Against the wall!” a voice behind one of the pistols commanded.

And though my mind was shouting I’m the owner! I’m the owner! I merely stumbled up against the wall as the wave swept past me, less one officer, who gave me a pat down.

From the parking lot, I could hear the screams of a man overshadowed by an officer yelling, “Stop resisting! Stop resisting!”

In retrospect, the day hadn’t started out so bad, and if I had known it would have ended with BioTech—a crime scene remediation service—scrubbing blood out of the carpet and off the walls, I never would’ve gotten out of bed that morning. No funeral is worth that kind of aggravation, not to mention being frisked like a teenage girl on prom night.

It was a Saturday, deceptively sunny and warm for what grief the day would bring. I arrived at my place, McKenzie Mortuary, located in Belmont Heights, Long Beach, early, made coffee and took messages off the answering service, and then took Ruthless, my goldendoodle, for a walk around the block before locking him in my office. My morning routine complete, I went into the chapel to get everything ready for the Revis service. I had dressed and casketed Mrs. Revis the day before, and sometime during the evening the hairdresser had come and done her hair and makeup. I checked the makeup and, satisfied, set about transferring all the flowers from the flower room to the chapel and setting them up around the casket.

Arranging floral tributes is a tricky art. We always set the family pieces closest to the deceased, the closer the degree of kinship, the closer to the casket, followed by coordinating colors and styles. Therefore, what might look best isn’t necessarily what is set up because of how close or far from the casket the piece has to sit due to kinship. Mrs. Revis had a large family; I filled the entire front chapel wall around her casket with flowers.

I tinkered and fussed with all the floral arrangements and, finally satisfied, I set out the memorial folders and guest book in the lobby, and set up the Casio keyboard that one of the family members would play during the service at the front of the chapel. I spent the remaining time until the family arrived with a cloth and bottle of Windex shining up glass, mirrors, and furniture — nervous energy, really.

Mrs. Revis’s son, Charles, and daughter, Jeanette, arrived shortly after 9 A.M. with their families, and went in and viewed their mother. As is my usual modus operandi, I waited a few minutes, heard some muffled weeping, and then swept into the room with a box of tissues. “Is everything all right . . . as far as her appearance is concerned?” I inquired.

Charles, tears in his eyes, replied, “She looks wonderful.” “Twenty years younger,” Jeanette chimed in.

I beamed inwardly and simply nodded, “Good. If you need anything, I’ll be in the lobby greeting your guests.”

Charles took that opportunity to pull me aside. He had that look in his eye. “Look, Ken,” he spoke in a whisper, “there’s some . . . tension in the family.”

“Oh?” I replied. There usually is. Combine the emotions surrounding the death of a family member with the impending estate settlement (i.e., money) and you can have a tense situation. “Yeah, my two younger brothers didn’t have much to do with my mother.”

I nodded. I knew he had two brothers because they had been mentioned in the death notice.

“I don’t know if they’ll come or not. I hope they don’t, but if they do they might cause trouble.”

Oh great! I thought. I wished he had let me in on this little tidbit of knowledge days ago when we had made the arrangements. I have in the past hired off duty police officers to sit in for funerals where trouble was expected. Instead, I reassured him, “Don’t worry. I deal with this all too frequently. I’m sure it ’ll be fine.”

Famous last words: It’ll be fine. It wouldn’t be.

It ’s amazing how calming the presence of a uniformed officer merely sitting in a lobby can be. In two instances, I have had them spring into action to prevent a disaster. But getting an off duty officer with no notice on a Saturday was out of the question. I’d have an easier time conjuring a genie from one of the urns in my showroom. I knew I’d just have to grin and bear it and hope.

As it turns out hope wasn’t enough. Not by a long shot.

I knew them as soon as I laid eyes on them. They slunk in like two wolves, all easy strides and furtive glances behind Wayfarer shades they didn’t take off, even in the dimness of the mortuary.

I extended the sleeve of my newly pressed suit to point at the guest book. “Sign the book, please.”

Not a glance in my direction. They just glided by.

There they are, I thought, the prodigal sons have arrived. And I was correct. The wolves set up camp at the foot end of the casket, opposite Charles and Jeanette.

When a guest arrived they would greet either the camp at the head end of the casket or the foot end. Never both. There was a clear division in the family.

Thankfully, everyone behaved during the visitation, and if it was half as uncomfortable for them as it was for me witnessing it, then it was a pretty painful hour for the family members. I was glad to get all the guests seated and get the service started. My chapel has pew seating with a center aisle, and I was guessing by who sat on what side which camp they sided with.

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I went into the deserted lobby and let out a sigh of relief. Everyone would behave during the service because it was structured. Whenever there has been a problem in the past it has been during the visitation. That is the unstructured part, when people can find ways to get into trouble. But people sit in silence and listen during a service and generally behave. I didn’t know it, but this was going to be a first.

The service sailed along smoothly until it came time for people to offer testimony. This is when members of the audience get up and share thoughts and memories about the deceased. Each of the children, even the wolves, got up in turn and read a little something they had pre-written about their mother. It was very touching.

“Anyone else care to testify?” the considerably sized clergywoman asked.

A man in a three-piece suit sitting on the side of Charles and Jeanette stood up and walked up to the microphone. He identified himself as Earl, Mrs. Revis’s brother. Without preamble, Earl started right in. “Ray and Sam,” he said, pointing to the wolves, “You ought to be ashamed of yourselves.” He jabbed a finger at them. “You treated your mother poorly. A God-fearing woman, she didn’t deserve that. It ’s shameful, just shame—”

One of the wolf brothers stood up and yelled, “You’d wouldn’t visit her either if she had cut you out of the will while your siblings stood by and took your share! Besides, who are you to stand and give judgment?”

Charles, red-faced, stood up and said loudly, “Maybe if you hadn’t been stealing from her, she wouldn’t have cut you off !”

A wolf, I wasn’t sure which, stepped from his pew.

I was in the back, frantically motioning for the clergywoman to step in and take control by making a cutting motion across my throat.

“Stealing?” the wolf said. “Is that what you call it? Guess you didn’t tell Earl what you—”

Charles cut him off, while advancing toward him, “Don’t you say it, you no-good, thieving liar!”

They met at the center aisle, where the casket sat. I was running down the aisle yelling, “Stop!” when the wolf yelled, “You lousy sonofabitch!” as his fist connected with Charles’s face. There was an audible, stomach-turning crunch as Charles’s nose broke. I stopped as I saw an arc of blood spray across the interior cap panel (the inside portion of the lid) and Charles slump against the casket, pushing it into the wall with a loud bam! The force of the casket toppled several floral pieces.

It was totally silent for a second, and then the place erupted like a powder keg. It was like a fight out of an old Western. Men began leaping over pews and going at it, grabbing the giant marble pedestals from under the flower arrangements and throwing them. Even the women were setting into it, clawing and scratching and swinging their purses around.

I turned tail and ran to the lobby and grabbed the phone on the receptionist ’s desk and dialed.

“9-1-1, what ’s your emergency?” The voice on the line asked. “I’m calling from McKenzie Mortuary, there’s a”—I racked my brain for exactly what this situation was—“riot going on!” “A fight?”

“No, many people fighting. A riot! Send police! Fast!”

I heard her say “Stay on the line” as I dropped the receiver and yelled at a man grabbing a big heavy brass sign that said SIGN GUEST BOOK, PLEASE.

“Hey!” I yelled.

The man with the sign ignored me.

Another man emerged from the chapel and the man armed with the sign took a mighty swing. Thankfully, the unarmed man ducked because the sign drove into the drywall with a thud and stuck. As the man tried to free the sign the man who ducked decked him, kicked over the guest book stand, and fled out the front door.

The man who had been the aggressor lay on the floor, blood leaking from his head. I started to venture over to him, but he suddenly sat up and shook his head as if to clear the cobwebs, and I jumped back behind the receptionist desk as if the faux-granite-laminate peninsula was some kind of substantial barrier.

The man freed the sign from the wall and ran into the melee in the chapel.

I should have stayed in my little safety zone behind the receptionist ’s desk, but I had a visceral urge to see what was happening. I ventured toward the chapel doors.

Several clients, who were making funeral arrangements, poked their heads out of one the small offices. I could tell by the puzzled looks on their faces they weren’t sure if they should be scared of the ruckus or not. I made a frantic motioning with my hands. “Get back! Get back!” I whisper-yelled. “Police are on the way.” The puzzled faces quickly disappeared and the door closed.

As I approached the chapel, several people fled the scene, and each time I jumped over to the far wall as if to hide. Luckily, they were too intent on fleeing to bother me. Emboldened, I ducked into the rear of the chapel, and what I saw shocked me. The casket was toppled over and everything that wasn’t bolted down had been tossed everywhere, ostensibly used as weapons. All my precious antiques were mostly shattered. Flower petals and blossoms poured from the sky like a ticker tape parade—the floral arrangements had been thrown and re-thrown and re-thrown. And of course the blood—it was everywhere. The walls. The carpets. The pews. I wanted to cry, but instead I shouted at the top of my lungs, “Police! The police are coming!”

Nobody paid a lick of attention to me, and then a wooden tissue box cover hit me in the face.

Really, it just grazed my jaw, but I was disoriented for a few moments. When I got my bearings, one of the rioters, a scrappy little guy with a ripped shirt, was screaming, “Police, police are here!”

The mob listened to him.

The place emptied out like somebody had fired a gun.

In mere seconds I was alone in the wreckage of my chapel. It was deathly silent compared to the screams and shouts of a few moments prior. I swooned, not from the minute pain in my jaw, but from the destruction done to my chapel.

I returned to the lobby to make sure the rioters had left the building and that ’s when I came face-to-face with the boys in blue and a couple of nasty-looking weapons.

They moved quickly through the building, a neat little train of shields and tactical gear. I heard “Police! Police! Open this door!” as they moved through the building, then frantic calling from behind the door: “Hold on! We have to move some furniture!”

There was muted scraping and thumping as furniture was moved and the door opened. The officers did a quick once over and, seeing there wasn’t a threat, moved on through the building. I heard distant pounding followed by, “Police! Police! Open up!” I winced when I heard the crunch of a splintering door jamb.

I was still being corralled against a lobby wall when the officers that had searched the building came back. The apparent team leader flipped the visor up on his helmet and reported to a man in sergeant ’s stripes who pushed his way into the lobby, “Nobody here, Sarge, but a few people in this office”—he motioned to the office where the people had barricaded themselves in—“and a terrified dog.”

“No gun?” “No.”

The sergeant looked at me hard for a moment and then went and peeked into the chapel, then came back and asked the officer with the visor on his helmet, “Any other ways out?”

“Plenty. Could’ve gone out any of them; we just know he’s not hiding in here. We searched every square inch.”

Sarge turned his attention to me. “What ’s going on here?” he demanded.

“You tell me!” I said a bit too shrilly. “I called you because there’s a riot going on in my building.”

He inspected what I saw to be my wallet that had been taken from me during the search. He looked ay my ID, then me, then back at my ID. “You’re Kenneth McKenzie,” he finally said.

“Yes! That ’s what I was trying to tell you when you had the guns pointed at me.”

He twitched his mustache and squinted at me hard before saying, “Let him go.”

The officer guarding me stepped aside as if to tacitly acknowledge my newfound freedom.

Sarge flipped my wallet at me. Of course I missed.

“Sorry about that, Mr. McKenzie.” I wasn’t sure if he was referring to having weapons pointed at me or the premature toss of my wallet. He was about to say something else when an officer stepped inside and whispered something in his ear. “Uh, Mr. McKenzie,” Sarge said, seemingly embarrassed, “The members of the Revis family would like to know if they can view their mother one last time.”

I bristled, but then remembered my professional obligation. “Fine,” I said. “Your men can escort them in, ” I said, shaking my finger at him, “one by one for a last look. And then you can tell them if they want any further information about their mother they can contact the medical examiner’s office. I am turning their mother over to the state.”

Minutes later, I stood in the lobby, holding a paper towel full of ice to my jaw, and glowered at the family members as they were escorted in in shackles. The officer escorting one of the wolves muttered to me on the way out, “They really did a number on your place.”

Sarge later told me that as the first-responding officers arrived family members from the mob told them there were people in the building with guns. He thinks they tried using that as a ruse so they could slip away.

Their plan didn’t succeed. The officers tased several of the more unruly funeral-goers in the parking lot. Hence, the screams I had heard.

All they found was me, some bereaved people hiding in an office with furniture piled in front of and door, an employee or two . . . and Ruthless, hiding under my desk.

Needless to say, I now boycott the phrase “It ’ll be fine” because I’ve learned the hard way that sometimes it won’t be. No matter what you do or plan for, sometimes you find yourself literally (and figuratively) at gunpoint.

Though this story is outlandish, the point of it is: no two days are the same. This is one of the reasons why I chose the profession. Most days have a more positive outcome than having their facilities trashed and guns pointed at them, but I wouldn’t trade this job for any other job in the world.

In fact, I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.

Excerpted from “Over Our Dead Bodies: Undertakers Lift the Lid” by Ken McKenzie and Todd Harra. Copyright © 2014 by Ken McKenzie and Todd Hara. Reprinted by arrangement with Citadel Press, a division of Kensington Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

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