Dead, but not buried – El Camino Mortuary in Sorrento Valley.

Where you go between death and the grave

(From left) Embalmers Sal, John, and El Camino Memorial Park and Mortuary Manager Eric Farwell.
John: "You don’t know the person you’re working on, so it’s like finetuning a piano or working on a car."
  • (From left) Embalmers Sal, John, and El Camino Memorial Park and Mortuary Manager Eric Farwell. John: "You don’t know the person you’re working on, so it’s like finetuning a piano or working on a car."
  • Image by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.

“There are three events in a person’s life that are very significant: birth, weddings, and death. I think the people in this profession have an opportunity to be part of a very major event; we can affect the outcome of the family, the survivors. Whether we do it well, or don’t do it well, one way or the other, there’s going to be an effect there. We want to create an opportunity for closure, for grief, for bereavement, and the whole process kind of starts with the funeral.”

The speaker is Eric Farwell, as neatly groomed a man as I am likely to meet and the manager of the El Camino Memorial Park and Mortuary in Sorrento Valley. My journey to his office took me past the park’s careful landscaping, past the road to the Chapel of the Bells, and past the ceiling speakers that wafted a warbling “Ave Maria” through the lobby. Now I am listening to soft jazz and listening to a man with the look, energy, and language of an executive tell me about grave digging and the somber business of funerals. Silver-haired, youngish, and sharp-eyed, he is far from the slow-moving, morose types I remember from the few funerals I have attended.

“I started out in the funeral profession in 1990, washing limousines and funeral coaches part-time. My father-in-law had been in the profession 25 years, so it was kind of natural to get a part-time job there while I went to night school at the University of San Francisco to get my degree in public administration. They wanted to bring somebody in [to management] with a degree, so I went through a yearlong internship. My first day on the job, I was four feet in a grave and a thunderstorm hit. Rain was pouring into the grave, and the sides were caving in. I was scooping mud out, but the rain was coming in quicker than I could scoop the mud out. That was my baptism into the profession.”

He continues telling me his philosophy of funerals. “We’re always looking for an opportunity to create that special touch. One of the keys to making an arrangement and helping a family is to listen. A family may not know what they want, but it’s important to listen so you offer things that will be relevant to their needs. A colleague was sitting with a family whose five- or six-year-old boy had died. I think he drowned in a pool. A comment was made by the mother, just offhand, something like, ’Boy, he really loved fire trucks. He would have loved to see the fire trucks that were there to respond to the emergency.’ My colleague contacted the fire chief at a local fire station and had a hook and ladder truck in front of the mortuary when the family drove up to the funeral. Not only that, it led the procession to the cemetery. I’ll tell you, they never forgot that. Little details make such a huge difference. Personalizing the service, that’s our mission. That’s my passion.”

Down the hall from Eric’s office and through a door, the soft lighting, soft carpet, and soft music are replaced by the bright lights, hard surfaces, and clean lines of the prep rooms. Eric, who blended in with the correct, muted atmosphere of the receiving room, looks out of place next to embalmers John and Sal, genial men in royal blue scrubs. John is taller and more ebullient; Sal stands back and speaks at a measured pace. This is their domain, backstage, where the bodies are made ready for their final appearance.

John has been in the business nearly 20 years. “I was looking for a job back in 75, when I moved to California. A neighbor worked in a cemetery-mortuary complex, and I went to work over there as a maintenance man, helping run flowers and stuff like that. One day, we had a pathologist come in to do an autopsy, and I talked to him and went in there and was having lunch and watching him do an autopsy — which is totally illegal nowadays. My boss walked in and said, ‘If you can stand there and eat while he’s doing that you belong in this business.’ I happen to enjoy embalming, dressing, and cosmetizing. There is satisfaction in knowing that when the remains leave here, the family is pleased and happy, and they can deal with "their grief in the right way.”

When the remains come in, they are first taken to the embalming room. The room is large and well ventilated. A three-body refrigerator stands against the far wall, in case the workload gets too large. Hoses hang down above a counter lining the side wall — these are used to wash the bodies. Tan cabinets, situated behind the hoses, house the various chemicals that will be loaded into the embalming our makeup with dyes and chemicals, so what we do in [the makeup room] is minimal. But sometimes you can’t. Sometimes, the person’s been laying on their face for a day.”

In the adjacent makeup room, a clay skull stands on a counter, a project from Sal’s college days. “I was an art major at San Diego State, and they started cutting back everything. My sister was working here, and mv dad worked here, and they needed someone for nighttime, answering phones and stuff. The cosmetics came pretty naturally to me, and I started doing that. I like the science and the art of what we do here. If there’s a soul or whatever, who am I to say? I just want to work on bodies and get past the shock. Once you’re over that.. .it’s more than a puzzle or a project — it’s someone’s loved one—but you still want to make it...just do your best job. I don’t want to sound sick, but the bad ones are the ones that...this is why I’m here. Because I like it.”

Eric explains what Sal is getting at. “A lot of times a person dies suddenly or tragically, and there’s a lot of damage. Viewing is a very important part of a funeral — I needed to see my grandfather when he died, just to accept the reality of that.” John and Sal make viewing possible in these cases, whether the damage be due to “blunt trauma to the head, or a traffic accident.” “We rebuild all that,” says John in a matter-of-tact tone. “Put it back together. Put all the hair back on. It’s done with wax, needle and thread, glue, plaster of paris, and patience. Major open wounds on the face and stuff like that. You just sit there and get everything in place, then add some wax and cotton and glue, and just start molding things up to where you’re getting the facial features back out. As soon as you get a photograph, you can say, ’Add a little bit more here and there.’ You have to be very creative. Once you get closer to the surface, then you use finer waxing.”

John opens a cabinet, revealing a host of half-empty nail-polish bottles, lipstick tubes, and cases of makeup. Below the cabinet, makeup brushes and palette knives are laid out, much like the medical instruments in the embalming room. “Families have brought in certain nail polishes, lipsticks, stuff like that. We just hang onto it.” Reaching behind the makeup, he pulls out two small tubs of wax, one white and one pink. “This [white] stuff is very hard. You use the harder wax to start working until you get to the outside surfaces. Then this [pink] stuff is so soft, you can spread it out and smooth it, and get back to your natural cover. It comes in white, pink, red, black, suntan....”

“You add the color makeup that you want,” Sal elaborates.

“Work it into the wax before you apply it — you get a nice natural tone,” continues John.

How long does all this take?

“I did a parachute guy,” recalls Sal. “He was on a SWAT team, and his parachute didn’t open. He came in Friday at five, and the family wanted to view him at eleven the next morning. We didn’t know what kind of shape he was in until I unzipped the hag. [It took] a lot of suturing. He was about my size, hut when he came in, he was compacted. We have plastic garments that we put on [the body], because there’s always leakage when it’s that bad. I was here all night, about 14 hours. He had an open casket at the Immaculata.”

“My wife has always made the comment, ‘You put on makeup better than I do,’ ” admits John. “And I say, ‘Yes, dear, but don’t tell our friends.’ ”

Besides the rebuilding and the makeup, John says they use “special glue for the incisions we make, dyes for the outside skin layers to give pinkness, and this here is a feature builder. Sometimes you have somebody that’s really emaciated, and the family says they’ve lost 30 or 40 pounds. We inject this into the skin, using a hypodermic needle, to raise it right back out to where it has natural skin tones again.” Embalming costs $325; cosmetics are another $125.

Some amount of abstraction seems necessary in a job like this, some distancing from the fact that the medium you work in is a dead body. “You’ve got to learn to block out faces completely,” John says. “You don’t know the person you’re working on, so it’s like finetuning a piano or working on a car. You get it to where it looks about as perfect as you can get it, and then you move on to the next one. Make the families happy and help them through the grief process, because they’re the ones that knew this person, how they moved and talked. Children are the only ones I’ve ever had problems with. I’m really happy where I’m at. I couldn’t ask for more."

John estimates that he and Sal do a thousand bodies a year.

But, he recalls, “When I got into this business, there was no such thing as county morgues. Everything was done at the mortuary. Traffic accident on a freeway, mortuary personnel picked up the remains, brought it back to the mortuary, put it on a table. Pathologist came in, did the autopsy. Then they started building central morgues, and we said, ‘Thank you for getting the smell out of our buildings!’ ”

The smell now resides at Building 14 of the San Diego County Operations Center off Overland Avenue. Inside, but away from the sight of any bodies, I speak with John Rodriguez, forensic embalmer and overseer of the examination room. John is stocky, his wrists and hands look powerful. His goatee is graying, and his voice carries hints of Marlon Brando. While still in high school, he decided he wanted to be an embalmer, “because it could be a service to the public. I just felt morally that it was good for me. In high school, I applied at Goodbody’s, and I couldn’t get in because I was too young.” Later, Rodriguez graduated from the Los Angeles College of Mortuary Science and spent time as a funeral director before joining the Medical Examiner’s Office in 1978.

About 20,000 people die annually in San Diego. If the deceased was under a doctor’s care, no report is made to the coroner’s office. If the death was unexpected, or unusual, or if the deceased had not seen a doctor in 20 days, a report is made. If a doctor will sign a death certificate based on what he remembers about the deceased, then the body is not brought in. “Maybe 9,000 get reported,” estimates Rodriguez, “maybe 6,000 don’t have to come. The others are more questionable,” and of those, “maybe 1,900 will get autopsied.” A busy day can involve 12 autopsies — six doctors, each taking two bodies. Eight autopsies is the average.

Most bodies arrive in body bags. They have been put there by investigators, sent from the coroner’s office to the scene to examine the body and make recommendations for the embalmers. Homicides are left alone until the homicide team arrives, except for X rays, taken through the bag “by feel.” Bodies are brought “from hospitals, or from outside scenes, maybe the police. We deal with all kinds, such as motor-vehicle accidents, drug overdoses, plane crashes, homicides— gunshot wounds, beatings, maybe vehicular homicides. Suicides— hanging, the slashes of the wrist. They leap from buildings; we get some from the Coronado [Bridge].

“The remains are sometimes not in the whole state; they’re very mutilated because of whatever they do to themselves when they commit suicide. We get decomposed bodies from the bay, where they’ve been for five, six days. That's a pretty bad odor we have to deal with. There isn’t very much you can do about that.”

Older people who have died naturally receive minimal treatment. “We unzip the body bag and roll the body to each side. The doctor is describing all the little details about the body — the bruises, the scars, any tattoos, goes through the teeth, the eyes, makes sure all the fingers and toes are there. We don’t wash the body.” Then, the embalmers affix an ankle ID bracelet, close the bag, and attach another ID card, to prevent the sort of body mix-up that becomes the stuff of black comedy.

The rest of the bodies are washed. “Sometimes we get people who have died in the park of a drug overdose. It’s an older person, maybe 50 or 60, maybe it’s an alcoholic. Some of these people come in with lice and cockroaches because they’ve been picked up from the ground. We just go ahead and roll the body into the refrigerator and open the body bag. It cools (the bugs] down, and they kind of stay in one area. In the morning, we wash them off.”

Rodriguez continues describing the treatment. “We clean the body before we take any photographs. They might [still] have the trachea tube, maybe they’re spattered with blood; we remove all that. We fingerprint, we photograph, we x-ray, we take note of all the personal effects that they have. We make a mug shot on everybody that comes in here, even if the body is mutilated, decomposed, whatever. We still take a shot of the face, if there is any face. If there isn’t, we just take a quarter-view, whatever. We weigh the body, we get the height and the color of the hair and eyes for our general morgue log.” The family selects the mortuary, and the mortician makes the removal.

Again, I wonder about the effect of working around death, day in and day out. “I see it as an individual, somebody’s loved one,” says Rodriguez. “I see them on a daily basis. I read the reports and find out what kind of history this person had. I like to know what kind of person.” But though he takes a personal interest, he also maintains a personal distance. “It doesn’t affect me seeing one person after another after another,” he says later, “because I don’t see it that way. I see it as part of my work.” About his colleagues, Rodriguez says, “I’m sure it affects some. You’re not an iron man. You might get a one-year-old. I know some of our doctors have little babies right now, and it affects them. They can do it, [but] they prefer not to do it. When there’s a young person, sometimes that’s hard. You have to deal with that. We don’t let our guards down. In your own mind, you think all this stuff, but you have to set it aside and continue what you’re doing. You can’t cry, because it’s not going to help you. You put your guard up, and you talk about it later.”

Humor, especially dark humor, seems to me a good way to “deal with that.” While it may seem the height of bad taste to joke about the remains of “somebody’s loved one,” mightn’t it be necessary at times, just to keep going? I imagine sensitivity can take a beating when you’re dealing with eight bodies a day. Back at the funeral home, Eric was quick to assure me that, while humor was essential, it never touched on the deceased. (He pointed to a picture on the wall of two people standing next to an open grave, captioned “This grave’s for you!” as an example.

Rodriguez, admits that his embalmers find some comedic material in their work. “Maybe because [the corpse] is a little heavy, [they say] ‘This is how you’re gonna look.’ Or if the guy has gray hair—Look at this guy. You already have gray hair. You’re gonna end up like him.’ Or the nose is kind of funny — ‘Hey, it’s just like yours.’ Something like that. Not real bad, not to make fun of somebody’s loved one.”

Intentional forgetting also helps. “I go home and I forget everything, but I can bring everything back. Even my family doesn't ask me, because I told them, ‘What is there for me to tell you?’ There is never a n easy day here — there’s always things to do every day—but I don’t go home and spill everything that I see here. That’s kind of private.”

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