The way of all flesh

Sooner or later, you’ll be business
for someone like Mark Higgins.
By Tim Gray
Who are these people who … we hire to face death for us? What does that do to their own lives — to grow up in a home where there are dead bodies in the basement, to be a child and walk in on your father with a body lying on a table opened up and him working on it? What does that do to you? — Alan Ball, creator of the HBO series Six Feet Under

Mark Higgins holds a syringe with a barrel the size of a bratwurst. The tip of his tongue is lodged in the corner of his mouth, and the end of the 8-inch-long needle is sunken in the neck of a corpse. As Higgins bears down, a gel, called Feature Builder, sluices out of the syringe and balloons beneath the sagging, papery skin of the dead man’s scrawny neck. Once Higgins has finished the injection, he massages the neck and face to spread the gel and hide the emaciation brought on by old age and illness. Beside Higgins, on the counter, lies a photograph of the old gent from happier, handsomer days. Higgins glances at it occasionally, trying to ensure that he doesn’t overshoot in his attempt to create a lifelike appearance.

The green-tiled room where he works reeks of formaldehyde; a big whiff is just about enough to knock over a neophyte. On a second embalming table, a few feet behind Higgins in the smallish space, lies the body of another old man. A white sheet covers all but his head. Both died the evening before and arrived after midnight. Add the 7-year-old boy who’s reposed in a parlor upstairs, awaiting his funeral, and it’s a busy day at Hall-Wynne Funeral Service in Durham.

Higgins chats amiably, as he tends to, while he goes about his work. He’s explaining the multistep process of preparing a corpse — how he siphons off the blood and cleans out and refills the hollow organs. “The mouth is the one thing that you have to get right. Customers will often say, ‘His mouth doesn’t look right.’ Well, they’ve never seen him dead before. Maybe, he’s been in a nursing home, and the mouth’s been hanging open. Maybe he’s had tubes in. A lot of embalmers are good fluid pushers, but it takes an artistic hand to get the mouth right.” Many funeral-home owners employ embalmers and focus solely on managing the ebb and flow of cash and customers. But Higgins likes to — here, he borrows a phrase from the undertaker-essayist Thomas Lynch — “go the distance with the dead,” shepherding them from preparation to burial. Like the physician-CEO who still sees patients once a week or the university president who teaches a class, he wants to stay abreast of the frontline work.

Scorned or scary things often represent the best business opportunities. If you’re brave enough to do something other folks fear, you can make a pretty profit; sometimes, the best competitive advantage is a strong stomach. One of the many ways that Peter Lynch, the famed former manager of the Fidelity Magellan mutual fund, bested competitors was by buying up what he called “grim stocks,” including shares in funeral-home operators. These outfits, Lynch realized, threw off a steady stream of cash, but investment analysts and other money managers shied away because of the stench of death.

Lynch’s insight holds as true today as when it occurred to him back in the ’80s. Undertakers deal in death, but theirs is a healthy business. Higgins’ company, for example, does about 450 funerals and cremations a year and generates about $2.5 million a year in sales, making it medium-sized. And his is a recession-resistant business that’s impossible to offshore. In many markets, the industry still offers cozy niches for independent owner-operators, though they face competition from national chains such as Houston-based Service Corporation International. The National Association of Funeral Directors counts about 21,500 funeral homes in the country and says about 90% of them are closely held. North Carolina has 734, according to the state mortuary board. At a time when radiologists worry about X-rays being beamed to Mumbai and computer programmers fret over code created in Bangalore, a financially ambitious kid could do far worse than enrolling in one of the nation’s more than 50 mortuary-science programs, including one at Fayetteville Technical Community College.

Yet few trades are more disdained, in subtle ways, than undertaking. High-school valedictorians don’t list it as a career they aspire to. Beauty queens don’t say that they dream of dating someone who buries the dead. Politicians don’t claim to have been inspired to pursue public service by the good work of the local mortician. If undertakers are acknowledged at all, it’s as ghoulish cartoon characters combining an actuary’s charisma with Count Dracula’s creepiness, wrapped in a bad black suit.

Higgins, who’s 51, knows all this and does his damnedest to defy the stereotypes. He seems almost to strain to show that undertakers don’t have to be stiffs. He rides a Vespa-style scooter to work. He outfitted three of his four funeral homes — he and his partner, Michael O’Connor, also have operations in Pittsboro, Franklinton and Oxford — with Toyota Scions as errand cars. He tacks wacky keepsakes to his bulletin board, from postcards of Pee-wee Herman to cartoons torn from The New Yorker magazine. He keeps comic novels such as A Confederacy of Dunces on his office bookshelf alongside the tomes on death and grief. He name-drops the famous folk among his friends, ranging from essayist Lynch to Fred Rogers of “Mr. Rogers” fame. “He was from Pittsburgh, and one of my brothers used to work out at the same gym. I worked out there when I was in town and met him. We had coffee six months before he died. I never did tell him that I do a mean Mr. Rogers imitation.”

Higgins spent the early years of his career as a marketing executive for a national morticians association. Ever the marketer, he still strives to put a positive spin on the business — and to waltz away from unpleasant topics. Ask about crematory scandals, and he manages to turn the talk to baby-boomer attitudes about death. Inquire about pre-need burial contracts — in essence, pre-purchases funded by life insurance — and he ends up skewering AARP for its anti-mortician bias.

Higgins grew up in Evanston, Ill., a Chicago suburb, the son of an advertising sales executive at Time magazine and a homemaker. He attended Hope College in Holland, Mich., and majored in communications. While in school, he hired on as a driver for an ambulance service owned by the local funeral home and occasionally picked up bodies and helped out at wakes. “It started out as a job, working with a bunch of other rowdy college students. Within about six months, it found me. Once I got over my squeamishness about the bodies, I really took to it.” A tireless extrovert, he learned that he had a gift for connecting with grieving people and could help to salve their sadness while not being suffocated by it.

After college came a one-year internship at Hanes-Lineberry Funeral Services in Greensboro and then the required year in mortuary school — in his case, at Pittsburgh Institute of Mortuary Science. He returned to Greensboro after graduation but soon left for a job with Selected Independent Funeral Homes in Northbrook, Ill., a trade group. It was a chance “to travel on somebody else’s nickel and learn the business,” he says. He figured he would soon try to buy his own home but ended up staying for a decade. He found Hall-Wynne through a business broker in 1992.

Picking a place to sell funeral services presents a surprising puzzle. A growing city helps since an undertaker can’t influence the number of people who die. But unlike in, say, real estate or construction, a sizzling economy alone doesn’t make a market. “Growth can be deceiving,” Higgins says. “Cary has had tremendous growth, but its death rate is stable because a lot of that growth is young and transient.” Shiny new subdivisions fill Target, Best Buy and Lowe’s, but you need more than a few blue hairs in Buicks to make a funeral home hum. Thus, when it came time to expand, Higgins bought operations in Franklinton and Oxford, not, say, Cary or Chapel Hill. Franklinton and Oxford retain their old-time Southern character and cores of longtime residents but are growing, Higgins says. “Oxford is becoming a bedroom community to Raleigh, and it’s a good stable business that serves about 85 families a year. Franklinton is on Highway 1 right in the corridor coming out of Raleigh and headed up through Wake Forest.” Including himself and O’Connor, Higgins’ four locations employ seven full-time morticians and about 20 part-time support staff.

Stripped to their essentials, funeral homes are shipping businesses. The earliest ones often grew out of livery services, and like shippers, undertakers move cargo from point to point and package it carefully to make sure it doesn’t spoil on the way. In place of UPS’ boxy brown vans, they just substitute long black Cadillacs. Like parcel services, they also sell shipping containers — they call theirs caskets — and can make a tidy margin doing so.

In the big merchandise room on the second floor of Hall-Wynne, the top-of-the-line wooden coffin, the mahogany Parliament, sells for $9,700, while the best metal one, the bronze Diplomat, goes for $7,250. A stripped-down steel model sells for a little over $1,000. Across the room, tucked in the corner, are urns and simple caskets for cremation. Nearby sits a small collection of pet urns and monuments. Hall-Wynne also collects referral fees for handling flowers and headstones. Hall-Wynne’s casket supplier offers all manner of options for customization. Thus people can select cruciform hardware or wooden inlays engraved with everything from religious iconography to paeans to the deceased. They can even get a casket that has “pictures of motorcycles or the Mona Lisa all over it,” Higgins says. He estimates that about 10% of his buyers customize.

Catering to people’s wants and whims doesn’t end with selling them a box. Plenty of folks want to send their beloved into the beyond with some sort of keepsake or talisman, and where practical, Higgins and his staff oblige. “It might be just a letter or a stuffed animal. It might be a bottle of bourbon and bag of marijuana — we might say, why don’t you go ahead and tuck that in yourself. We had someone who was a nudist, and the family wanted the guy buried naked. So after the wake, we took his clothes off and buried him naked. As long as it’s not illegal or immoral, we’ll do it.”

Merchandise sales vex Higgins more than anything else in the business. Unlike embalming, retailing isn’t governed by health regulations, nor is it accompanied by the logistical headaches of arranging and executing funerals. But it’s buffeted by economic forces and changing attitudes in ways that other parts of the business aren’t. Funeral homes historically used merchandise profits to subsidize their high fixed costs. That let them advertise lower service charges, the number that people fixate on. (Hall-Wynne charges $4,985 for a traditional service, which covers embalming, the funeral itself and transportation.) But as with so many industries, price sensitivity has crept into our dealings with the dead, thanks to the Internet. People can buy coffins online, just as they can purchase books and CDs there. Even if they choose not to buy online, they can compare prices. (The monks at St. Meinrad Abbey in Indiana, for example, sell walnut caskets online for $2,075.)

Higgins still manages to use merchandise sales to subsidize his fixed costs, but he has lately raised his service fees and lowered merchandise prices, even as wholesale costs have risen. “It’s not the casket that people thank us for,” he says. “It’s the service. With the casket, somebody’s going to say, ‘I just buried $4,000.’ I’d rather them say, ‘I just buried $2,500.’”

The increasing popularity of cremation is squeezing funeral homes, too. Simply put, burning a body is often cheaper than burying it. A cremation casket is hardly more durable than a heavy cardboard box and is priced accordingly. Some bodies destined for cremation aren’t embalmed, and some families often don’t want a costly church service. What’s more, undertakers in Durham historically have used a cremation cooperative that they own jointly. At Hall-Wynne, cremations account for 30% of the business, and Higgins expects the segment to continue to grow. To keep that revenue in house, he’s planning a crematory behind Hall-Wynne’s chapel, which stands beside the funeral home on Durham’s Main Street, just a couple of doors down from Duke University’s East Campus. “We’re fashioning a crematory where the family can have a ceremony. There’ll be a gathering area dressed up like a living room. They can have a prayer and a minister or a priest.”

Changing attitudes also prompted Higgins’ decision to construct a new building for his Pittsboro operation. It does business as Griffin Funeral Service, though he’s switching the name to Hall-Wynne. “It’ll be a different kind of space, more contemporary. It’ll have a water wall and a built-in video screen to show videos we produce [about the deceased]. It’ll be more Zen-like to match the market. It’ll have an edgier feel. It won’t be your traditional Colonial Williamsburg funeral home, like many places in Southern towns.” Pittsboro, just south of Chapel Hill, has evolved in two directions since its days as the quiet county seat for mostly rural Chatham County. Thanks to the Fearrington Village and Governor’s Club real-estate developments, it’s attracting upscale retirees. And thanks to its still-ample rural reaches, it’s also drawing artists, organic farmers and other bohemian refugees from high-priced Chapel Hill. That combination — affluent oldsters and aging hippies — looks ideal to Higgins.

Traditionally, the mortuary market segmented in predictable ways, and funeral-home marketing amounted to filling a niche. Just about every Southern town had separate outfits serving whites and blacks, and every Northern city of any size had a smattering serving whichever ethnic groups predominated locally. Poles, Italians and Irishmen may have sweated, sworn and swilled beer together, but they reposed with their kinsmen. Some of that sort of thinking endures. Because Higgins and O’Connor are Roman Catholics, they’ve been able to carve off a good piece of the growing Catholic burial business in Durham and Chapel Hill.

Higgins’ recognition of changing mores about death and dying, paired with his background in marketing, has led him to take steps that some competitors in his conservative trade might classify as unconventional. He advertises in print publications and on TV and radio and offers himself up as a public speaker, talking to groups of clergy, hospice workers and just about anyone else who has the chutzpah to ask.

Dealing in death takes a psychological toll but not in the way that many folks expect. It’s not the bodies — you quickly get used to them — it’s the grief. Higgins, who is single, copes by trying to keep a measure of balance in his life, working out at the gym and taking time off to travel. “I also delegate. I make sure I don’t personally handle more than two families at a time.” Any more is too taxing. Even one can sometimes exhaust him emotionally.

Consider the tale of that little boy upstairs at Hall-Wynne. The prior Thursday, he had arrived home from school, complaining to his mom of a fever. Less than 48 hours later, he was gone, killed by a virus of unknown etiology. His family minister called Higgins, who, when he heard the circumstances, chose to go to the family’s home rather than have them meet him at Hall-Wynne, as is typical. “It was hard at the house. The mother was screaming, ‘I don’t want to do this. Where’s my baby?’ We worked for 30 minutes just to write the obituary, and there’s not that much you can say — he went to school, he went to church, he was a good kid.”

At the same time, Higgins also was planning a memorial service for a friend, close to his age, who had died of a brain tumor. That combination, plus the renegotiation of his company’s debt to secure a better rate, had sapped him. Yet comforting the boy’s family and planning his friend’s arrangements were precisely the sorts of activities that made him chose his trade.

“I know I’m effective at dealing with grieving people,” he says. “I’m not afraid to use the word ‘dead’ and to talk about death and to comfort them, to get them to tell stories and laugh. I’m good at it. It’s my gift, and I’m happy to use it. If I didn’t — if it was just, ‘What’s their date of birth?’ — I wouldn’t be satisfied. But there’s a price I pay, which is the sadness. You’re not immune from it. I go home very tired but happy that I made a difference. I believe excellent customer service is undergirded with a passion for wanting to make an emotional difference.”

A few minutes later, Higgins is standing in the parlor where the boy lies, looking down at the body. The little guy wears a blue Star Wars T-shirt, and his hand is folded around a small white Bible. His complexion is waxy, but unlike the old gents downstairs who were so obviously dead, he really does almost look like he could be dozing. Higgins reaches down to smooth his shirt. “There are a couple spots of dehydration here,” he says, gesturing to the boy’s face. “He died Saturday, and this is just normal. I’ll be back in a minute.”

When he returns, he’s carrying what looks like a cosmetic compact and a slim paintbrush of the sort used by model builders. He dabs at the makeup, leans over the boy and then brushes gently on his freckled face.

A while later, sitting at the conference table in his office, Higgins’ talk again turns to his feelings about grieving and death, about how his work makes him face his fears — yes, he has them too. “I’m not afraid of death per se,” he says. “But I wonder how I’ll die and whether I’ll die alone. At 51, I find myself dealing more often with someone my own age dying. It makes you realize that when you’re finished, you’re finished. Tomorrow isn’t scripted, so you better live today fully and gratefully, and I try to do that.”

Higgins also tries, in subtle ways, to help his customers’ confront their fears. “We tend to be a little unorthodox here. I want people to see the body go in the ground. I want them to stay at the grave while the body is being lowered. Funeral directors typically usher you away and leave that to functionaries. I think we funeral directors have been guilty of trying to make it look too pretty.

“We all run from the fact of our mortality. We all want to get rid of the dirty part. So we over-spiritualize death. The physical reality is we have a dead body on our hands. And to only say ‘My loved one is in heaven’ is to ignore that. Why do we drag rivers? Why do we bring home our war dead? We need to know the fact of that death. We need evidence that that person is gone. It continues to seem unreal until there’s a body. A body doesn’t lie.”