A SUITABLE WAY TO GET AHEAD IN THE MORTUARY BUSINESS

1998 by Michael J. Vavrek, Jr.

Yes, your honor, I do have a few things to say in my defense, before you pass sentence. I have never denied performing the act in question--I DID indeed do it--but there were extenuating circumstances.

Being an undertaker is a very complex, highly competitive occupation, and unless you're resourceful, you'll never make it in this business. And considering the delicate nature of the business, sometimes this resourcefulness can be construed as being in bad taste. So, that's all that I feel that I am really guilty of here: bad taste.

You know, my father, who started this business, never had to put up with some of the pressures I face every day. This is a much more competitive environment. In recent years the price of a good casket at wholesale has gone through the roof. And embalming supplies, well!

I probably became really jaded with this business, however, when I discovered--after having suspected it for some time--that my competition, the franchise guys, were reusing caskets. Yes, you heard me right. They are switching and recycling caskets. Very often the expensive casket that the deceased is laid out in for viewing is simply not the same casket that is lowered into the ground.

Your honor looks surprised that I would make such an accusation--or perhaps you are shocked that someone would do such a thing--but ask yourself 'Who would really know the difference if these articles WERE switched?' and 'What would be the ultimate result of such a switch?' I mean, it's not like the inhabitant himself will ever know the difference or be less protected in some lasting way by a poorer-quality, less-expensive casket. The idea that one casket is any better than another is just a myth perpetuated in the burial business to sell a higher-priced item and thus increase the profit margins. Granted, the better caskets may protect the body from outside forces for a year longer than the cheaper models, but you're going to be dead a lot longer than a year and in the end all burial boxes succumb to the elements. And, needless to say, outward-appearance-wise, they all look pretty-much the same from a galloping horse.

So I watched my competition cheating the consumer and thus THEY were able to cut their prices, all the while trying to drive me out of business. See, that's the other thing you have to realize. With all the baby boomers reaching old age at the same time, the mortuary business is, all of a sudden, a business with a true growth opportunity. This fact has not been lost on the big operators and they have been systematically and discretely buying up a lot of the smaller operations. In this area, now, even though you can pull out the yellow pages and count thirty or so Funeral Homes listed, there are only actually seven separate businesses--four small guys like me and three massive conglomerates. The conglomerates have their centralized embalming facilities and they stock their supplies in large casket warehouses.

Excuse me, your honor? The switch? They make the casket switch at any point when it CAN be made. Sometimes it involves paying off cemetery workers and retrieving the original casket from its vault, moving the body into a cheaper casket while recovering the more expensive one and using it again. Othertimes, a cheap version of a casket is made specifically to double for the expensive one. If the funeral director thinks he can get away with it, the switch is made after the viewing and before the trip to the cemetery. I keep waiting for the handles to break on these cheaper models and the body to be dumped out onto the ground; then this ruse may be discovered.

Anyway, my point is that switching is common in this business. So, let me ask you, how do you compete with people who will go to THAT extreme to make a profit? In my defense, I may have cracked a bit when I realized what I was up against. Bear with me, your honor, have you ever had to make a profit to survive? It is very disheartening to see that your competition is just not playing by the same rules and can easily and underhandedly undercut your prices.

But, rather than cheat my patrons, like my competition, I DID try many innovative ways to try to compete, to try to offer a unique product that people would pay full price for. For instance, I was the guy who started presenting a slide show of the deceased, projecting it on the wall of the viewing room. We obtained pictures of the deceased at various stages of his or her life and had them made into slides and put them into a circular tray which cycled through all the available pictures.

And I even tried to offer, in some cases transparent to the brereaved, other services that were special. Once, a man died who, when he had been alive, had this nasty but distinctive habit of clearing his throat all the time. When his son lent us a video tape of the man--so we could make him up properly--I recorded the sound of him clearing his throat and put it on an audio loop and played it, unbeknownst to the family, in the background at the wake; it must have worked subliminally as everyone commented that they could almost feel his presence in the room.

And I always adhered to the maxim that the customer is always right--the surviving customer, that is.

Okay, okay, I'm getting to the case in point. The Forest matter. When Mr. Forest died, his body was brought to us for preparation. Mrs. Forest and the girls arrived that evening to pick out the casket and make the other arrangements. At the time I had Mr. Panzurek laid out in the Arbor Room and Mr. Forest was slated to be displayed in the Verdency Room.

So, anyway, Mrs. Forest and the girls picked out the casket--one of our finest, mahogany and brass--arranged for flowers, and we also concluded the overall financial discussions. At that point, then, THEY were going to bring in a suit, a shirt, and a tie for Mr. Forest to wear. On their way out the door, however, they stuck their noses in the Arbor Room, probably to get some idea of what others were doing in similar circumstances--mourning--but THAT stop clearly was a mistake because they saw that Mr. Panzurek was dressed in this handsome charcoal-grey pin-striped suit, and Mrs. Forest, in particular, fell in love with this attire--the suit, the fabric, and the color combination with the white shirt and maroon tie.

So, Mrs. Forest marched right back into my office and asked me if I had a similar suit available for HER husband. Well, you see, that suit WAS off my rack--I usually stock a limited supply of clothing for this purpose--but what Mr. Panzurek was wearing was the last of that color and style and that's what I told Mrs. Forest.

Well, I thought Mrs. Forest took that pretty well at the time, and she left saying that she understood and would go through her husband's closet and pick out another appropriate suit. So, we left it at that.

I finished preparing Mr. Forest--I have a girl who comes in and applies the makeup and she completed her work--and I left him dressed in a smock which I used, more or less, simply as a covering.

So, but evidently, Mrs. Forest was really not finished with the subject of Panzurek's suit. The next morning she called me at home and woke my wife and I at 6:30, crying and carrying on--caterwauling--and she said that she could not possibly face the world that day unless her husband was clad in the very same suit, shirt and tie, as Mr. Panzurek. So, indeed, I promised that I would drive to the mall and find something so close that she would never know the difference, and I hoped she would be mollified for the moment. But fifteen minutes later she called back and again voiced her distress and she had to explain to me that she had been up crying all night and was desperate. So, again I promised to go shopping when the malls opened.

Fifteen minutes later her daughter, Sarah, called to inform me that she feared her mom was suicidal. The only thing that would calm her down was my solemn promise that Mr. Forest would be dressed for viewing in the same basic suit as Mr. Panzurek. Again I promised. I felt very obligated by that time.

Mr. Panzurek, by the way, was scheduled for interment that morning at 10:00, right around the same time the mall was going to open its doors. I debated about going back to sleep, but I had to be up soon anyway to get ready for Panzurek's funeral service and the subsequent trip to the cemetery. But I didn't get any more sleep as my clock radio came on just about that time to wake me up. On the radio news it was announced that an electrical transformer had blown last night in the vicinity of our local mall; the mall would be closed that day. What rotten luck.

I got up and prepared for my workday, all the while worrying that I was going to have to deal with Mrs. Forest that day in a horribly hysterical condition if I could not find clothing similar to what Panzurek was wearing. As I drove to my business address, I could already see that time tolerances were going to be too tight to accomplish what had to be done that morning. If only Mrs. Forest had not seen Panzurek's suit. But she had.

When I opened up, I walked down the hallway to the Arbor Room and just about that time, when I turned the corner, I remembered that the Panzureks had already--the night before--said their goodbyes to Mr. Panzurek, and the casket was closed and would not be reopened. They would be there at nine to begin the trip to the church and then to the cemetery.

I had all this running through my head and I guess I just panicked. Forest had already been embalmed and was made up. Panzurek no longer needed his suit. I only had around fifteen minutes--not enough time to wrestle Panzurek out of that suit and Forest into it--so at that point I did the first thing that occurred to me: I switched the heads. I got out my bone saw and in five minutes I solved the problem.

Now, in hindsight, I realize that I probably shouldn't have done that, but it made perfectly good sense to me at the time. And, I believe Mrs. Forest would never have discovered it if, that night after the viewing, she hadn't for some reason been feeling around inside the coffin wanting to reacquaint herself with her husband's schmeckie one more time.

So, I throw myself on the mercy of the court and beg for forgiveness and understanding. It won't happen again.

THE END
ARE YOU INTERESTED? Where did this story come from? As a young boy, I had a friend whose father was a mortician. The father's "shop" was in the basement of his home. We used to play in the house and peek in the doors, etc. (He later took over his father's business.) Those memories have stayed with me. In later years, it always used to fascinate me (I'm always fascinated by gauche behavior) when, at funeral parlors, people (okay, women) would go poking around in coffins. And then there's the whole idea of John Dillinger's supposedly large body part being in the Smithsonian. So, I had been thinking quite a while about the interchangability (swapping) of dead body parts by morticians to accomplish certain nefarious purposes, haha. So, when I wrote this story (whose purpose is to elicit a groan) I thought this was my idea. Imagine my horror when I happened to be switching around on my TV one afternoon and ran across the Movie version of an old TV show called, "Car 54, Where Are You?" One of the characters in the movie recited pretty-much the same story as mine. I had never seen the movie before, but I certainly remember the TV Show. So, in short, I don't know if this is my 100% original idea. But it could be.

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