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He excuses himself to tend to a woman who has already made prearrangements for a dying relative but has come in just to talk to someone. Rosenberg figures she doesn't have anyone else. Later, he'll greet a family mourning a woman killed in an auto accident: "If you'd like to come this way, we'll get you set up and get you comfortable," he says. "Can we get you some coffee? Anything?"
Sometimes, he gives people tours of the place, starting with the chapel with adjoining family room and then the visitation room and reading area. There is a children's area with a picture of Jelly Bean and the aptly named Digger, the occasional clown persona of Carr-Tenney general manager Larry Tenney, who also is a Shriner.
There is the urn room, with all sorts of containers in which to house the precious ashes--or cremains, as they're called in the biz. The urns come in oak, pewter, walnut, cultured marble, glass display domes, pink "infant cubes," beautiful sculpted dolphin scenes and pendants suitable for wearing, a notion Rosenberg doesn't particularly care for.
There are even nice big boxes in which to put your about-to-be-cremated loved one, from a generic low-budget container on up to a handsome wooden one that seems to be, at first thought, a strange expense when you're just going to burn the thing. "Now see," he says, "that's the same expression most people have, but think about it--when you spend a lot of money for a nice casket, you're just going to put it in the ground and never see it again, anyway. This is just faster."
After that comes the casket selection room, which Rosenberg says is the second-most uncomfortable room for people to consider. Casket selection can be done with pictures instead. The coffins are of varying material and thickness, some better equipped to keep the deceased from the elements, although everything will break down eventually. Copper, for instance, won't rust, but to Rosenberg, who is of the Jewish faith, that's not a factor. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, he says.
People's greatest terror lies in the embalming room, the one in back, the place behind the door. Embalming is mostly an American phenomenon, a preserving process designed during the Civil War for bodies that had to be transported long distances. These days, though, it's done primarily for viewing purposes--as one writer put it, "the most literal example of saving face."
Embalming is shrouded in mystery, which is the way just about everybody prefers it, including licensed embalmer and funeral director Jack Rosenberg, who stares into the pungent, bleachy white room and says, at this point in his life: "I choose not to do this anymore."
To prepare for the big show, you place the body on a porcelain or stainless steel table. This is according to Kenneth Iserson's book Death to Dust: What Happens to Dead Bodies, in which he describes the embalming process in way more detail than you'll get here.
The body is disinfected, and later washed. Rigor mortis is relieved by flexing and massaging the joints. Arms and legs are placed in positions that make the person look comfortable. The mouth is sewn shut, and plastic eye caps are slid under the lids to keep them closed. Blood is replaced with three to four gallons of fairly hazardous chemicals that allow the body to keep, or, in some cases, attain, the desired tint for viewing by friends and family.
There's an art to making a body appear presentable, ways of making the eyes and mouth look just right and of achieving the right "expression," and this is the craft Jack Rosenberg learned at Forest Lawn and then in practice as a funeral director in Mesa and Tempe.
Six years ago, right around the time of his son's bar mitzvah weekend, his wife got a call that she figured had to be a joke, and so she said she wouldn't deliver any such message and hung up the phone. When the call came again at 6 the next morning, Jack Rosenberg knew it was real: The Navy was calling him out for duty in Operation Desert Storm.
He was one of eight morticians assigned briefly to a decrepit barracks in Dover, Delaware, where their job was to do their thing on America's dead, 12 to 16 hours a day. They had a tent and tables set up for dressing and cosmeticizing. Often, the body bags wouldn't reach them for three weeks, and--well, you can just imagine. Sometimes, they were puzzles that had to be put back together. Sometimes, they couldn't be.
"We got all those people, the ones from the barracks attack," he says. "Those pictures stay with you forever. I guess they figured because we were funeral directors that we'd seen everything. But there's really nothing you can do to prepare someone for the results of a Scud attack or a land mine."
The experience destroyed him, he says, which is why he declines embalming-room duty anymore. But amid all the chaos and the blood and the roaches, there was, as there always seems to be, a guy from New Jersey. He was one of Rosenberg's fellow morticians, just as upset as the next sailor, but there he was doing tricks and making balloon animals.