San Francisco College of Mortuary Science was impressive. Considered the best in the country, it stood in a yellow, Romanesque building on the corner of Dolores and 29th streets. I was rather impressive the day I toured it, as well, but not in quite the same way.
Decked out in a pink sundress and white high-heeled sandals, my long hair flowing down my back, I felt pretty grand. The large wooden door required some force to open, so I gave it strong pull and entered, then I tripped. My sandal caught under the metal flashing of the door and caused me to lunge forward. A distinguished-looking older gentleman, who was in the best possible place at a most embarrassing moment, caught me. Turned out, he didn’t only look distinguished, he was distinguished. I had fallen into the arms of Donald Dimond, the school’s esteemed President.
Mr. Dimond helped me right myself and seemed pleased I was there, despite how I burst onto the scene. I thought perhaps he appreciated the diversity I would bring to the school–I definitely wasn’t “one of the boys.” The students wore business attire, to reinforce the notion they were attending class in a functioning mortuary. A bereaved client might round the corner at any time. If I could have gotten away with it, I would have dressed like Marilyn Monroe every day of the week.
Mr. Dimond asked me for my complete funeral work and education summary. My recent summer job of living in a trailer in the middle of a cemetery was all I had to show for myself, but he seemed satisfied I was there for the right reasons. Laura was summoned to conduct my tour. Laura had one ear. The right side of her head had gotten lopped off somehow. I didn’t want to stare, but I was fascinated.
We started down the hallway and I walked a few paces behind her, still staring at the right side of her head. Was she born that way? Did an accident happen? Did this accident happen here at mortuary school?
Laura took me past pictures of former students, all white males. “Most students in the school are apprentices at funeral homes in the city and live above them. There are about 75 to 80 students every year. Tuition here is $10,000 for a full-year curriculum that includes classes on anatomy and pathology, as well as accounting and marketing. The associate in arts degree in funeral directing and embalming can take from 12 months to 16 months to complete, depending upon a student’s previous academic record.”
When she glanced at me, I made total and focused eye contact with her so she wouldn’t catch me staring at other parts of her head; missing parts that obsessed me. She was clueless, thank God. “This is the anatomy lab. In this course, the student will be expected to dissect and identify the major anterior and posterior muscles, blood vessels, and nerves. So, it’s really an introduction to basic human anatomy, with special emphasis upon cells, tissues, organs, the skeletal system and its articulations, as well as various definitional terms. Did you take anatomy in college?”
“Nope. I’m a Mass Communications student.” She was this close to catching me.
At the Restorative Art Laboratory, Laura explains the practical lab application of the principles learned in Restorative Art I and II. Students apply modeling techniques to reproduce, in clay, the four features of the human face: ear, nose, mouth, and eye. Ironically, Laura was top student in this class.
“That is where we do the reconstructive pieces after the basic procedures.” Laura explained. “So many students come here without basic skills, such as how to set features. They have to learn the art of using perforated caps under the eyelid to grip the skin and hold it in place; next the mouth is wired shut so the jaw won’t go slack. So many students don’t even know how to glue lips together or fix the corners into an expression of serenity. They have no idea how to fill wounds with a puttylike compound.”
Suddenly I was glad I hadn’t stopped for a cheeseburger on the way to the school.
I wanted to ask questions, but I couldn’t get over my fascination with Laura’s disfigurement. Did she not sense my inappropriate interest?
Laura blithely continued, “Students here are seriously exposed to the extremes of the trade. The school always needs corpses, and often that means taking weeks-old bodies that have been abandoned and mangled by advanced decomposition. We are proud of our low-income service program. About 200 bodies pass through the school’s downstairs mortuary each year at a cost to their kin of about $500 each.
I decided to grow up and let go of my ear mania. I said, “I hear they call the San Francisco College of Mortuary Science the ‘Ivy League for Death.’”
She smiled smugly.
We walked to the very end of the building and to a vast chapel that had the stale quality of an old ballroom. It was awash with the light from Hollywood-Moorish electric candelabras. It was lovely; I had a sudden urge to waltz. Pews that were originally designed to accommodate the packed houses at longshoremen’s funerals stretched on and on. The chapel could seat more than 400 people. “There is something else we are really proud of,” Laura said. “Our application fee is only 25 bucks.”