In June of 1980, Ken McKenzie’s life changed forever.
The then 12-year-old’s father shot himself on the family farm after dropping Ken and his brother Kevin off at the community pool. What followed was a blurry whirlwind of grief, confusion and anger, but also the beginnings of a career in the death-care industry.
McKenzie can clearly remember sitting in the funeral home with his siblings. His mother and grandmother had been fighting in the car but were quiet now, staring straight ahead. When the funeral director sat down with McKenzie’s family, she first turned to the crying kids.
“She told us, ‘In school, your dad always got me in trouble. He pulled my hair when he sat behind me in class, and I’d scream, ‘knock it off,’ and I would get sent to the hall, and he would laugh.’ It made us kids laugh so hard we cried, and cried so hard we laughed, and, at that moment, I knew I wanted to do that,” McKenzie said. “That’s neat.”
Since then, the owner of McKenzie Mortuary in Long Beach has made a name for himself not only as a mortician, but as a public advocate for the industry. In a new book released last month, he hopes to show readers that undertaking can be a lot more fun than it sounds.
Over Our Dead Bodies: Undertakers Lift the Lid is a morbidly humorous personal account of McKenzie’s 27-year career in the funeral business.
A portion of the books’ proceeds benefit McKenzie’s nonprofit organization KAMM Cares, which he started after his sister was diagnosed with breast cancer. The books are the latest fundraising efforts following a highly publicized series of calendars. “Men of Mortuaries” display hunky, shirtless morticians suggestively posed in a cemetery.
Originally, McKenzie wanted to wait until he retired to write a personal account but reconsidered when he realized he didn’t see that day coming any time soon.
“There’s no way I could ever retire from this,” McKenzie said. “This is who I am, and I started asking myself, ‘who are you without this practice?’ and I don’t even know. It has been ingrained since June 26, 1980.”
Can you tell me a little bit about your background and how it influenced your career?
This week is actually the anniversary of my dad’s suicide when I was 12. People started asking me after I wrote my first book, which was more like fun stories about the industry, “Why do you do this?” and my dad’s suicide is really what put me on that path. I discuss it in the chapter of the book “The Aftermath of a Suicide,” and, really, it’s just about that this was supposed to be my path.
When it’s a suicide, you’re pretty messed up in the head for life…It still chokes me up, and then, at the same time, it pisses me off. But I found the gift in it, too, I think, by doing this.
I think it’s a really neat thing to be able to make people laugh at a period when they feel like they are never going to laugh again. It helps them make sensible decisions. My whole thing from day one is to not be like a funeral director. Everyone thinks of a certain image, right? And I think just from my practice, and in all the years of the calendar that we did and fundraising and stuff, I kind of always wanted to debunk what people think of us.
People are scared of this industry because it’s not discussed, so I make fun, never making fun of a person who has died, but maybe of the circumstances– if the family needs it. I use humor.
Can you describe what a typical day is like for you?
Before work, I go to the gym every single day to do a solid hour of cardio. It clears my head. Then I come in, and the only way to describe it is that I’ll have between zero and five, if not more, little soap operas to deal with. Each death is a soap opera because there is a family behind it. There are dynamics; there’s fighting, just crazy stuff.
I meet with each family. I figure out what kind of funeral they want, where they want it, flowers, food, minister and what cemetery. It’s like planning a wedding, but you have three days to do it.
And then the bodywork starts. I do the bodywork at night just because it’s quiet back there, you know, when the phone’s not ringing.
What’s left is a shell, and once I meet with a family, I kind of get an energy of who they were. You can kind of recreate their energy– you can set the features the right way. Setting the features means closing the eyes, closing the mouth, lifting or pulling or whatever you need to make them look right.
Why was it important for you when you started your own mortuary to make funerals less costly for families?
Money was the only embarrassing part about what I did. I hear from people, “Oh, I just think it’s so wrong that you guys take advantage of people when they die.” And there is some truth to that because there are big corporate mortuaries that overprice.
Also, there were a lot of men and women dying of AIDS in the ‘90s, and I would get 15 to 25 AIDS cases a month just in Long Beach. [Funeral directors] came up with a biohazard-handling fee. If you had [an AIDS] case you were supposed to charge them $300 more because of the handling fee.
The motivation to open my own place [was] because so many people were calling the funeral home, sobbing, “My son just died, and I can’t find a funeral home that will take him. Will you?” Of course. “How much more?” I said, “Nothing more.”
The same pair of gloves for the mechanic is the same pair of gloves that you put on for the hairdresser, and it was just ridiculous. That’s now like a huge fine if you ever did that.
I don’t think I was taking advantage of what was going on. It just didn’t seem right.
Why do you think it is important for the community to see the death-care industry in a new light?
People have different views of death, right? And you can get all spiritual and stuff, but I really think that death is nothing more than a positive, progressive step that you achieve.
People will say, “Oh, poor Frank died.” Not poor Frank! I mean, we’re scared because we don’t know about it. What you don’t know, you fear.
Do you remember the mortician at your father’s funeral? Did he or she have an effect on you at the time?
Paula Bateman. She dated my father when they were in high school together…My mom and my grandma were sitting next to each other. She got those two to hug, and they were mad at each other and fighting…While they were crying, she made us laugh.
Have you ever contacted her since?
I’ve never seen her. I’ve never met her since that day. I never saw her around town…I’ve done a lot of news and TV, and I brought up her name, but I don’t think she knows what she did. I don’t even think she knew what she was doing aside from just trying to make us feel better.
Do you feel that that experience allowed you to feel more empathetic toward the grieving?
Yes. I felt that jarring kick-in-the-stomach pain– “this is not supposed to happen to me.”
I do seem to deal better with women that lose their husbands and people that lose children, or young adults that have died and have children. I can deal with the children really well because I grieved as a child– especially if it’s a suicide.
How does it make you feel when you hear about bad experiences folks have had with funeral homes?
There are mechanics that shouldn’t be mechanics, and there are morticians that shouldn’t be morticians…There are so many people with a similar story to mine, and there are a lot of people in this industry that should not be in this industry. I think it needs to be more regulated and more difficult to get into. It’s almost like being a priest– it’s like a calling.
Why are funerals important for the loved ones of the deceased?
Funerals are completely for the living, so that they can have closure. After Dad’s death there was nothing more we could do for him. Having that service completely was, for us, closure.
Thank God my mom had enough foresight to take us to go see his body. Kids are more in touch with this process than adults…Years after Mom took us [to the viewing], she goes, “I’m so glad you kids went. I didn’t want, for the rest of your life, for you to be looking in a crowd of people, looking for your dad.” Because he had just dropped us off at the pool and then three hours later, he was dead.”
You are known for your sense of humor. Why do you think this is especially valued in an industry like this one?
It lets people know that you are real. I’ll push it to keep that human contact within this industry.
Your “Men of Mortuaries” fundraising calendar got you national media attention. How did you get the idea?
My little sister had breast cancer, and she’s witty as hell. When they did her mastectomy and she was looped up on her pain meds, she saw a cop calendar and said: “Where’s the men of mortuaries?”
That calendar absolutely blew the lid off the industry. There were blogs. It was all over CNN. It was everywhere. And then Whoopi Goldberg, who actually used to work in a funeral home before she did comedy, called us up. The Los Angeles Times did an article, and I was given the Outstanding Funeral Director of the Year Award by the California Funeral Directors Association.
I will always work outside the box in this industry, and I don’t know what’s coming next. There’s some talk of a TV show with Lifetime, and that would be the best to really change the industry. If the show takes off, it’s because I want to educate folks about what we do in a fun way. It’s not like we’d make fun of someone who has died.
What’s the strangest question that you’ve been asked?
“I want you to remove his gold teeth, because I know what you’re going to do with them.” What am I going to do with them? Go into Kevin’s Jewelers? It’s asked more often than you’d think.
We usually say you have to get your family dentist, and only once in all those years did the dentist show up– and he couldn’t get them out! It was gross. And the dentist’s bill was about $800. I just would be embarrassed to ask that, wouldn’t you?
Any other strange questions?
It’s not the questions; it’s what people actually did. One family showed up– this was in the first book– and they brought the deceased here in their car. I said, “Where’s your mom at?” And he said, “why do you need to know that?”
And I said, “because I need to go pick her up,” and he said, “oh, well she’s out in the truck.” And I’m like looking around for cameras– because I’m thinking, “I got punked”– but she was in the back of the truck, bungee-corded into place.
Others have asked to be there when I embalm their loved one. I actually embalmed my own grandmother, and I had to cover her face when I was doing some of the procedures– I didn’t want anyone else to do it, so I kind of had to remove myself a little bit.
What do you wish people knew about this industry?
That there are good people who do this because they are supposed to. When looking for a funeral director, find one you are comfortable with– you don’t have to go to them because they are down the street. Also: find out if they are privately owned or owned by corporations. I feel like corporations hire people off the street, versus those who are called off the streets.
I’ll typically offer apprenticeships for people who come to me, and I have a few questions I always ask them. If they say, “Well, I just thought I was supposed to do this, I can’t explain it, it’s just what I’ve always thought”– that’s what I want to hear.
If I hear, “I think it’s kind of cool. Death’s cool, man,” which one guy said to me, that’s just stupid.
So you wish that people would know that there are altruistic funeral directors that are doing this for a reason?
It’s so many things. We all don’t have hunchbacks.
So how did your family react when you told them that this is your calling?
Grandma McKenzie’s reaction was to warn me about about drinking. There is a lot of alcoholism in this industry. Think about it. You come to work, and seven people have died. There’s a kid with his head missing, a little girl with cancer. A baby died. An old lady died.
How do you think the industry will change in the future? What’s next for you?
I feel like cremation will be required; I think soon it will be unusual to be buried. We’ve been burying people for so long, and there’s just no room. I’m actually opening a second location this year that will have a crematorium.
What is the most uncomfortable part of his job?
The money part. I really feel like this is a service, and I know that sounds like marketing. It’s really just a service that I provide. I have a hard time getting to the bottom line, but it is a business.
McKenzie writes a column about the mortuary industry for the Signal Tribune.