The castle-like structure on the 700 block of Broadway resembles more a hotel than the business it is. A look inside Funeraria del Angel Humphrey in Chula Vista reveals an interior with a spiral staircase and chandeliers. It’s the presence of a casket in the bulding’s chapel room that reminds a visitor they are inside a mortuary, not an opulent home.
The mortuary business, at its core, is a business that thrives on death. A common public perception of mortuaries is that of a man with a black suit looking to reap the benefits of a family in dire need. But glancing at Humphrey’s location manager Alejandro Escalera, 39, you see a businessman with a, say, black suit and a cheerful presence.
His father, a retired former embalmer and funeral director, got him a job washing cars at a mortuary when he was 17 years old. After turning 18, he got accepted into mortuary school. Escalera admits funeral directing was not what he intended to do.
“I used to watch this show called “Quincy.” He was an LA coroner and he went to [death] scenes and investigated,” he said. “I thought that was pretty cool. I wanted to be in the coroner’s office and forensics, but as I worked washing cars and being able to help out on services, I saw how the funeral directors were able to help families.”
Helping families, as Escalera put it, is what this business is about.
“It really wasn’t until I started working at a mortuary that I saw how [the family] was treated and how [the mortuary] treated the families,” he said. “You have to want to help people and I guess that’s where it comes from. It’s almost a calling. There aren’t a lot of us in this profession around.”
For Escalera, community service is a staple to his business. He hosts a yearly city employee appreciation barbecue for employees of the city of Chula Vista at the funeral home, a yearly remembrance service for anyone who’s passed away in the community, and buys school supplies for kids to make Valentine’s cards.
Owner of Village Mortuary Randy Bellamy said working at a mortuary is not for everyone.
“I believe that mortuary service is a good career choice for the right person in the sense that it encompasses many skill sets,” Bellamy said. “There are so many functions in mortuary service that it will allow a great presentation of individual talents. However it will equally emphasize deficiencies. It requires exceptional communication and the ability to work with bereaved families. Organizational and government compliance activities are extensive and in most cases with a zero tolerance for error.”
Bellamy started working in the industry in his mid 40s when a friend of his recommended the business to him. He found it easy to deal with people making plans for the future and dealing with recent losses.
Robert Humphrey, funeral director at Community Mortuary in Chula Vista, initially wanted to be a marine biologist.
“I was a junior at San Diego State and my major was biology,” he said. “My dad came to me and said, ‘You get a degree in marine biology there’s a good chance you’ll be flipping hamburgers. Go to mortuary school, get your licenses and come work for me.’ So I thought about it and he was probably right.”
Humphrey got out of mortuary school in 1965. Aside from a two-year hiatus with a computer business, he’s been in the business ever since.
All those years in the industry allowed him to see the cycles and direction the field is headed to.
“There’s job security because there’ll always be a need,” he said. “Unless people decide to do it themselves, which is pretty doubtful. You will do the same volume whether there’s a recession or depression. Many times people won’t be able to pay you and they will spend considerably less.”
Humphrey said families will downgrade on the type of service or package they purchase due to financial reasons.
“I see a lot of situations this last economic downturn where people wanted to have a standard funeral and burial and because they couldn’t afford it, they decided to have a direct cremation,” he said. “When my dad opened Humphrey’s
in 1955, the cremation rate was about 2 to 5 percent. Now it’s over 70 percent. I’ve got this big building that’s costing a bunch of money every month and I’m competing, as far as cremation is concerned, with little storefront operations that have almost no overhead.”
Escalera elaborates on the consequences of the economic downturn.
“When clients are picking out a service, I do tell them that after the service is done, they still got that car payment and they still have their house payments,” Escalera said. “We tell them to live within their means. Maybe instead of having two days of visitation, we’ll have one day of viewing, maybe they’ll cut down on flowers and casket a little bit.”
According to the three mortuary homes, the busiest time of year is usually November to March. The cause could be related to holiday celebration, traveling, stress, rain, and cold and flu seasons. The slowest time of the year, according to the three funeral directors, is summer.
The business side is what creates the common belief that mortuary directors are insensitive to the feelings of their customers.
Escalera does not agree with popular conception.
“People think that we get desensitized. They feel that because we do this on a daily basis,” said Escalera. “And its true, we come here to work and someone’s passed away. But when it’s your family, it still hurts. You go through the emotions. I was surprised when I went through the emotions. It gives me an appreciation for the people that I do deal with everyday. You are empathetic to the families that you serve.”
Bellamy said people are not fully aware of the circumstances of the business.
“The industry has an unfair reputation due primarily to the fact that the circumstances of death are always a challenge and the grief experience is often a dark fog of difficult communication,” he said. “The best way to approach funeral service is to do advance planning and having those conversations with family members when there is no urgent crisis.”