GRIN REAPER

JACK ROSENBERG IS A FULL-TIME MORTICIAN. HE'S ALSO A PART-TIME CLOWN. HE DOESN'T SEE MUCH DIFFERENCE.

On-the-spot burial permits! Software that can spit out automatic death certificates, with 2,000 causes of death to choose from! This is what technology is bringing to the modern mortuary, and for the Arizona Board of Funeral Directors and Embalmers, it's not a moment too soon. The energy spent chasing down physicians and so on for the necessary but time-consuming paperwork--well, it's killing them.

Funeral directors and embalmers are a more lively bunch than you might think. Still, they're capable of remaining sedentary for enormous lengths of time, as they proved during a recent board meeting. The assembly went down in the board's new digs at 14th Avenue and Washington, in a sterile white room with soft white lighting, where news of the technological advances already sweeping New Hampshire was greeted with glee.

"[With the new software,] the state deals with the doctors," proclaimed one overjoyed undertaker. "No more middleman for us!"

The board reviewed the usual rigmarole of rigor mortis and formally welcomed several new funeral directors, embalmers and apprentices into its gray- and blue-suited fold. It conducted its business with a warmness and sense of humor that overwhelmed the fact that its life lay in matters of death. "With the business of embalming," one member told a dangerously manicured woman being recognized as a new assistant funeral director, "I wonder if they make gloves that will withstand those nails."

Okay, so no one was exactly a cutup. However, there also were no trench coats, top hats or shovels visible among the representatives of the Arizona funeral home community. Occasionally, gloom reared its ugly head, but it was dealt with swiftly and escorted out of the room. Good humor prevailed. Some of these guys, surprisingly enough, are actually witty.

As it turns out, one of them is a real clown.

Foomp foomp foomp foomp--screeeeeeeek! Flup. Flup. Ffffffffflup. Screek! Screeeeeeee--

Jelly Bean is pumping up balloons, then twisting and shaping them into amorphous plastic kernels while the kids run around like rabbits. They're everywhere! Hanging on his costume with little wondrous eyes, draped all over the swivel chairs at the McDonald's restaurant inside St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center--and now more of them are pouring in from the hospital hallways--screeeeeek! Twiiiiiiist. Bloop.

Here you go! A bumblebee! How about a swan? Or an apple?

It's just after noon. Jelly Bean is really Jack Rosenberg, who got up at 5 this morning so he could put on the grease and the red nose and the jellybean-dotted outfit and get here by 8, all the way from Chandler. But he's chipper as ever.

Patience has not been so generous to his companion. Jelly Bean is camped in the overrun eatery with fellow clown Feathers, who arose in the darkness of 4:30 a.m. so he could do his own makeup and pick up Rosenberg so they could be here on time. Feathers looks damn tired. He's got a little cup of coffee in front of him that he's looking at like he wishes it were a goose-down pillow, but now and then a kid grabs his arm and jerks him back to reality.

They're clowns--Shriner clowns, to be exact, which means that as members of the philanthropic El Zaribah Shrine organization, they've joined the 75-year-old clown unit. They perform at picnics and other events. Every other month, the clowns pull two-hour shifts at St. Joe's for 50 to 70 Arizona kids needing x-rays and other, less serious procedures and checkups, although some of them will learn they have to go back for surgery.

"We just go in and hang out and do our thing," says clown-unit president Al Cronin, whose hairless pate earned him the clown name Curly before his dues were even paid. El Zaribah unit has about 30 active members from around the Valley. "We just occupy their minds while they're waiting for the doctor. I have no idea how many balloons we've gone through."

The clowns come from all walks of life--retired salesmen and corporate executives, postal workers and installers of sprinkler systems. Then there's 40-year-old Jack Rosenberg, who has spent the past 18 or so years of his life in the funeral business.

"Want to see me make a Chinaman?" Jelly Bean the clown says between waves of fascinated youngsters, somehow relieving the term of its offensiveness. He quickly molds a blue balloon into a little Fu Manchu head, adding black-felt-pen features to complete the effect. A little while later, Feathers crafts a small dent underneath the head so it fits snugly atop an observer's ballpoint pen.

"You want to see some amazing things with balloons, here's the guy," Jelly Bean says. "Feathers."

But Feathers is in no mood for showing off, the two clowns having just pulled double shifts because the majority of Shriner clowns are in Sedona for a parade. He snorts. This should be recovery time. But the kids keep coming. Jelly Bean pulls out his little red pump, blows air into a few balloons and sculpts them briskly into orange swans and pink poodles. Feathers makes a purple gun. A little boy regards him strangely, this glum clown having coffee at McDonald's.

A girl of about 5 wanders up amid the crumple and squeak of metamorphosing balloons. "Want to see something special?" Jelly Bean asks her. She nods. He reaches into his pocket, pulls out a mirror and lets her look into it, then gives her a pog bearing Jelly Bean's picture.

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