When it comes to death, mortician Ken McKenzie says people are far too serious.
After creating a “Men of Mortuaries” calendar featuring buff, shirtless morticians wielding shovels in 2007 and releasing “Mortuary Confidential” in 2010, the Long Beach mortuary owner has a new book out. “Over Our Dead Bodies: Undertakers Lift The Lid” a collection of his own stories, as well as experiences from funeral directors across the country.
“It’s like life, there’s a heavy side and the next chapter will make you laugh your ass off,” he said of the book, published in May by Citadel Press.
McKenzie, 48, said he found his calling after his father committed suicide when he was 12 years old. McKenzie remembers how the funeral director, Pauline Bergman, used humor to quell family tensions.
“She was able to stop my grandmother and mother from arguing, and make me and 12 other kids laugh in 40 seconds,” he chuckled. “I wanted to do that.”
McKenzie started directing funerals in 1989 and then opened McKenzie Mortuary in 1994, one of the last privately owned funeral homes in the area. He specializes in themed memorial services designed to celebrate a person’s life and what they loved.
“I choose to step out of the box of what everyone else does and not tiptoe around [death],” said McKenzie. “My industry is very old, slow and doesn’t do well with change."
He held one memorial service for a cancer-stricken race-car driver at a car dealership. McKenzie called it “his last pit stop,” complete with the driver’s crew, race car and two workers waving red-checkered flags.
Another commemorated an older woman who adored gambling. McKenzie and her family designed the ceremony as if she had just stepped away from a game. A blinking slot machine stood ready, a dealer sat at a craps table next to a smoking cigarette and an empty chair, slightly askew.
“That’s what death is,” he said of the scene next to the casket. “It’s just like you left for a moment."
The book, which he co-wrote with Todd Harra, a funeral director based in Delaware, contains 18 stories showing a different side of death and the funeral industry. Like when a squirrel made its way into an open casket before a Northern California funeral.
In his 25 years in the business, McKenzie said more people are loosening strict, religiously affiliated traditions when planning burials.
He credits the lighter outlook to a longer lifespan, which is pushing people to be more open and comfortable talking about death. Americans are living longer than ever before, to almost 80 years old, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
An April study from the University of Michigan and the Veterans Affairs Ann Arbor Healthcare System showed that more elderly Americans are completing living wills, which experts attribute to an increasingly relaxed attitude toward death.
McKenzie taps into his own mourning experience when helping customers. He recalls his family’s first Thanksgiving after his father passed--the empty chair and heavy, painful silence that amplified his father’s absence as his family attempted to avoid discussing him.
“If you asked him to pass the bread, my father was the type of guy who would throw it at you,” laughed McKenzie. So when he prodded the table to talk about his father as if he was there, they fully obliged.
“My grandfather threw a bread roll at me and I started laughing,” he said.
And that’s how the mortician chooses to run his funeral business: happily.