Friday, October 31, 2008

Halloween Special: Making a living at the funeral homes

Jerrald Bennett, owner and funeral director of local funeral homes, Harper-Swickard and Caudill King, already has his casket - and vault - picked out for when he dies.

"I've got everything written down for me, what's to happen, and my family knows what it is," Bennett said. "I got my casket picked out, my vault picked out. (It's) Solid bronze. 48-ounce polished bronze."

Jerrald pulled a catalog down from the top of his desk in his Harper-Swickard Funeral Home, which he also lives above. He flipped to a page, and pointed to a glowing bronze casket with bright red interior.

"And as fat and heavy as I am, this is gonna be a monster for six guys to carry," Bennett said. "It's called a Promethean."

Bennett has lived above the place he works, above the Harper-Swickard Funeral Home, located at 720 Monroe Ave. in Charleston, for 5 years.

"There was an apartment built here when this addition was put on, and it has been used on and off since 1952," Bennett said.

He owns the entire building.

When somebody dies, wherever it may be, one of the two funeral homes is called - either Harper-Swickard or his other one, Caudill-King, located at 1117 Jackson Ave. in Charleston.

"We make the pickup. We use a minivan most of the time; it's a little more discreet," Bennett said. "Folks kind of appreciate that. They don't really like everybody in the neighborhood to know what's going on."

Before the funeral homes picked up the deceased themselves, it was handled though the city, and ambulances would come out. The problem was, nobody ever paid for the ambulance service.

Once Bennett and his associate and fellow funeral director, Shawn Livingston, find out what kind of service the family of the deceased wants, they either embalm the body or if the family wants cremation, Bennett and Livingston prepare the body for the crematory, located in Sullivan - about 30 miles from Charleston.

As for the wake, or visitation as they call it in the funeral business, it can be held at either funeral home.

Depending on what cemetery the family chooses, a traditional funeral will cost about $6,400, and that includes a minister, a musician, flowers and a half dozen death certificates, Bennett said.

Bennett became involved with the funeral home business because of personal reasons.

"I lost my father at a young age and the funeral home that home we used, we did not have a lot of money, but they didn't treat us any different than they did folks with lots of money," Bennett said. "So it's my way of passing (that) along."

Associate funeral director and embalmer, Shawn Livingston, attended mortuary school at Carl Sandberg College in Galesburg when she was 30.

Originally from Charleston, Livingston wanted to go back to school, but couldn't for a long time because of her mother's conflicting opinion on Shawn attending mortuary school, so she attended nursing school and became a registered nurse. She works at William Houseworth's office when she is not working between the funeral homes.

"He's an OBGYN. I get to see both ends of it (life), comin' and goin,'" she said.

Working with life and death day in and day out, Livingston sees a wide range of people come and go into this world.

"I get a lot of deliveries and I don't like to have the two come together."

Luckily, it doesn't happen often, she said.

At her job, Livingston enjoys one aspect of it more than anything else.

"I really like the embalming, I've just always wanted to do it," Livingston said.

She learned about ancient preservation procedures in mortuary school.

"They used a lot of oils. They actually removed organs," Livingston said.

Today, not much of the old way of doing things carries over, but one thing does.

"Just the respect," Livingston said. "That's carried over. They respected the deceased and so do we."

In school, Bennett was very interested with the ancient preservation methods as well as the entire history behind embalming.

"How they (Egyptians) got everything out of that tiny little incision without - I mean, I think…it's about three inches long, the incision to get all the internal organs out," Bennett stammered.

"How?! And they put them in the canopic jars, about four jars and each one has the specific organs that they were to have. They weren't mix and match. They were very specific on which jars they were to go in," Bennett explained.

"And then the poor people went in the tar pit, you know that, right?" he said.

Even more recently, in our country, embalming and preservation was once a new procedure.

"When did basic America started embalming? Do you know? Think about it," Bennett asked. "Civil War, quite honestly. The surgeons - the doctors were the actual embalmers and when a surgeon performed surgery on - say you got shot in the arm - and they didn't know if you were gonna make it or not, they would put the surgeon's business card in your pocket and when you died, the surgeon got to embalm you, and that's how he made his money, shipping bodies home," Bennett said. "And that was the first war where bodies were able to be shipped home, because embalming had made enough advances. And President Lincoln did outlaw that before the war was over, by the way. He thought it was unethical."

Smiling, Bennett looked at me and said, "You should go to school to be an undertaker."

"Yeah?" I asked, confused.

"Yeah! You're from Chicago, you'd make some serious money," he said.

After school, Bennett came into possession of the titles to both buildings after his old boss, Greg Jerden, "downsized," said Livingston.

As a funeral director, Bennett enjoys his job. The drive and dedication he had with his father's passing carries over to this day, and his passion shows. At funerals, he, as well as Livingston, often comforts the families in their time of need.

"It's just getting to help people at a very difficult time," Bennett said. "If it's someone I know closely, it's more difficult for me. Infants, you know, babies are - I just can't imagine what the family is going through, but those are very tough for me as well."

The only part of the job Bennett and Livingston dislike even slightly are the late-night phone calls of somebody dying.

"When you get called out at 2 o'clock in the morning when you're sleeping, we do go when the death occurs. We don't wait till the next morning on a hospital or a nursing home death," Bennett said. "I've actually made a removal in Tinley Park before."

The embalming process is quite intriguing. Post-mortem human preservation has been practiced since long ago, dating as far back as the ancient Egyptians.

"You put the person on the embalming table, which is basically a table with a recessed curve and there's a channel around it, so the fluid will go in the channel and then down the drain," Bennett explains.

"To embalm a body, you make an incision into the skin, pull out the artery and the accompanying vein," Bennett said. "It's thick and very elastic. The veins are translucent; you see the blood right through them. You inject the fluid into the artery; you drain from the vein. Basically, what you're doing is using the embalming fluids to push the blood out."

If you're lucky, it can be done in one injection. If the person's been dead for a while, you're very likely to have to use more than one injection, Bennett said.

Bennett starts at the jugular vein because it's the most accessible and the largest.

"And from a pressure standpoint, you want to go from large down to the smaller," Bennett said.

If all the blood cannot be drained through the jugular vein due to damage, he resorts to using other points in the body. The most incisions Bennett has ever had to perform on a body to drain its blood were eight.

"If the hands don't clear, you have to come down into the ribs. You have to make a hole into the vessel," Bennett said. "If it's a normal case, (it takes) as little as 40 minutes. In any complicated case, where you have several sites, it can take several hours. Some funeral directors use formaldehyde, (but) we use a glutaraldehyde-based fluid. It's from the same family, but at this point, it's not known to cause cancer. Formaldehyde can. Glutaraldehyde is not necessarily as firming as formaldehyde, but you don't need that for preservation."

After suturing the wound closed, the director hides it with clothing.

"Typically, the embalming would take place before we make arrangements with the family, but we have to have permission," Bennett said. "Once the family comes in, we're all set and then once we have the clothes, we'll get them dressed. If it's a woman, we usually contact the hairdresser and have them do her hair and we try to have the makeup done before they come."

Inside the prep room, Bennett and Livingston use an assortment of tubes to drain blood and pump in the embalming fluid. The tubes are reusable, but the scalpels are not, Bennett said. The directors also need cotton to clean up messy areas. But the eye caps and mouth formers are tools I had never seen before.

"Folks that wear false teeth that for whatever reason, they aren't with the person when they die, we're able to put that in there so their mouth looks normal," Bennett explained. "This is the mouth former," he said as he put one in my hand. "What you do is, you put that in the mouth, you fill it out and to get the mouth shut, you use little spring-loaded device. You drive one of these into the lower jaw and into the upper jaw and tie them together. You just turn them back. You spring load it, just grip it and you have it in.

"Those (eye caps), you put inside the eye (for) muscle contractions," he explained.

"People with pronounced buckteeth present a challenge getting the mouth closed. I'm talking where they're sticking out," Bennett said. "I do know guys that have actually removed the teeth to get their (the deceased's) mouth closed, with permission of course. I never had to do that.

"What I do, is I just fill out the inside with cotton to raise the lower lip up to meet the other one, 'cause I'm not about to remove somebody's teeth, even if I had permission. It's too much," Bennett said with a cringe.

After the body has been embalmed, makeup is applied to the deceased, usually after the body is dressed.

"A lot of the makeup is the same that we use, but if somebody has some trauma that you have to cover up, then you go to mortuary makeup, which is a heavier makeup that covers bruising and such better," Livingston said. "And if the deceased has a favorite lipstick that, you know, she always wore or a favorite nail polish, we just have the family bring in her makeup.

"You might use a little more concealer on 'em, but a lot of times, that's cause they scratched themselves or something and their skin dries out cause there's no fluid circulating through your system like in a live person," Bennett said. "I guess you could say it kind of browns or darkens."

Most of the time, the family brings in the clothes the deceased is to be buried in. It is not often that the funeral homes have to dress the deceased.

As of late, funeral services and traditional burial procedures are diminishing.

"Cremation rates are up quite a bit," Livingston said. "People are doing cremation and not so much having services or visitation and it's kind of becoming a disposable society. Visitations used to be two and three days before the service and now they're just maybe two hours before the service. Business-wise, it's taking away our jobs and what we need to do. That's just the way it is. Cremation doesn't generate as much revenue, so it hurts the business."

But to Bennett and Livingston, the funeral homes are a living.


Katherine said...

This is great!
Very unique and interesting, could have been printed in any paper as a multiple part story.
Oh and I loved the lead :)

Jason said...

Thanks, Katherine!
I tried to get it into the Charleston Times-Courier, but they kind of gave it the cold shoulder. Do you have a site or a blog?


Juliette said...

Very cool article! I kinda winced at some of the more descriptive parts... but this is definitely a part of life I didn't know much about, so it was neat to learn what goes on in funeral homes.
It's comforting to know the people who work there are so nice. :)