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Lynwood mortuary director is skilled in the quiet rites of death

Martha Castañeda has worked for Douglass Family Mortuaries for 25 years, and she estimates she has helped arrange more than 5,000 funerals. There are many ways to die, and she does what she can to hide its signature.

May 10, 2011|By Thomas Curwen, Los Angeles Times
  • Martha Castaeda , 53, manager of the Douglass Family Mortuary in Lynwood, smooths the lapel and adjusts the cuffs of Juan Antonio Reyes Villatoro before his viewing. Villatoro, a 45-year-old truck driver, died of a heart attack.
Martha Castaeda , 53, manager of the Douglass Family Mortuary in Lynwood,… (Liz O. Baylen / Los Angeles…)

The grandfather clock in the vestibule of the Douglass Family Mortuary in Lynwood is silent. The key misplaced, the mainspring unwound, its hands lie motionless at 6:38. Martha Castañeda has long stopped listening for it.

In the company of the dead, she is happy to lose track of time just as she has this Saturday morning standing beside Juan Antonio Reyes Villatoro, who lies in the ivory crepe of his silver-finished casket.

She studies his face, the pursed lips and the trimmed goatee. She is the manager of the mortuary and knows little about this man, a truck driver who was 45, who came home one day from work complaining of chest pains and seven days later died in the hospital.

His countenance says nothing about him. Was he kind? Was he loving? That judgment lies with his family, who will soon fill the chapel and find in his empty expression a reminder of their own mortality.

He looks good, she thinks, in his brown suit, matching tie and pocket square. She smoothes his lapel and adjusts his cuffs, and with a fine-tipped paint brush, adds color to his lips.

There are many ways to die — by homicide, by suicide, accident or natural causes, after a lingering illness or a sudden collapse — and Castañeda, 53, has witnessed the sorrow that follows each. She associates death with suffering and does whatever she can to hide its signature: the evidence of an injury or a medical procedure. Sometimes she just needs to erase its pallor.

When she notices the pale bands where Villatoro wore his rings, she reaches for the makeup to even out the coloring.

She has worked for the Douglass family for 25 years, and by her estimate has helped arrange more than 5,000 funerals. She is often the first to arrive in the morning, swinging open the iron gate and unlocking the oak doors to this peach-colored building.

Most people try not to think about death, but Martha lives with it every day. When friends ask about her work, she often tears up, recounting the emotions of a job that brings her so quickly into the lives of families when they are most vulnerable.

Beyond the frosted windows, cars and trucks on Imperial Highway breeze by. The world is beginning to stir, and in the chapel, the morning sunlight sifts through the stained-glass windows, diamonds of purple, emerald and golden light fanning across the pews.

She didn't know what she was in for when she got started in this business in 1986. She was 28, a single mom with two little girls. She needed a job, and Sam Douglass gave her a chance. His family started the business in the late 1920s, and as a boy growing up in the South Bay, Douglass grew accustomed to dinner table conversations about the latest caskets and cremation.

Castañeda was asked to type, file and answer the phone in the Hawthorne office.

At first she was unaware of what the business did. Born in Tijuana, she had come to this country as a child, learning English in school and on television, and was unfamiliar with the word "mortuary." Its closest equivalent in Spanish is funeraria.

Besides, her desk was away from the chapel and the embalming room. The day she found out, two weeks after starting, she panicked. She had been filling in for the manager in Paramount. A driver asked if he could bring in the cases, and she said yes, not knowing what he meant. When she found herself alone with two dead bodies, she called her mother, who told her to stay put.

She tried not to think about the movies she had watched with her brother — "The Exorcist," "The Night of the Living Dead" — and she tried not to imagine a terrible end for herself.

In time, she got over her fear and lived for a number of years in the apartment above the Lynwood mortuary. Her youngest daughter played soccer on the front lawn and needed to be reminded to be quiet when there were guests.

Today Douglass Family Mortuaries owns four funeral homes and a company in Garden Grove that arranges cremations. Douglass' youngest son, Sean, 42, oversees the operations. Sam Douglass, 80, is semi-retired.

Castañeda starts working on the program for Villatoro's funeral, pairing the 23rd Psalm with his photo. The plaintive notes of Eric Satie's "Gymnopédie No. 1" play in the background. Around her computer monitor, she keeps pictures of her children and grandchildren, nephews and nieces. In one corner of the credenza behind her, she keeps pictures of her deceased mother, her brother and two nephews. The dead, she jokes, have her back.

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In an ancient era, the god Mercury was thought to escort souls to the underworld, and faithful today believe that Christ rose to show a world beyond the tomb. In a practical, secular way, Castañeda attends to the departed, treating them with maternal regard and helping families with the cumbersome bureaucracies of city and state, the paperwork, permissions and announcements.

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