I published a book in 2001 called Cemetery Stories. We’re in the Halloween season, so this excerpt seems appropriate. I interviewed a lot of people for this book and one of my favorites tales features Father Massey, formerly an undertaker in Hollywood.
While in college, he got a job in a funeral home to pay expenses, and when the owner offered him a full-time job if he went to mortuary school, he accepted. This was at a Jewish funeral home in Hollywood, and since he was not Jewish, he ended up working on Saturdays. One Saturday in particular stood out:
“The front doorbell rang,” he recalled, “and this little lady came in who looked like she’d been sleeping in the gutter. She told me that her mother had just died and she needed to make funeral arrangements. I approach everyone with compassion, to help them get through, so despite her apparent circumstances, I went ahead and made the arrangements.
“Then it came time to go into the casket room and I explained the basic differences between caskets. At that time, we’d take them in, give them an explanation and leave them alone to make their choice. We didn’t pressure anyone.
“About ten minutes later, this lady came out and she had the price tag for an African plank mahogany orthodox casket. I was surprised. That casket was expensive! Although I had doubts, I sat down and figured up a bill. She picked a rabbi to officiate, and I was thinking in the back of my mind that this man charged a rather high price. The norm was about $35, and his fee was $500.
“When I told her this, she didn’t bat an eye. ‘That’s fine,’ she said. She then added that she would need eight or ten escorts for the funeral, and I started thinking that this woman had real delusions. This funeral was going to be far too expensive for her, and how was she going to pay?
“Although I thought she was a crackpot, I went ahead and totaled up the bill.
Then I asked her, ‘How did you want to take care of this?’
“‘I’ll write you a check.’
“‘Okay,’ I said slowly. I didn’t believe her and I watched with some reservation as she wrote me a check. Then she looked at me and said, ‘While you’re upstairs verifying this check, may I use your phone?’
“I looked at her, unsure what to say, and she explained, ‘I want to call my driver.’
“I then looked down at the check and saw the signature: Shelley Winters.
“She smiled and explained that she had worn this particular outfit to the hospital because her mother had been in and out of a coma for several days. ‘She hasn’t recognized me. This was a costume that I’d worn in her favorite movie and I was hoping that she would recognize me this way. But when I came into the hospital lobby, the administrator met me to tell me that my mother had died, so I went walking down Hollywood Boulevard and this was the first Jewish funeral home I saw. So I came in.’
“I did the funeral on Sunday and she gave me a nice gratuity, so I decided to use it toward my tuition. On Monday, there was a call for me over the loudspeaker to go to the Dean’s office. I figured that was about my pending tuition bill, and I was pleased because I had the money. I got in there and the Dean mentioned the service I’d done for Ms. Winters’ mother. I acknowledged that I had, and he said, ‘Well, she just left here, and she’s paid your tuition for the year.'”