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.

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."

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.

"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.

Show Pages
 
My Voice Nation Help
0 comments
 
Phoenix Concert Tickets
Loading...