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No Working Stiffs on Morticians' Calendar

Long Beach mortuary owner wants to show that undertakers have a sense of humor too.

October 14, 2006|Bob Pool | Times Staff Writer

Mortician Ken McKenzie is undertaking to put the fun in the funeral business.

The Long Beach mortuary owner has created "Men of Mortuaries," a full-color 2007 photo calendar designed to help bury the notion that America's funeral parlors are staffed by pallid, humorless stiffs.

Its cover features hunky, shirtless morticians holding shovels while other muscle-flexing funerary workers lower a casket into the ground.

Inside, the months of the year are illustrated by photographs featuring a mix of dark humor and dazzling smiles.

Glamorous grins -- not graveside gravity -- was the goal, according to McKenzie.

And that turned out to be a challenge too.

McKenzie drew 276 responses when he placed an ad in a funeral industry trade journal seeking morticians to pose for the first-of-its-kind calendar. But most of those sending in photos of themselves with their applications looked a little, well, grave.

"Some of them wouldn't smile," McKenzie said. "Our industry is so scared of what people will think. They say this is a serious business, and people expect funeral directors to be serious."

The problem only got worse when McKenzie assembled the winning participants earlier this year for the calendar shoot at Long Beach's Sunnyside Cemetery.

Two of the models froze, refusing to crack a smile.

The calendar's art designer was forced to digitally remove the grim-faced pair from the graveyard cover photograph. In their place were added a shirtless McKenzie and another last-minute fill-in, photographed separately and carefully manipulated into position.

All was not lost, though. The photo retoucher was also able to buff up the calendar boys.

"We added a few abs to some stomachs," admits McKenzie, 40. "We got rid of some flab."

The shipment of 50,000 calendars, printed in China, cleared customs Friday. Advance copies that have been passed around prompted reactions ranging from "those guys are hot" to "the whole thing is creepy."

McKenzie intends to donate $2 from each sale to a new group that will provide one-time grants to breast cancer patients who need assistance paying for such things as child care.

The KAMM Cares Foundation was set up after McKenzie's sister, 38-year-old Katherine Alyce McKenzie-Meadows of Sacramento, found herself in a financial pinch two years ago as she underwent chemotherapy for breast cancer.

It was his sister, McKenzie said, who first suggested the calendar after seeing similar ones featuring firefighters and Chippendales dancers. "She was joking and asked, 'Where are the morticians?' "

McKenzie and his calendar models say the time is right for the morticians' move. The popular cable TV show "Six Feet Under" showed that funeral directors can have a sense of humor, they say. "Ten years ago we couldn't have done this," McKenzie said.

Still, Mr. August isn't certain how folks will react in his hometown of Remsen, Iowa, population 1,700.

"We'll be selling the calendars at our family's funeral home. But I don't know how well they'll go over," said David Fisch, a third-generation undertaker who is depicted in the calendar sweating as he changes a hearse's flat tire while a minister waits impatiently in the background.

The muscular Fisch, 28, works out to work off the emotional stress that comes with funeral duties. His equipment is kept in a corner of the funeral home's hearse garage, which he has nicknamed the "Dead Weight Gym."

Mr. April, 24-year-old Kurt Zabor of Parma, Ohio, is pictured surrounded by a spray of funeral flowers. He said that he too will have the calendar for sale in his family's mortuary.

But "it's not like we're going to have stacks of them on display on tables during wakes. We'll have them if people ask. You have to be respectful, first and foremost," Zabor said.

And he was dead serious.

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