Funeral Director Co-Writes Quirky Book About Funeral Industry Experiences

August 17, 2014
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Ken McKenzie said humor has been one of the best ways to cope with his father’s suicide.

McKenzie, 48, owner of McKenzie Mortuary in East Long Beach, writes about his father’s death in“Over Our Dead Bodies: Undertakers Lift the Lid,” a collection of quirky and humorous anecdotes as well as poignant memories from funeral directors across the United States.

The incidents are based on actual events, but details and names have been altered to maintain confidentiality.

McKenzie was 12 years old and lived in Nevada City, a small town located between Reno, Nevada, and Sacramento on Route 80, when his father, Jack, 36, a well-known physician, shot himself in 1980.

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McKenzie, who was on his way home, was unaware his father was dead but knew something was wrong.

In the book, McKenzie writes seriously about his father’s death, but during a recent interview, he had a dry sense of humor when recounting the painful day.

“When we drove to the house, I saw all these cars parked outside the house. It was like the whole town was there,” McKenzie said. “We were having people over for spaghetti, but that was too many people for spaghetti.”

McKenzie chuckles.

“I use humor to pay it forward,” he said. “I hope this book and the stories in it will help someone in pain, letting them cry or laugh out loud.”

After graduating from the mortuary science program at Cypress Collegein 1989, McKenzie worked several years at a funeral home in Lakewood. In 1994 he opened McKenzie Cremation and Burial Services in Signal Hill, and 11 years later relocated the business to Long Beach.

He co-wrote “Over Our Dead Bodies” with Todd Harra, a Delaware-based funeral director, who also worked with him on their first book, 2010’s“Mortuary Confidential,” another compilation of embarrassing and irreverent stories from funeral directors across the county.

“These books give a look at life and death that most people don’t know about,” Michaela Hamilton, editor-in-chief at Citadel Press, the book’s publisher. “Most of us come into contact with undertakers on tragic occasions. These books give readers a chance to see how they feel and think.

“These people are dedicated to their profession and the people they serve. The provide comfort,” said Hamilton, who acquired the books and edited them. “They deserve credit for what they do.”

“Over Our Dead Bodies” includes 18 stories, 12 from McKenzie and Harra and six from other funeral directors.

In selecting the stories, McKenzie said he and Harra were looking for “something so unique that it stood out.”

For example, “Runaway Hearse” is a historic story from a 90-year-old undertaker in Iowa, who remembers working with his funeral director father in 1936 Oakland. In those days, horses pulled the hearse.

The 12-year-old boy was waiting outside the church, keeping an eye on the two draft horses while his father worked the funeral service. At point, the horses got frightened and ran, pulling the hearse behind them.

When his father came outside and saw the hearse was missing, the boy was crying and said, “I lost it.” Eventually, his father retrieved the horses and the hearse.

“This 90-year-old man was still chuckling when he told me the story,” McKenzie said. “The story used to upset him, but now he found it funny because time had gone by.”

Then there’s the more recent story, “There’s No Such Thing As a Normal Day,” about a family melee during a funeral service inside the chapel at McKenzie Mortuary.

Someone made insensitive comments about the dead family member, and then someone pulled out a gun, said McKenzie, who called the police.

“Family members were breaking furniture and throwing flower arrangements at each other, while four men were punching each other in the face,” he said. “It was pandemonium.”

When police arrived, most of the family members had fled.

“I was so angry,” McKenzie said. “Can’t people get together for an hour just to celebrate their family member? It was so disrespectful.”

The seed for McKenzie becoming a funeral director was planted after his father’s suicide. At the time he met Paula Bateman, his father’s high school girlfriend and the funeral director at his father’s service.

While McKenzie was standing at his father’s casket, Bateman came up behind him and pulled his hair.

Bateman told McKenzie that his dad did that to her every day in school when he was sitting behind her, she would yell and then get in trouble from the teacher.

“It made me laugh out loud,” McKenzie said. “It pulled me out of my grief enough and let me know it would be OK.”

Photo by Stephen Carr / Daily Breeze

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