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Austin Actors
Marco Perella

Funeral Industrial
by Marco Perella

October 2000

Quite a few of you (well...maybe one) have written to me saying in so many words, "Oh Marco! Being a regional movie star must be so exciting! What a fabulous life you lead! Oh please tell us more glamorous details, do!"

Well, one thing that happens when you attain the kind of local notoriety that comes with frequent appearances on cable TV ads is that stage mother wanna-bees call up trying to get agents for their little darling four-year olds. More interesting still are the letters from potential starlets like this one I got from "Huggins" a short time ago:

(In flowing longhand.) "Dear Mr. Perella, My name is Huggins! (with a happy face dotting the i ) I am pursuing a career as an actress and supermodel! I have heard you are fabulous! I would like to see your movies and take classes from you and have lunch with you and talk about my career and let you dispose of me in any way you see fit! Please call me soon! I'm enclosing my latest nude photographs! Love, Huggins!"

Letters like these do wonders for intra-marital relations. For weeks I went around the house saying, "Huggins! Huggins! Where's that Huggins!" until Diane pelted me with the laundry hamper (her favorite weapon next to vacuum cleaner attachments; both being symbols of martyred wifedom) and started screaming that "she's probably three-foot-nine with hair between her toes!"

When I'm not fending off hordes of adoring starlets I occasionally get a job. Most of you assume that I just hang out writing stupid stories in between calls from Clint and Oliver. Exceedingly not so. Sometimes even cable TV-ad superstars must dig ditches, metaphorically speaking of course. In my case this means industrial training films.

As a matter of fact I have cut a wide swathe across the landscape of corporate America, teaching employees how to run computers, lathes, trucks, radios, and sewage treatment centers. I have taught executives how to finesse the deal, grease the boss, micromanage the managers, jolly-up the jobbers, and unharass the help. Most of these jobs are not exactly oozing with pathos from an acting point of view.

There are usually lots of words and very few takes.

A "film" shoot will do about 2 pages a day. A TV series or movie about 8. An industrial film slams out maybe 50.

Once in a great long while one of these things is actually interesting. Which is all the build up you'll get for my next tale.

THE MERCHANTS OF DEATH

My Houston agent Jenny calls me up and says she has recommended me for a quick job. Can I come? I run down my calendar to see if I'm on hold for Stephen Spielberg. Nope. Not this week. The money is good. Marco is there. What's the job?

"Oh well, you'll find out when you get here."

What's this, a mystery?

"No, not exactly ha-ha don't worry there's hardly any lines ha-ha they're really nice people ha-ha just bring a suit ha-ha here's the address."

So a couple of days later I toddle down to Houston in my mobile and proceed to the appointed area. I miss the exit on the accursed freeway, which is one of the majority of Houston freeways that is in a constant state of being ripped apart to accommodate the cars that currently choke the lanes.

"We know it's a nightmare of inconvenience and excruciating delay NOW, but think how nice it's going to be when we FINISH!"

But by the time they finish the interminable construction to meet 1985's traffic demands it's 2000 and the number of cars has quadrupled again and of course the freeway is obsolete already. DOA. So they rip it apart and start all over and that's what keeps Texas's public construction sector vibrant and alive. Rush hour in Houston lasts from 5AM to 10PM.

So of course I'm on the edge of lateness as I swing into the driveway of the large strip complex and grab my clothes. I wander around the building looking for the right suite number and finally find it. The words on the door say "AMERICAN FUNERAL SERVICES ".

Sure enough, a director type greets me and shoves a script in my hand and points toward the actor's "dressing room" which is actually an unused office. There I meet my fellow thespians Eleese and Gloria. Eleese and I are to portray a couple recently bereaved of her father. (Mr. and Mrs. Grey.) Gloria is the "Funeral Service Professional" and this is a training film for other FSP's to show them how to sell the "traditional" (i.e. "expensive") funeral as opposed to the pump 'em and plant 'em variety.

This company owns most of the mortuaries in North America and this place is sort of a college where future morticians and funeral directors are trained. We're taping in one room while others are being used for lectures and slide shows and (I'm sure) lab demonstrations.

Huge showrooms are full of caskets.

2000 square feet in the back of the building are given over to a Funeral Museum with hearses through the ages and punch button videos on embalming. They've got a funeral parlor circa 1910 set up with dummy mourners and mementos of "funerals of the famous". There's a 1916 Packard "funeral bus" designed to supplant the funeral procession. They built this baby with a little bit too much bus hanging out over the rear wheels and when they first used it in San Francisco, a bunch of fat mourners in the back caused it to tip over as it climbed a hill, thus ending the procession. There's a casket built for three. Seems this couple lost their child and decided to commit suicide together and all be buried in one box. I guess they chickened out. I'm sure whoever built them the coffin was glad to get the sale.

There is a museum gift shop where they sell golf balls and putters with hearses imprinted on them and tie clasps in the shape of a shovel. How about a picture of a casket on your coffee mug or wristwatch? And of course your "History of Embalming" video.

Say it real loud! I undertake and I'm proud!

The overriding impression is of how happy everyone is. Jolly faces in the halls. Jokes, horseplay and big bowls full of candy everywhere. The video crew is in a great mood as we tape scenes of commiseration and salesmanship.

We demonstrate the superiority of a round table that allows the FSP to cuddle up without natural barriers between her and the family. Gloria has most of the lines while Eleese and I sit soberly across from her and try to look stricken while she talks about merchandise, visitations and permission to embalm. As the day wears on it becomes more and more tempting to drop a quip or two just to stay awake:

FSP: Do you have any questions about our services?

MRS. GREY: Yes. Do you embalm cats?

FSP: We can include an organist and we will assist you in selection of the music. Is there any music your father was particularly fond of?

MR. GREY: How about IN-A-GADDA-DA-VIDA?

MRS. GREY: We're concerned with the total price. How much will all this cost?

FSP: $6,940. But remember, your parents only die once!

FSP: When would you like to hold the service?

MR. AND MRS. GREY: (look at each other for an extended beat, then turn and speak as one...) Soooon!

The above dollar figure is what that traditional funeral winds up costing. That includes casket and outer burial container, flowers, acknowledgment cards, leather registration book, Pastor, escort for funeral procession, five death certificates, and newspaper obituary. All the body prep is extra.

Since that's about what I make in a year, I start questioning the experts in the room about laws governing burials. Outer container? That's supposed to keep the body from rotting as quickly.

Excuse me, but why postpone it? Seems like we're all compost sooner or later, why not relax and save the widow some coin? I ask if you have to get embalmed.

Well, you want to be embalmed otherwise you decompose real fast.

Gee, what a drag, I want to stay beautiful in my box in the ground for another 3 or 4 months.

I mean, what is the deal here? Are we really that pitifully attached to our poor dead carcasses that we want to go Egyptian and stay sleek and trim for a few thousand years? This whole industry is based on a perverse, childish squeamishness about something totally inevitable; namely that DEAD STUFF ROTS. Some mortuaries even convince families to embalm BEFORE CREMATION!

As far as our little training film goes, we don't teach high-pressure tactics or anything, just your basic sales psychology. The way things are set up, funeral homes can pretty much relax because eventually EVERYBODY is a customer.

Being an Earth sign it has always been my preference to be buried. Cremation contributes to air pollution. I'd like my leftovers to fertilize some deserving tree. After working for American Funeral Services I am fairly radicalized in my firm desire to never participate in this ridiculous and expensive exercise.

I finally pry it out of them: it is perfectly legal NOT to be embalmed before burial provided you get under ground soon. You don't have to have a casket either. And you don't have to use a mortician. As long as you are being buried in ground that has been okayed by local codes, (such as your backyard if you live in the country), your friends can put you in a sack, dig a hole and throw you in it.

A bunch of happy worms await my demise.

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