Monday, Aug. 6, 2007 | When Elmer Geissler was a serviceman in the 1940s, tattoos cost $3.50 a pop. He had his arms stamped with his initials, a tribute to his mom, a swimming mermaid, and a skeleton pierced by a dagger.
Then he became a funeral director.
Now, his arms lift lifeless bodies into caskets and his grasp holds the shaking, uncertain hands of widows. His short-sleeved white dress shirt exposes his forearms, their bluish blurred tattoos six decades old and still visible, but easy to miss.
Geissler is a tender, no-nonsense comforter. He’s the one who’s thought about death every day for most of his life, the one who speaks to clients in non-flowery words about embalming and caskets and funeral costs, the one for whom grief is never surprising.
Nor routine, though 300 funerals a year could callous a man’s heart. But one August morning, in the casket room at Featheringill Mortuary on El Cajon Boulevard, a daze blankets his face as he tries to name the most difficult funeral he’s performed in 57 years.
In that room, amid 16 adult-size and three baby-size caskets for sale, he grows silent, then abandons the task.
“That’s a tough one,” he says. “It doesn’t get easier.”
Geissler is a natural networker. He once shared the security code to a Clairemont mortuary he managed with police and California Highway Patrol officers. The mortuary became their nighttime roost, and Geissler became the unofficial funeral director for cops. He’s performed funerals for more than a dozen police officers killed in active duty.
And when a plane crashed in the late 1970s in North Park, killing 138 passengers and seven people on the ground, the police called Geissler to take care of the arrangements. Within a month, he says, he had them all shipped out or buried.
“I asked, ‘Why me?’” he says. “They said, ‘Because you’re in the community.’”
His job doesn’t always register until they need him. But when they do, he springs to mind for neighbors and friends and hairdressers, even decades later.
“People will call and say, ‘Elmer still there?’” he says.
During Geissler’s tenure, the death-care business has changed. Fewer and fewer families opt for full funerals. More request cremation or buy their caskets on a discount website to save money. And the three dozen or so cemeteries in San Diego County are running out of room.
“Years ago, there wasn’t much cremation,” he says. “In 30, 40 years, I don’t know where they’re going to bury people.”
Funeral directors are different now. Geissler estimates he and Wally Featheringill, the patriarch of this funeral home, are the oldest directors in town.
“It used to be, even if it was raining, I’d wash the car before going to a service,” he says. “It was more formal. In the ’50s, the ’60s, I would have a coat on if I answered the door.”
Nearly retired, Geissler’s duties now are more relational than ever. He helps families arrange services and cremations and burials and caskets. He holds the hands of some of the bereaved. Most appreciate the reassurance. His friendliness only landed him in trouble once, when he called a woman “Honey” and she didn’t take it sweetly.
He’s an old-school flirt. He met his wife, Grace, in a meat market. “She came in to buy some meat and I asked a clerk, ‘Who is that?’” he says. They’ve been married for 44 years.
And when Geissler displaced two discs in his back lifting a casket, winding up in the hospital for a few weeks before taking a couple of years disability leave, he had a florist friend make 30 corsages that he pinned on every nurse that came to his bedside on St. Patrick’s Day. Another friend printed a death certificate with his name on it and brought it to the hospital.
“You know, just fun times,” he says of the gag.
But more commonly, Geissler builds trust by backing off, he says. In the casket room, the prices stick out on little cards. The Featheringill carries caskets ranging from about $300 to more than $5,000. Geissler leaves the casket room to let families decide in private.
“You could get carried away,” he says. “But they’re not in there to be pressured.”
The most popular: the York Reverence with a steel exterior, a bronze sealing device and “rosetan capri crepe” interior for $1,877; and the Astral White Rose steel interior, sealed, “pink crepe” interior for $1,866.
In the caskets with sealing devices, the funeral workers have propped little cards cautioning there’s no evidence that a sealing device will preserve human remains.
“You know, dust to dust,” he says. “Your soul’s gone to heaven. That’s just an empty cavity laying there.”
From the casket room, Geissler walks down the hallway, past the chapel that can seat 100 people for funeral services. He pauses before taking a visitor through a door that restricts entry to employees only. “Are you afraid of death?” he asks her.
He pushes the door open and steps into the embalming room. Against one wall, two bodies lie on cots, their limbs and torsos swathed in white clothes, their heads covered with grocery bags. They’ve had preservative and antiseptic fluids circulated through their veins already to prepare for their funerals; the mortuary contracts with a certified embalmer. In a long, narrow icebox, always kept between 30 and 35 degrees Fahrenheit, another covered body lies, waiting for embalming.
A rolling cart holds a hairbrush and some cosmetics. Geissler does the make-up sometimes, but he says the funeral home has one employee who’s the best make-up applier.
“When the family calls, we have them bring in a picture of Mom,” he says. “That way we can see what she should look like.”
A few times every year, Geissler gathers a team of make-up artists, some flowers and other funeral supplies and joins sheriffs and police officers to present a grisly workshop for high-schoolers. They assemble a crashed car, spill beer on the ground and paint cosmetics on several teens to look like they’ve been killed in a drunk driving crash. Even among the tough kids in the bleachers during the presentation, Geissler says 90 percent hold Kleenex to their eyes.
For his part in the program, named “Every 15 Minutes” for the frequency of such crashes, Geissler earned a sheriff’s civilian commendation. He presents related programs to Coast Guard officers and FedEx air employees.
“It could happen any time,” he says.
He’s lost count of the number of times his profession shocks people.
“They want to know why — why do this?” he says. “‘Isn’t it spooky?’ But I’m not scared of the dead. It’s the live people you have to watch for.”
The Geisslers’ daughter, Tina, married a San Diego police officer. Geissler’s two granddaughters, Ashley and Brittany, are his weekly dates to Mona Lisa’s, a restaurant in his neighborhood of Allied Gardens.
Geissler has buried his dad, his mom, other family members, neighbors and friends. And now, weeks from his 79th birthday, the existential thoughts that have shaped his career turn inward.
“I’m at that age,” he says, sitting in a quiet, wallpapered room furnished with a dark wood table and chairs. More and more, he says, a single thought rolls through his mind as people are carried into the funeral home: that could be me.
“You betcha; I think about it quite a bit,” he says in a low voice. “Yeah. It’s on my mind quite a lot.”
On his mind so intently that he sat down one recent night to chronicle his life. He wanted to write a piece his wife could run in the newspaper when he passes away, to tell about how the funeral business reeled him in on his return to the United States from three years in Japan with the U.S. Army Air Force.
About how in Japan, he was an air-sea rescuer, caring for his injured colleagues. And that when he came back in San Diego, his hometown, he drove an ambulance, apprenticed at a Bankers Hill mortuary, and later stepped into a manager’s role at a funeral home in Clairemont. About when he joined Featheringill, one of the last family-owned mortuaries in town, in 1994.
When a reporter comes to ask many of those questions two weeks later, Geissler appears stunned at the close timing. “Have you been in my dreams?” he asks her.
But all the introspection, the reflection, the hours spent thinking in the sunset of his life has yet to give Geissler an answer for why he’s poured so many years into this profession.
“It’s a job; I just really love doing my work,” he says. “I really don’t know why. But I’m glad I did.”