Livin’ for Obits

27 Jul

I learned about the competitive nature of business from the dead.

My stepfather was a mortician, an undertaker, or, as he preferred, a funeral director. Every morning he’d take a long look at the obituaries in my copy of the San Francisco Chronicle from my morning paper route. His business was in the Santa Clara Valley, so his newspapers of choice were the morning San Jose Mercury and the afternoon News. But he also reviewed the death notices in the Chronicle, which had a much bigger circulation in those days, to see if one of his competitors had managed to snag the funeral of a notable dead person further up the San Francisco peninsula.

“Oh, hell,” he’d say at the breakfast table if he sensed he had lost business.

Although I never swore at the breakfast table, I, too, would fret with my stepfather if I saw that his competitors were enjoying more of the Grim Reaper’s harvest than him. During my mom’s five-year marriage to my stepfather I had joined him in keeping track of how many funerals he directed. I quickly learned that if there were long droughts without his business being mentioned in the newspapers’ obits, my mom would cook more casseroles and fewer steaks, lunch meat would be replaced by peanut butter and jelly for school lunches, and other domestic belt-tightening would occur. When my stepdad’s funeral home was mentioned often meals would improve, gifts would appear, and we were more likely to go on trips.

In the undertaker game the newspaper obituary page is like the box scores in a sports section, revealing who’s winning and who’s not. Needless to say, we all end up as losers in an obit eventually, but for those in the mortuary business, counting how many of the dearly departed pass through your funeral parlor or your competitors’ is the main way to keep score.

Not only did it become clear to me during those years that none of us get out of here alive, but that while we live we had better be prepared to compete for what we will get while we’re here. It was a harsh lesson for a young boy. Still, pondering the business of the dead in my youth, I believe, helped me become a smarter worker and a better boss as an adult.

For one thing, it taught me that even when emotions are running at their highest it’s vital to remain calm, respectful, and observant like my stepfather was for every grieving family and friend. It wasn’t just good manners; it was good business. After all, each and every one of them was a potential customer.

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