Men in black not scared to show they care

Wednesday, May 6, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Everybody knows the local undertakers. But they still give people the willies.

"Whoa! Three men in black suits," a guy in blue jeans cried as he entered the restaurant.

"You must work at the place on the corner," he said and jumped back, acting scared.

Will Book stuck out his chest and adjusted his black suit. Saying nothing, he gave the guy in jeans a proud smile that said: "Yes, we do."

Then he went back to eating lunch at the Fifth Amendment in Northside. Will, president of the Charles A. Miller Sons Funeral Home, sat between two of his employees and fellow funeral directors, Dan Lakamp and Mark Piorkowski.

Their table was set for three men in black. And me. Dan had invited me to tag along for a "Lunch with Cliff," where I treat and people talk about what's on their minds.

Will shrugged off the guy's reaction. "We get that all the time," he said.

"You can't let it bother you," Mark added.

Their daily lunch is a time for the three funeral directors to relax, to take the edge off a job that is fraught with sadness.

"Every day," Dan said, "you sit across a table from folks who are having the worst time of their life."

The funeral business "can get to you," Will admitted. Particularly difficult for him are funerals where "you know the person or the family or their community ties."

These three men who care for families at life's final stage know almost everybody in Northside. As Will likes to point out, the Miller funeral home has been in business since "the year after the end of the Civil War."

Since 1866, the business on the corner with the tile roof has stood out from the row of sturdy brick storefronts on Hamilton Avenue. Families have used the funeral home for generations. Whole church congregations depend upon it.

"People expect it to look exactly the way it did when we laid out their grandmother," Will said. "When they come in, the thing we hear the most is: "This feels like home.' "

Sometimes, mourners make themselves too much at home. They fight over funeral arrangements and laugh about the passing of an unloved loved one. The funeral directors have seen family feuds between out-of-town relatives and family members who stayed in town to care for an ailing parent.

"There are lots of cranky people out there," Will noted.

And plenty of impatient ones, too. "Many times we have to hurry through lunch or stop eating to take a call," Mark noted. "Take a call" is funeral-business talk for taking the hearse out to pick up a body.

"A person may have been dying for months at home," Will said. "But once that person dies, their family wants the body removed within 30 minutes. Waiting for 40 minutes can seem like four hours. Waiting an hour is totally unacceptable."

The three funeral directors try to avoid talking about work at their daily lunches, but sometimes they must.

"We'll talk about how we're going to handle a family member who, for instance, wants to control everything and never lets his brothers and sisters in on the decision-making process," Will said.

And they're not above sharing a little humor when they find it. "Even at funerals, people do the damnedest things," Will said.

"Seeing someone coming to a funeral with a nice new suit, and the tags are still hanging from the coat sleeve, always cracks me up."

As the funeral directors' lunch hour drew to a close, the conversation grew quiet. Everyone went into their soft, on-the-job voice.

Dan had to get back to the funeral home. He was in charge of an afternoon visitation.

Those are the moments when people expect to see the men in black. They need them to lean on. Their support speaks to the connections people feel with a neighborhood funeral home.

"The family expects to see your face when they walk in the door," Dan said. "They want us to reassure them everything's OK."

Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.