Noe Valley Voice June 1997

Considering a Career as a Mortician?

By Rayne Wolfe

Like the funeral parlors of the Old West whose plate-glass windows reflected the swinging doors of the saloon across the street, the San Francisco College of Mortuary Science is only a stone's throw from O'Greenberg's bar at 29th and Dolores streets.

And like the undertakers of Dodge City who magically materialized after each gunfight, today's morticians are still right there when we need them.

"Everybody dies at 3:30 in the morning!" says Mortuary College President Jacquie Taylor, throwing up her hands. "Sometimes the family wants the funeral the next day. We work hard. We work weekends and holidays. It's the wrong profession for anyone who doesn't like to work hard."

Taylor is funny and direct. She is also focused on maintaining the national reputation her school enjoys. "Our students come here because they are looking for earning power and stability, and because they want an opportunity to serve the community," she says.

More than 5,000 graduates have passed through the school's doors since the first two students took their chairs on Jan. 6, 1930. The college was formerly located on Post Street, but moved to 1598 Dolores four years ago.

The classrooms and offices take up the top floor of the Reilly Company Funeral Home, a neighborhood institution still personally managed by owners Jack Scannell and Bob Goodwin.

According to Taylor, students can earn an associate degree in one to two years, depending on whether they have any prior academic credits. They take courses not only in anatomy, chemistry, microbiology, and embalming, but in business, communications, psychology, sociology, and ethics. In addition, they apprentice with a licensed funeral director.

The college also runs its own public mortuary -- College Chapel Mortuary. But unlike barber colleges that offer cheap haircuts "at your own risk," College Chapel offers low-cost funerals under the highest professional standards.

A medium-range funeral through a regular mortuary, Taylor notes, costs about $4,300. At College Chapel, low-income clients pay $500 for the same service.

"It's really win-win for everyone," Taylor says. "Our students see to every single detail, by the book. They offer state-of-the-art service and really care about their clients."

That caring shows from the moment a funeral service begins, when someone is stationed at the curb to hand out the plastic "Funeral" signs for car dashboards. A greeter then opens the heavy double doors and directs family and friends to the proper chapel.

The building itself -- a stately Romanesque structure built in 1929 -- feels "comfy" in the way an old movie theater seems like an oasis, or a library offers sanctuary from a too-busy world. Strains of Debussy wash over the Art Deco - inspired carpet. Hollywood-Moorish electric candelabras cast a soft glow.

The main floor holds the Reilly Company's reception area, the viewing rooms (what the industry used to call "slumber rooms"), three chapels (small, medium, and large), and a casket display room. A chrome Westinghouse water fountain with a Dixie cup dispenser hums near club chairs. An old-fashioned telephone booth offers privacy.

The chapels are welcoming in their simplicity. In each one, the first-row pew for family members has been replaced with an upholstered couch. "The families often stay a long time, and this is more comfortable for them," Taylor explains.

The upstairs, which once served as the original Reilly family home, now contains classrooms and offices. A crystal chandelier that once lit a parlor now sparkles over an anatomy class. Another classroom is flanked by a deep slate fireplace. The woodwork throughout is honey blond and polished.

Along the corridors, grainy 1930s black-and-white photos of all-male alumni dressed in tuxedos segue into color Kodaks of graduates in '70s Nehru jackets and love beads. The portrait gallery ends with crisp shots of today's clear-eyed graduates -- 40 percent of whom are women.

Taylor, a '70s graduate herself, recalls the early days of her tenure as president, when mortuary owners were often looking to hire "strong" graduates -- a euphemism for "men-only." But, she says, "it's not like that anymore. When I retire, I will retire knowing that I've helped to create an equal-opportunity profession. I'm proud of that."

Taylor is equally proud of the facility itself and is happy to give a tour. In the mini-museum upstairs, a glass display case holds pristine vintage funeral clothes, shoes, and religious burial costumes. Another case holds oversized plastic teaching replicas of eyes, brains, and heads, as well as a few real bones, including a dusty spine that snakes along the bottom shelf.

Nearby, a one-of-a-kind sales display features a doll-sized casket on a pneumatic lift that lowers into a small tank of water. It bears the sales pitch "The Champion Air Seal Steel Grave Vault -- The Ultimate in Protection."

Downstairs, double sliding doors warn visitors that they have entered an out-of-bounds area, starting at the door where bodies are brought in from the covered garage. From here they're taken to the prep rooms, and, finally, into the embalming room. This room, dominated by two slightly tilted porcelain tables, is where most of the real work takes place. Staff and students are bathed in white light pouring down through the many skylights.

The process of embalming, says Taylor, is a simple matter of pumping diluted formaldehyde into the body for purposes of preservation, disinfection, and restoration. The average body requires two to three gallons of embalming fluid. The chrome machine holding the mixture in a glass reservoir looks like a mutant Osterizer from Mom's kitchen.

Some bodies arrive somewhat desiccated, and a little "plumping up" with fluids works visual wonders. The other cosmetic touchups are remarkably straightforward, right down to using the same shampoos available at the corner drugstore. Modern undertakers refer to the process of preparing the body as "creating a memory picture."

In another room in the mortuary, three large neatly labeled cardboard boxes sit on gurneys awaiting delivery to local crematoriums.

Sixty percent of Californians choose traditional burial, but the demand for cremations has grown steadily since 1876, when the Theosophists held the first cremation in America in New York City.

Today, the funeral industry considers burial versus cremation simply a matter of personal preference.

"We offer chapel services and transfer of the body to a crematory, if that's what the family wants," says Taylor. "As undertakers, we are here to support the family and carry out their wishes."

When all is said and done, Taylor and her students would probably dispute Clint Eastwood's claim in The Outlaw Josie Wales that "dying ain't much of a living."

"I never forget, even for a moment, that we are privileged to help people during a time of tremendous stress and heartbreak," Taylor says. "People guess that this work is depressing. It isn't, really. If anything, it's rewarding."

For more information on the San Francisco College of Mortuary Science, call the school at 824-1313. The summer semester begins Monday, June 9. Tuition for the associate of arts degree in funeral directing and embalming is $9,600, plus $1,000 for books and equipment.