At peace among the dead

For funeral home workers, contact with the dead provides perspective on what we fear and where to draw inspiration
Tuesday, October 31, 2006 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 9:56 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

Most people wouldn’t like to live at a cemetery. Mark Forney chose to make a cemetery his home.

As the general manager of Memorial Funeral Home and Memorial Park Cemetery in Columbia, Forney occupies a groundskeeper’s house on the northeast edge of the cemetery. His responsibilities include keeping the grounds in order, comforting families and preparing the deceased for burial.

The cemetery is peaceful, with colorful leaves falling and flowers on every headstone — not like many images from movies where it always seems to rain and it’s dark or full of shadows.

Forney is generally upbeat about his work in the funeral home. One room is full of empty, open coffins. Flowers are everywhere, and an MU football jersey is draped over one coffin, as if it is ready for a specific person.

In another room, a body is ready for visitation.

Part of Forney’s job is to prepare the remains for visitation and burial.

“It’s interesting, you know,” he said, pointing to his own receding hairline, “I can’t do my own hair, as you can see, but to do people’s hair (who) are lying down you actually work against gravity.

“The makeup is working with different lights and different angling and brush strokes and things, so it’s truly an art,” Forney said. “I can’t even draw a stick figure, but doing makeup and hair on remains is second nature.”

Forney has grown comfortable working with the dead, though his work crosses a line that elicits fear for some people. The dead are not an easy subject for many to even talk about, let alone have contact with in intimate ways.

Certain jobs are simply too spooky for some people to consider. But for Forney and others with similar occupations, the close contact they have with the dead gives them an often missed perspective on what it is we should be fearful of, where to draw inspiration for life and how to deal with ghosts.


MU junior Peter Ellison mows the grounds at Columbia Cemetery on East Broadway in Columbia. Ellison is one of three groundskeepers who work at the cemetery.

(BRANDON KRUSE/Missourian)

Bruce Rice is a fourth-generation funeral director and embalmer working at Parker Funeral Service in Columbia. He describes the work he does with the dead through descriptions of what he provides for the living.

“I like helping people,” Rice said. “Sometimes someone dying is a good thing; sometimes it is a bad thing. What is a gratifying thing is when a family comes up and gives you a hug and says thank you. It makes you feel good to know that you have helped somebody.”

Rice’s work allows him the opportunity to connect with people during one of the most significant moments of life. There is nothing spooky about his job, Rice said.

Embalmment is one aspect of the work Rice and Forney do

that might make people squeamish.

More than 6,000 years ago, people used salt to preserve the body. Now embalmers replace bodily fluids with a formaldehyde-based solution that kills bacteria and hardens tissues. Because it turns the skin gray, it is often mixed with bleach or dye to produce a more natural skin color.

Forney has learned lessons about how to approach life from the work he does at his funeral home and cemetery.

“There are buildings that outlive us,” he said. “No matter how old you are — 10, 15, 80 years old — make every moment count. I see it every day, where you hear families talk about how ‘Mom always wanted to be able to do this and we never got an opportunity to do it.’ ... It truly has changed my perspective.”

Tanja Patton, superintendent of Columbia Cemetery, lives on the cemetery grounds with her husband.

Even after nine years on the job, Patton said her emotions are still touched by the people she encounters visiting the cemetery. She keeps a box of tissues in her office and often cries alongside grieving family members, she said.

Some people’s eyes get big when they find out she chooses to reside at the same address occupied by more than 10,000 corpses, Patton said. But she loves the peaceful atmosphere of the cemetery.

Patton doesn’t believe in ghosts and finds no problem walking through the cemetery late at night. Forney, on the other hand, keeps an open mind about the supernatural and has a surprising view of what it means.

“Would I rule it out that people are capable of being trapped in that transition?” Forney said. “I think anything’s possible. I just wish if there were ghosts, they would introduce themselves and you could have that wonderful friendship.”

For some funeral home and cemetery workers, the closer they get to death, the less they fear it.

“There is so much in society today that is talked about more so than in years past, like teenage pregnancy, drinking, drug abuse, but death is still a taboo topic,” Forney said. “It still keeps a lot of fears bottled up.”

Forney works hard to provide a place for people to become more comfortable with death. He said some families choose to prearrange funeral and burial services to help the survivors deal with emotional and difficult decisions after a death.

For example, visitors who walk into the funeral home and see the coffin with the MU football jersey draped over it can decide before a death occurs whether it would be appropriate for a member of the family. Children, when they’re old enough, can find the perfect coffin for their parents and know that when that final day comes, the decision will be easier.

“You let them know that they have options,” Forney said. “They are able to have more connection and play a role. It makes things more comfortable for them.”

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