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November 01, 2006

Dying to Write

By Elaine Viets

It was midnight before I finally admitted it. Then I only told my husband.

"I’m creeped out about going to that funeral home," I said.

"Excuse me," Don said. "Is this the woman who sat through five seasons of ‘Six Feet Under’?"

"That was different," I said. "It was a TV show."

This was a one-day mystery conference at Joseph Gawler’s Sons Inc. funeral home. The Mystery Writers of America’s Mid-Atlantic chapter was sponsoring "Dying to Write" in Washington DC.

When the conference organizers asked me to speak, I was thrilled. I’d be on the program with major names in the nation’s capital: bestselling authors such as Stephen Hunter, Katherine Neville, Sarah Smith and Carolyn Todd, reviewers like Maureen Corrigan of "Fresh Air" and the Washington Post, legal and forensic experts.

Besides, a conference in a funeral home was cool.

But as Halloween weekend crept closer, the idea went from cool to chilling. I knew I was being ridiculous. I had nothing to fear but my own superstitions. Gawler’s was the last word in high-class funerals. Washington bigwigs were buried from there. Also, lesser mortals. Like me. That was the real fear. Some day I was going to wind up in a box while a lot of people stared and said, "She looks so natural."

At last, the inevitable happened. It was Saturday, Oct. 28, and I was in a black suit in the doorway of Gawler’s.

Gawler’s was too upscale to look like my neighborhood funeral home, which was famous for its tall casket lamps with the pink lightbulbs. The pink lamps gave dead people a rosy glow they never had in life. Sort of like a strip steak in the butcher’s case.

But one thing was the same: that funeral home smell. It hit me when I walked into Gawler’s -- an odd mix of hothouse flowers, heavy perfume, and something sweetly indefinable.

A writer in a chic black hat handed me a cardboard coffin bag stuffed to the handles with Halloween candy, a notepad and the conference program.

There were no dead people on view at Gawler’s. Saturday is a slow day in the DC funeral business because the grave diggers don’t work on Sunday. We would not disturb the dead. They would not disturb us.

The sessions were held in the viewing rooms, which seemed like good places to discuss the life of a writing career.

I flitted from the Georgian Room to the Eisenhower Room to the Red Room. This was the first time I’d been in a funeral home without the powerful emotions that go with death: shock, loss, grief, guilt and sometimes, relief. I could actually see the funeral home without the veil of sadness.

Gawler’s looked like a rich person’s home. Someone with quiet, traditional taste, who favored dark oil paintings, handsome wing chairs, rich paneling, and urns as a decorator accent. Also, the biggest Kleenex boxes this side of a shrink’s office.

Two women were sitting on what looked like a coffee table. Then I realized it was a beautifully carved catafalque, or whatever you call the thing a casket sits on. It didn’t bother them at all.

Gawler’s was a perfect place for a mystery writers’ conference. We wrote about death, didn’t we? If we couldn’t live with it, who could?

By noon, my funeral home fear was completely conquered. I’d enjoyed the morning. I looked forward to the rest of the afternoon. I stood outside Gawler’s front door, waiting for a friend to meet me for lunch. She pulled into the driveway and burst out laughing.

"What’s so funny?" I said.

"You," she said. "You’re holding a cardboard coffin bag and standing under a sign that says, ‘Dignity.’ "


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Great setting for a mystery conference, but still creepy. I know exactly what you mean about that smell. And it stays with you, too.

I've always wondered why some flowers got tagged as the funeral flowers. Poor gladiolas. It doesn't matter how cheerful the arrangement - to me, those flowers say there's a corpse somewhere.

Do they have a gift shoppe? A local funeral home in Wilmington runs commercials on the radio, and one of them is about the nice gift shop(pe). Could I get souvenir miniature spoons? Snow globes? Franklin Mint(r) Antique Horse Drawn Hearse Collection(tm) pieces?

Because I'm a mystery writer who's always asked to put together gift baskets for charity auctions, I'm always interested in the gift shoppe items that say "Death." So if anyone has tips on where to find cool stuff, let me know. Today I'm going to scour the post-Halloween sales.

Elaine, today's blog is really--uhm--cool.

Nancy - if you are near an Urban Outfitters, they currently have mugs and cereal bowls with Victorian-look engraving decorations on the inside. There is one with a woman's hand holding a razor and another with a gun. They are unique and a little creepy.

I hadn't thought of them in a gift basket, though. They could be nicely balanced with tea and a cozy paperback.

All I have to say about funeral homes is that I cannot stand them. I think because everything is so false. They're always big. And they're always transitory.

Also, you don't create a relationship with your funeral director before your death - usually. Unless he's a close personal friend though I know no one who is a close personal friend of anyone in the funeral business. Therefore, funerals in funeral homes always have a fill-in-the-blank feeling. I keep expecting someone to yell NEXT!

Not fond of funeral homes myself although if I had to pick, I'd rather visit one that in a former life was a residence, not a building erected solely for the purpose of, well, funerals. My mom's visitation and my dad's memorial service were both at Hallinan's in my home town. Tasteful and huge well appointed rooms, but I agree...funereal smells abound. Gladiolas give me no problem. Roses are the culprit here. Any more than three or four and I am reminded of casket blankets. When I go I want carnations, tulips and daisies!
On another note, if I were at a mystery conference at a memorial chapel (as one of the local ones is called), I'd be looking for the stairs to the embalming lab. You never know when that kind of knowledge might be handy :o)
Happy All Saints Day!

Oh, those flowers. It's the roses that get me, too. Not the garden roses, the hothouse ones. They remind me of my grandfather's funeral.
No wrong turns, but several writers were a little spooked by the elevators, which were padded halfway down.

Actually, in my hometown, the funeral home is a big community center--the place you see your friends, family and neighbors on a regular basis--often to celebrate somebody's life. The funeral director is part of the fabric of everyday life. I know him well enough to call him at home if I need his services. It's nicer, in a way, than calling a big face-less company (we had to do that for my brother-in-law in New York) where you don't know the customs or what things cost (!!) or what services are offered. Death is a part of life, and in a small town, you may have gone to high school with the home nurse who helps your aged parent in the bathroom, and you may know the funeral director because he's your kid's soccer coach. It's a lot less creepy that way.

My ancestors ran a funeral home, back before the Depression. Darn that Depression.

Nancy, I'm with you. Off to check out the post-Halloween sales. Outta my way, fellow shoppers.

Not only in a small town, Nancy. If you were West Side Irish in Cleveland, you would go to Chambers on Rocky River or Corrigans on Lorain. When my wife's uncle (one of the priests) died, everyone knew that he would be at Chambers. Didn't Sarah write obits for the Plain Dealer? She would know this stuff.

Of course I know all this stuff. And I know a couple of stories about Corrigans, too. Also, I'm from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, where, yes, funeral homes are divided by Polish, German, Hungarian and Puerto Rican. There's a Bubbles mystery that relies heavily on this concept.

It's good to know everyone out there gets along with their funeral directors. Guess I'm just an odd duck.

Suburbs work that way too, Nancy and Josh. Hallinan's was one of two funeral parlors in my hometown. I went to high school with the son of the funeral director (whose name was Robertson) and attended his service there when he was killed in VietNam. When my mom died, it seemed like the whole town came, and my friends and I could find a quiet corner to talk ( at 17, it's hard to deal with and it helped to have them there). When we had the service for my dad, it was a family reunion and a celebration of life as well. You could bet that Lutherans went to Hallinan's just as Catholics went to Kruegers...it was a tradition in itself.
Oh...and it's the casket selection room that gives me the willies...that and having to choose an urn.

Oh...almost forgot. Nancy, if you want suitably creepy gift basket things, don't forget Edward Gorey...I think his little books are great fun, and I believe there are mugs and other things as well.

I don't think anyone particularly likes funeral homes, but they really never bothered me because my father always told me, "There's no reason to be afraid of dead people. They can't hurt you. It's the live ones you have to watch out for!"

My dad's wake was in a beautiful victorian house that was the local funeral home. It has since been turned into a bank!

M.J. That's awful! I wonder what the lesson is here. I can already think of the jokes.

My maternal grandfather owned the only funeral home in Marion, Indiana. One summer, my cousin Chris and I were Man Enough (I think we were 7, he says 8) to venture into the Room We Were Told To Never Go Into. Frank and Joe Hardy on an Adventure, right?

Little did we know, Grandfather and his co-workers had been waiting all summer for just this moment. There was a mannequin on the far table, covered in a sheet. And there were invisible wires connected to the mannequin. The kind that would make it sit up when pulled. And my grandfather, when he wanted to, had a spooky, sepucheral laugh that would have frightened Bela Lugosi.

You know the rest.........

I've been a fan of cremation ever since.

Believe it or not I am a mortician and enjoyed reading everything posted here! I have a million stories I could share about funeral homes! One that I will tell about is, when I first started in the business at age 17. It was at Ustick Funeral Home in a huge queen anne victorian mansion. Yes the smell was that of lillies, roses, gladiolas, orental rugs, and mahogany. I would be there alot on evenings when we had deceased ones laying in state. One night there were three in differnt slumber rooms. A storm began brewing and the wind was howling. The power went out and Usticks went dark. I was still young only 17 and became a wee jumpy. I knew I was alone, but yet didn't feel alone! As the wind blew harder I began hearing things that sound like stirring around all over through out the funeral home. I got overwelmed with this edging fear and ran out and sat in my car until the power came back on! I look back upon those times and chuckle. They are some great memories.

Very interesting history....
Respect Autor...

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