GRIN REAPER

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

Feathers scoops up a wayward pink swan, gets up and starts for the counter. "I'm gonna see if there's anybody in the back that'll cook this," he says.

More kids. More pogs. More balloons. Jelly Bean asks a boy: You want an octopus? A girl one or a boy one?

The boy pauses, looks down at the floor while he considers his options. "God, you got big shoes," he says.

Rosenberg is talking amid the fray about how some kids are afraid of clowns when somehow the information slips that he's a funeral director.

"You're a funeral director?" one of the mothers says. "That's a switch."

"Not really," Rosenberg says. Foomp foomp foomp. "It's the same thing."

The way he puts it is this: In his role as funeral director, he's trying to help people feel better on what may be the worst day of their lives. In his role as Jelly Bean, he's trying to help kids feel better on what may be the worst day of their lives, although most of the kids at St. Joe's are there for what most adults would consider minor stuff.

Rosenberg works at Carr-Tenney Mortuary in Tempe, which he says has been around since 1905 and was the first member of the Tempe Chamber of Commerce. The funeral home operates out of a 4-year-old, state-of-the-art building with a cool audio-visual system, well-lighted Victorian decor and boxes of tissue propped just about everywhere. Faint piano music trinkles across the carpet. As is the trend among today's funeral homes, the visitation room looks like it could be someone's living room. Down a separate hallway, instead of working from behind a desk, Rosenberg toils in one of two small rooms with round kitchen tables meant to create a homey feel for clients.

At the front counter are reminders that one is, in fact, not at home--business cards for just about everyone in the mortuary, a placard noting the acceptance of four major credit cards, and brochures detailing the advantages of making prearrangements, which is Rosenberg's side of the business.

"There's a really strong need for people to plan ahead," he says. "It's so stressful for them to have to answer questions on the day a death occurs."

He oozes nice. Nice envelops him, seems, in fact, out of his control. There is a hint of playfulness, as well. "Remember Homey the Clown?" he says at one juncture, when no one else is in sight. "Homey don't play that!"

It was 20 years ago, just after marrying his wife, Roberta, that he joined the Navy not for adventure but for its education benefits. During his two years in the Navy, he lost a number of relatives, including his favorite aunt, Natalie. "It seemed like everybody on my mother's side was dying," he says, "and the funeral directors were not very caring or compassionate. They were mercenary. My wife said, why don't you be a funeral director? I said, not me--I hate funeral directors."

It was Aunt Natalie's death that affected him most. "I was just devastated," he says. "Probably, that's the strongest influence that pushed me into the profession. My family called me weak because I grieved so hard. But you become stronger. I was able to take some of those feelings and help other people. I think I've surprised [my family] by sticking with it this long."

And so he found himself enrolled with about 100 other students at Cypress College of Mortuary Science in California. A lot of them were just curious, and by the end of the program, there were only 30. Rosenberg did his first apprenticeship at Forest Lawn, which meant he vacuumed a lot of carpets and washed funeral coaches for low wages. To help support himself, he drilled holes in custom bowling balls at K mart.

One of his first embalming cases, though, was a woman whose husband had killed her by chopping her face with an ax. Okay, Rosenberg said, that's it! I'm outta here! And Roberta, four-foot-ten, eight months pregnant, looked up at Jack and said: Square your shoulders and be a man. We didn't move all the way out here from Virginia Beach so you could quit.

"And she was right," Jack Rosenberg says. "We were able to restore [the woman] so her kids could say goodbye. That's when I thought--there really is a need for this."

Eighteen years later, after directing a Mesa mortuary for five years and doing a naval reserve stint for Desert Storm, Rosenberg is gleaming and pink, with a thin mustache, and a pager at his waist where underneath hides a brace offering testimony to seven surgeries done two years ago. At the time, he says, Bud Tenney, the owner of Carr-Tenney Mortuary, told him he was getting more inquiries about Rosenberg's condition than he was getting business calls.

"The secretaries were asking me, 'What do you do to these people, Jack? They want to make you cookies and stuff.' But all the families I work with, I just go out and make friends, and they just happen to be planning funerals on the side."

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