Bill Jackson
Copyright 1993

Ringing PhoneI had a strange phone conversation the other day. While talking with one of the leaders of a support group I'm a member of, she casually says, "By the way, tomorrow's the day we're going out to the funeral home for the tour. Are you coming? We told you about this didn't we?"

To which I not-quite-as-casually replied, "Funeral home? Uh, no ... I THINK I would have remembered THAT!"

Those of us who belong to any kind of support group or work as a volunteer for a non-profit agency know that non-profit is a key word. Let's put it this way -- the savings and loan industry tried our methods of deriving income, and look what happened to them!

Being relatively new, my support group at this time receives no local or government funding, and must rely on whatever donations we can scrounge, along with what we call desperate measures: Paying for stuff out of our own pockets. Doing this makes us VERY desperate!

So, in an effort to sidestep this situation, our overly-dedicated band of desperados decided to pay a visit to a local business that participates in a fund-raising program that awards points for using their services. The points are later added up and exchanged for cash. The business in this case happened to be a funeral home and cemetary. They would give 100,000 points for each person who would take a tour of their facilities, and 500,000 points for anyone needing CPR after fainting.

Touring a mortuary . . . It was such a revelation that I may write a book about the experience: "A Thousand-and-one Things You Always Wondered About Funeral Homes . . . And Are STILL Afraid to Ask."

Head with question mark superimposed

I was the first of our group to arrive, which meant that I had to sit and wait in a room by myself for awhile. Now, most people, when left alone in an unfamiliar room, like to do a bit of snooping. Be honest -- haven't you ever peeked into drawers or closets at someone's house when they left the room? It's amazing, though, what a deterence it is if the room is in a funeral home. You really don't WANT to know what's in the jar on the table!

For several years now, morticians have gotten away from their traditional dark attire and have begun dressing in more contemporary wear. Therefore, I had a scary moment when I first met the funeral home director. His face was expressionless, and he was wearing a black suit and sunglasses. I thought I had stumbled onto the making of a new horror movie, "I Was A Zombie for the Secret Service."

It turns out that the guy was a Roy Orbison fan and is still in mourning. Sounds coming from stereo speaker It also explains why, rather than "Rock of Ages," I kept hearing "Crying" and "Only the Lonely" over the sound system.

Knowing that people often feel uneasy in such settings, funeral home directors strive to give their surroundings a warm, comfortable look and feel. Here in this first room, the chairs, drapes and carpets were made of a burgandy red, velvety material. You know, nice soft stuff. Along the wall opposite me were a pair of doors covered by some of these red drapes, which I guessed were used to provide a welcome diversion during somber services. I could easily imagine the room filled with people playing "Let's Make a Deal."

"Behind one of these doors lays dear Uncle Ned. Behind the other one is . . . who knows what. Now, do you want to take door number one; door number two; ORRRR, I have a one-hundred dollar bill in my pocket that you can take and play it safe, and just forget about Uncle Ned!"

Moving downstairs, we were shown the wide variety of caskets from which to choose. Seeing all of them spread around the room, glistening with polish, reminded me of walking into a new car showroom. As a matter of fact, some of the caskets were about the same price as a new car.

Many caskets are now made so beautifully that you might want to give some thought to using them in the house with the rest of your furniture until needed. For instance, ladies could place one at the foot of their bed as a hope chest. After marriage, it could serve as an "excuse" chest: Instead of telling your husband "Not tonight, I have a headache," you could just crawl into your casket and shut the lid. Subtlety at it's best.

Men might want to have one made into a one-man economy car. And think how effective the styling would be if you had to drive through a tough section of town. Wouldn't YOU think twice about messing with someone who drives around in a casket?

We also discovered that you can get a model with a padded-fabric picture stitched into the inside of the lid, such as praying hands or shade trees. You have to provide your own light source with which to view it, however. And, as is so often the case, batteries not included.

Considering all the extras you can get for your casket these days, I took the precaution of leaving special instructions that stereo speakers be left out of mine. Can you imagine going through eternity having to listen to Muzak being piped in? Could there be any BETTER description of Hell?

Another feature they now come with is a small glass vial that screws into the foot of the casket. Inside the vial is a slip of paper for you to write down personal information about the deceased. This no doubt serves as a formal introduction in case you run into Shirley MacLaine in another lifetime.

Then we were shown some new things concerning burial vaults. These are protective concrete containers that the caskets are placed into, and you have a choice of burial alongside a spouse in the traditional fashion, or placement one above the other with a slab in-between to save space. The only drawback to the latter is that it tends to perpetuate the age-old argument of who get the top bunk?

For a slightly higher fee you can have your vault waterproofed by adding a plastic liner to the inside. I don't know about you, but I find it very reassurring to know that you and your loved one can be kept fresh forever in Tupperware!

One way to both ensure a waterproof resting place and save money is to get a mausoleum. These are the above-ground structures where they slide you into a wall space, kind of like those little cabinet drawers you keep all your nuts and bolts in.

Mausoleums previously were used only by rich and famous people, but are now priced low enough that almost anyone can afford one, we were told. Probably the most famous mausoleum in the world is the Great Pyramid of Egypt. In my case, however, I can only afford the Little Anthill of the Backyard. And it would be just my luck that whatever place I picked out in the yard to be buried, that place would also turn out to be the neighborhood dogs' favorite spot.

All of this reminded me of a story featured on the "20/20" television news show one time, which, to once again use the well-worn (but absolutely true!) phrase, "could only happen in California."

It was reported that Greg Smith from Prairie Village, Kansas (a suburb of Kansas City) moved to the Los Angeles area and, to quote: "Stumbled onto an untapped natural resource." Upon his arrival in town, he sought out the final resting place of his idol, Curly, of The Three Stooges.

Noticing that a lot of other people were out looking at the graves of the famous too, an idea for an obviously needed service came to Smith. Thus, Grave Line Tours was born, providing TOURS of the gravesites of celebrities and the places they died.

Employing a long, gray hearse, the tour sets out every day at noon from Hollywood Boulevard. The somberly dressed driver and the "mourners," as the guests are called, begin the journey by listening to a tour tape that starts out with a funeral dirge. I'm not making this up. The tours have gotten very popular. Even at thirty bucks per person, all the seats have been sold out!

Smith was asked when the moment was that he knew the business was going to be a success, and he replied, "When my father told me he thought it was the ultimate in bad taste. I thought, 'People will love it!'"

Oh, by the way. The "visitation" by our depraved . . . err, dePRIVED little group paid off. We managed to pillage enough points that week to collect $250. Next, we're planning to take advantage of a travel agency offer of 500,000 points for a tour of the Kuwaiti oilfields.

Laughing Mouth

Web page design by Bill Jackson, 1996.

Any comments? Send them to Bill Jackson at cfsdays@yahoo.com

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