GRIN REAPER

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

"It's amazing how much a balloon animal can cheer someone up," Rosenberg remembers, "but it does. Finally, I said, 'Where did you learn this?' And he said, 'I'm a Shriner clown.'"

And that's when Rosenberg decided where life would take him next.

Always civic-minded (he'll be president of the Mesa Rotary Club next year), Rosenberg already was a Shriner. But upon his return from Desert Storm, he began taking the steps necessary for joining the clown unit. He joined the unit in spring 1991 and by September was a full-fledged clown.

Some of the other clowns took him under their wing. A guy named George Jones, otherwise known as Casey and 1990 Clown of the Year, invited Rosenberg over and showed him how to put on the grease. Bubbles lent him an outfit.

Rosenberg says that even when he isn't dressed as Jelly Bean, he'll be walking around grocery stores, doing his shopping, and kids will start following him around like he's playing a magic flute or something. "I swear they can see Jelly Bean the clown," he says.

Jelly Bean knows better than to perform at the funeral home, though, a prospect Rosenberg says would go over like a turd in a fishbowl.

A lot has changed since he went into the funeral business, including himself. Now there are computers, fax machines and better regulation by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Mortuary science schools have gone beyond chemistry and pathology to include psychology and grief counseling. "I've always thought they should teach more bedside manner," Rosenberg says. "If a person's not caring and compassionate, they can't do it.

"We all grieve differently. But you have empathy. Funeral directors are not immune to grief."

In 1982, he finally learned to make the separation between body and person when he embalmed his own stepgrandmother. "I thought, finally, she's at peace. This was not her. And when the embalming was done, she looked beautiful. I would just think, 'This is the last thing I can do.' You're creating that final image for the family."

Of death itself, he says: "I'm not afraid of it. I think there's probably something good on the other side. People look peaceful."

Rosenberg's prearrangements, naturally, are already made. He's making payments. He'll skip the embalming and be given instead a Jewish ritual washing called a taharah. He'll be dressed in traditional garments and then buried in his container of choice, an economical cherry-wood casket. Wood is porous, the most easily biodegradable of all the coffin materials. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Why stick around?

Sunday, 9 a.m.: the performance he still chooses to do.
To prepare for the big show, he places his body at his dining-room table. He's barely awake, but already washed. He has a three-sided clown mirror that allows him to see what he's doing without getting uncomfortable. The whole transformation can take longer than two hours, although some clowns, he says, will brag that they can do it in 45 minutes.

The grease goes on his face, and even his mustache disappears under a heavy film of white. He paints his lips, marks his eyebrows and paints his real nose red, just in case some kid pulls the fake one off, which has happened. Then comes the floppy costume, and then the big shoes and the hat.

There's an art to making a clown 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 has learned in four years as a Shriner clown.

Rarely do his two worlds ever meet, but once, a few years ago, Rosenberg went to a woman's house to make prearrangements. The Tempe woman was in her 60s and dying of cancer, and, in passing, she said that she loved clowns, but she'd never gotten to see one in person.

"And I kind of mentioned to her--`Well, I am a clown.' So I went back to her dressed as Jelly Bean. She was so elated, she made fudge for everybody. That was kind of touching--she made me feel like I really made a difference."

A few weeks later, after she was gone, her husband contacted Rosenberg. He told the funeral director that his wife had died with Jelly Bean's picture in her arms. Maybe, in the most authentic way, she had died laughing.

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