Dead Reckoning | News | Salt Lake City Weekly

Dead Reckoning 

How the dying profession pulls the Starks family, and other local funeral home directors, closer to life.

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“I could tell by the color of his hands that he was dead,” Shayneh Starks says.

It was the beginning of June this year and her father, Bert, who was in the end stages of emphysema, had been dead for several days. He was sitting up in a chair in a hospice apartment in Salt Lake City, head fallen forward. Shayneh and her husband, Jason, took turns each week visiting Bert and bringing him groceries.

A former pastor at a nondenominational Calvary chapel, Bert had spent the past 20 years “preparing for his death in a religious fashion,” according to Jason Starks. Bert had taken to calling his body “the creature.” Finally, the creature had given up on him.

Rather than go to the body, she put down her 8-month-old daughter, Sofia, and talked to her, then called her husband.

“Bert looked strained,” Jason Starks says. “Blood was clotting on the side of his head, his face was purple and he was starting to decompose. I laid him out on the bed, his head on a pillow, so the blood could drain down his body. He looked more peaceful.”

When Jason first arrived, Shayneh says, “He looked at me strangely, as if to say, ‘Why haven’t you laid him out?’” Her husband’s questioning glance was because if anyone knew what to do in that situation, it was Shayneh. She and Jason are licensed funeral directors.

The Starkses are set to open the doors of their own funeral parlor on 3651 S. 900 East this month. Salt Lake City has not seen its like before. With their slogan “honoring the traditional wake,” they are hoping to encourage more reverence for funerals, for the disposal of the body, Shayneh says. “We want to do something looser,” adds Jason, “change the mold of the current funeral director, bring back the traditional method of undertaking not done anymore.”

They seem fixed not only on challenging the idea of the funeral as practiced in Salt Lake City, but also getting people to reconsider how we mark the end of a life, even our own.

Room for the living

Once death was the last taboo, the forbidden zone.

Those who worked in professions related to death were seen as separate from society, unclean'a reflection of our fear of dying. The separation of the living and the dead is no more apparent than in the origin of the term “living room.” When a body was laid out for viewing at a family’s home, the room where the mourners gathered became known as the living room.

Now, however, death is a daily presence in those same living rooms. Mortuaries and their employees are television stars, and society has become death-literate. Indeed, we are so death-saturated that even the idea of dying seems to have been marginalized, turned into a long-running joke never quite allowed to get near the punch line.

The bizarre children’s cartoon, Grim Adventures of Billy & Mandy, features a crotchety Grim Reaper constantly humiliated by two grotesque tykes.

CSI, which gave voice to the national obsession for everything forensic, replaces characterization and drama with tours of buffed Hollywood cadavers from the perspective of foreign projectiles as they shred and rip their way through internal organs. The show reveals on a weekly basis that the mystery of death is no more complex than the series of maudlin events that preceded it.

HBO’s Six Feet Under, which in its first season made a laudable stab at shedding light upon the day-to-day life of undertakers, has since become so full of characters warding off loneliness with sex that death barely gets a word in edgewise.

In the funeral industry, such shows have their critics and their supporters.

For Shayneh Starks, CSI confirms the adage that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. “It used to be the worst thing people would ask was if we drained all the blood. Now we get the weirdest, most specific questions. Are you going to put incisions behind the ears? Because of the autopsy-saw cut across the top of the skull, you fluff the pillows to cover it. Now people even know about that.”

There are some areas the funeral director still doesn’t talk about, she says. “There’s what’s painful and what’s acceptable to hear. You skirt around the issue of the post-mortem interval, which is the time between death and embalming. Sometimes the preservation chemicals just can’t quite catch up [to] the train of decomposition and get onboard.

Kurt Soffe, of fourth-generation mortuary Jenkins-Soffe, a stalwart of the Salt Lake City market, praises Six Feet Under. “It’s given people the license to talk about death, what happens with the process, and allowed us as funeral directors to step in and provide answers.”

But he is less forgiving about the media and the public’s general fascination with death. “Paying money to be frightened doesn’t interest me,” he says. “The length and efforts people go to be scared, using the dead or monsters is almost humorous. They’re dabbling in something that I have as a reality. When I saw the trailer for The Sixth Sense and the child says, “I see dead people,” I remember thinking, “And?”

Of all the horror movies and forensic TV shows, perhaps Six Feet Under with its family of, in some cases, misanthropic undertakers has done the most to open our eyes to the reality of the business, while at the same time underscore the image of people who work with cadavers as being at best kooky, at worst, downright creepy.

The most bizarre thing about the Starkses is how preternaturally poised they are for their 30 years. Interviewing them separately over a period of hours in the 1930s mansion they purchased, gutted and have rebuilt and extended to be their parlor-cum-home, Shayneh, 28, emerges as Martha Stewart meets Morticia Addams with a healthy dash of John Belushi’s party animal thrown in. She once organized parties and three-day mixers as the San Francisco-based School of Mortuary Science’s public-relations person. Jason, 30, is an eerie reincarnation of Gary Cooper playing Ayn Rand’s über-architect Howard Roark, in looks, stature and even to some degree, personality.

But just when you think that you’ve walked onto the set of a new reality TV show and encountered its flawless, all-American stars, a visit to their tiny apartment upstairs reveals the oddly comforting sight of the clutter of any young couple with an 8-month-old child.

Having that apartment is a blessing, says Shayneh. “When it’s three in the morning and you’re doing an embalming, it’s nice to go upstairs and have a shower.

Reality check

It’s one thing to watch Forensic Files or the latest spinoff from the CSI franchise, it’s another to wander through a funeral home.

An old man laid out in a coffin, his chest as solid as the oak casket he lies in, his lips sewn together with a dental tie in just the faintest suggestion of a smile. Lift one hand up 'despite the embalming, of which there are varying degrees of firmness, the body is still surprisingly flexible'and there are the mangled fingers from a fall at the time of death.

Go to the back of the home and look at the list of the deceased who are to be processed that Wednesday. Under the list of names of those who have passed away, the word “infant” leaps out at you.

“There is a mood when a young child is in a funeral home” says Jason. “It is so somber, the question of ‘why’ is in all our heads.

Outside a back door, there is an 8-foot-high refrigerator with a metal door. On the top shelf is a bundle wrapped in a blanket. It is less the blanket and what it holds that is upsetting than the realization there is no light on inside the fridge when the door is closed. It is the darkest place you can imagine.

Funeral directors deal with this every day?

Family and money

The reasons for going into the industry can be loosely divided into five camps.

One is family. Kurt Soffe is a good example. Until he was 10, he lived in his family’s mortuary at 4760 S. State. “You knew when you could play and when you couldn’t. When services were being held, you had to be very quiet.”

The eldest of four sons, he watched his father and grandfather invited into the innermost circles of many families. He was aware of death at the age of 8. He talks about a child his own age being pulled on a sled by his father driving the car, only to have the sled swing out to the left in front of another automobile. An 11-year-old was brought in dead from a shotgun blast to the side of a head he got while hunting.

“I knew life was fragile” he says, “that it could change at any second.

There was no coercion to go into the family business, although there was “a level of unwritten expectation.” The one benefit, at least as a child, to growing up in a mortuary was that when he was chased by the bullies who lived behind the funeral home, he could run into the building and know they wouldn’t come inside. They were too scared.

Others go into the business because the educational requirement is only a two-year degree. Now you can study on the Internet to become a funeral director, notes Shayneh Starks, with a degree of skepticism. “When you’re teaching, you stick your finger in the neck and fiddle around until you find the right vein. How do you explain that on the Net?

Of course money, or the perception of it, is an important factor. Del Ballard of Goff Mortuary, a mentor and father figure to Jason, and along with Soffe, the man Shayneh describes as the most amazing funeral director in Utah, went into it for that reason. A self-described farm boy from southern Utah, he says, “I saw how they dressed in suit and tie and drove expensive cars. I thought there’d be more money in it than there was. But this is a very cyclical business. If you could even it out, it’d be ideal.”

Ballard’s twinkling eyes confirm his dry sense of humor. There is a plaque on the wall in his funeral home warning that unattended children will be given kittens to take home.

While Ballard says that ownership should be the goal of anyone entering the business, his financial expectations have certainly changed from when he started. “If you’re in this business strictly for money, you’ll miss out on helping someone. I feel for those people who just look at the bottom line, I really do.

Altruistic, a word you might not have associated with funeral directors, it seems is a highly appropriate adjective for many in the business. Certainly that’s true for older people who go into it, Shayneh says. She and Jason will pay themselves $25,000 each a year. Currently they live on what Jason earns from eBay buying and selling goods.

Which leaves one small, highly distinctive group unaccounted for. Shayneh summarizes them as follows: “The morbid, creepy people who dress in black and white.” For the record, she’s wearing a yellow T-shirt and white slacks.

Dead good reasons

Shayneh grew up in San Clemente, Calif. The typical Orange County teenager, she wore a bikini to school so she could flee to the beach after class. Not quite so typical was her habit of bringing home road kill to dissect in the garage. In the fifth grade she handled human brains, in the seventh she dissected cows. What was it that so fascinated her about forensics? A timid but equally formulaic precursor to CSI, Quincy was the popular TV show back then. But the program, she says, had nothing to do with it. “I was fascinated by human anatomy, and I was really interested in solving the puzzles of people’s deaths.

She pursued her passion at the University of Oregon, but found the core science too difficult and picked up a side job in a funeral home. “A girl can’t have too many talents. They said you either do this for life or we don’t teach you.”

The first time she saw what was actually involved took her back a step or two. “The prep door was open a crack and I happened to saw them aspirating [removing gases that build up in the abdomen], and I stood there in disbelief, thinking, it’s about that?”

That was just the beginning. “The first baby I picked up, I pulled over and cried. I wanted to be prepared in the mortuary, so I held her in my arms.

Jason’s first encounter with death was when his 42-year-old aunt Mary Beth was killed in a collision with a drunken driver in Wisconsin. He was 15 at the time. “Every time I saw her she took me to Kmart and bought me a 99-cent toy car. So I put a Matchbox car in her casket.”

Despite the funeral director’s attempts to persuade his family to have the casket closed, they insisted upon a viewing. “I was surprised by the amount of makeup she had on. Obviously that was from the reconstruction after a horrible head-on accident. There was such a stillness surrounding the body. That was when mortality and the finality of death started to creep in on me. I was definitely interested in the profession after that.”

Casting around for a career after school, Jason went into hotel management and hospitality. It gave him the requisite people skills. While working as a bellman at the Holiday Inn in Salt Lake City, a friend of his died of a drug overdose. Dealing with the cremation, he talked to Al Hietman of Evans and Early, the only Jewish funeral parlor in town. Jason decided to go into the business and served a yearlong apprenticeship with Goff Mortuary’s Del Ballard. Jason still has his list of the first 100 people he embalmed.

“The people of Midvale love Del Ballard,” he says. “He gives of himself constantly. He helped me financially through school. He’s a different brew of undertaker.”

Shayneh and Jason met at the San Francisco School of Mortuary Science, since closed because of lack of funding. Shayneh was a laboratory instructor and administrative assistant and Jason, a student at the time, says he was smitten at first sight. Since you have to take off any rings before pulling on gloves for embalming, they had tattoos done on their ring fingers, S ? J on his, J ? S on hers. Jason, who from the age of 11 grew up in Salt Lake City, brought Shayneh to live and work here after they were married.

Corporate death

The decision to start Starks Funeral Parlor was based not only on knowing what they wanted to do, but also what they didn’t.

Shayneh, who says she is a “Dr. Laura mom,” worked for several corporate funeral homes before quitting to have her daughter.

It is not for nothing, she says, that one owner calls himself a cold-blooded, black-hearted accountant. “We’d have meetings and he’d tell a story of two buzzards sitting on a tree waiting for someone to die and one buzzard, tired of waiting, flying away. The owner explained it was going to make something happen. And the point was clear. We had to make more money, charge $150 an hour for it being a holiday, $200 extra for going over the allotted two-hour viewing time, go to nursing homes and drum up business. But I wasn’t going to be an ambulance chaser.

If she rebelled against how impersonal the work was, she was nevertheless very good at it. “I’d get decisions about caskets and flowers made in 90 minutes, others would take three hours.” But it came with a price. “I’d end up seeing three or four families a day, and by the time you got to the third, you were getting irritated at how long they took to write an obituary, choose flowers. It was inevitable.” She still insisted on doing the prep work herself, however late it meant she had to stay.

This, says Jason, is where the likes of Del Ballard win out over the corporate funeral homes. “People want to see the person who picked up the body at 11 last night at the graveside the next day, otherwise they feel slighted.”

The average home organizes 100 funerals a year. Shayneh says they can make it work with three a month if they have to. “The factories” as she calls corporate-owned parlors, go through from 600 to 1,500 a year. It is difficult to imagine how personal such a service can be. If a body arrives in a corporate home at 6 p.m., says Ballard, then it will stay in a refrigerator until eight the next morning before anyone gets to it. Shayneh remembers cringing each time she had to turn a grieving family over to salespeople who’d try and sell them an extra plot or flowers.

“There’s no need for salespeople knocking on your door,” Shayneh says. “They are rotting the business. If funeral directors act like used-car salespeople, we are just going to end up burying ourselves.”

That said, she adds, “Most factories start off like we do, full of good intentions. But they buy homes, get carried away and end up like Costco or Wal-Mart. What we are going to offer is something different: food, wine, Baileys in a coffee'imagine coffee at a wake in Utah!”

Personalizing death

With strong connections to the Catholic Church'referrals in the funeral business are everything'the Starkses heard from clerical sources that there was a clear demand for a second Catholic funeral home. Neil O’Donnell is the only funeral parlor up to now serving the Catholic community, and with more than 100,000 of the faithful in Utah, the numerical logic is hard to fault. But they do not want to pigeonhole themselves.

From their years studying and working in funeral homes in San Francisco, they were exposed to a wide variety of religious faiths and their very different needs as far as funerals for a Buddhist, Hindu, Jew, Muslim, Sikh or Mason were concerned, to name but a few.

Their ideal of a funeral was epitomized last year by a wake they attended for Magdah, an elderly friend who died of cancer. It took place in an Avenues house. Gastronomy catered the event and her artwork decorated the walls. Candles floated in a pool; in a roomful of flowers, there was an urn with her ashes by a huge photograph of her and a book where you could take a moment to write what you wanted.

“That’s personalization,” says Jason, referring to the recent trend in the funeral business to try to make each funeral more about the person who died, be it by putting golf clubs by the deceased’s casket or selling CDs or videos of the service.

While the parlor will reflect their passion for mortuary paraphernalia'the Starkses have collected many antiques related to the funeral business, paintings dealing with graveside service and other funereal imagery'the main focus is comfort and support, community and sharing, holding parties to celebrate a life.

“We have files of cool ideas,” says Jason. Shayneh will bake scones and cinnamon rolls, she says, so the smell of freshly baked pastries wafts through the parlor while mourners go to a viewing room the color of an evening sky ablaze with painted stars and candles.

“Funeral homes should be like churches,” Shayneh says. “A home feels empty when there are no bodies.”

For her the spirit is never far away from the body. “You look at someone on the table and you wonder what this person knows that I don’t know. I’ve sensed a spirit before cremation. When there’s a murderer, or a homicide victim, there is a darkness.” On occasion she says she and her husband have said prayers for the deceased over the table. But doing this work has not given her any extra insight. “I’m just much more aware that it happens so quickly. My father had chronic constructive pulmonary disease, was living in a hospice. What more clues do you need? And yet I couldn’t get over how unexpected it was. I always used to start every conversation with, ‘Were you expecting this?’ I’ll never do that again.”

Losing her father just before starting her own business was in one way providential. “I have more sympathy,” she says. “I never knew exactly what they were going through.”

For Kurt Soffe, too, the business has given a heightened sensitivity to the suffering of others. When he attends his LDS ward and sits in the congregation, he is acutely aware of those who are struggling. “I look at someone’s face and see the weight of their grief and depression.

His religious faith has increased because he experienced the closeness of death, the feeling that someone who has died is still near. “You learn that life has meaning, purpose, that it is not just about being here, not just an exercise in futility, that our purpose in life is to hold relationships.”

Death, though, is still the great equalizer. “You’ll never see a hearse pulling a U-haul,” Soffe says.

For Del Ballard, the profession doesn’t come with baggage. “You’ve got a job to do and you get on and do it,” he says. “It’s about what the family wants.

While Jason Starks shares Ballard’s views, he acknowledges the role faith plays. “Faith helps in my profession. The afterlife is an amazing thought. Atheists have a hard time doing this.”

Indeed the industry has a habit of weeding out the unsuited.

The true test'it is an unwritten law in the industry Jason says'is to embalm a loved one. “It almost seems obscene,” says Jason, “but if you can handle that, you can handle anything.

Del Ballard helped Shayneh embalm her father. “As I massaged my father’s hands, I thought about him, how he had taught me to ride my bike. I looked into his eyes, eyes that had looked at me. I just had to keep on talking.

When one of his grandsons, at the age of 6 weeks, died of congenital heart problems in Michigan, Ballard called a mortuary out of the phone book. “I told them it was one of their peers needing assistance. They prepped the body and sent me a very low bill. I tripled it and sent back a check. I’m not big on expecting favors from others. But that child affected me more than any other.”

For Kurt Soffe, embalming his grandfather was a matter of a professional debt. “I wouldn’t let anyone else touch him. My Dad said he couldn’t do it. But all I have I owed to him. No one else could do it better. I looked after him in the way he had taught me, with dignity, respect. It was my way of a final tribute. I don’t know if he knew, but I believe he did.

Inevitably, with so much grief, so much pain to absorb every day, some funeral directors need a system by which to vent. Soffe likes to get up at dawn, when it’s perfectly quiet, and watch the sunrise.

Closet drinking, common in the profession, is another way. A funeral directors’ convention, it seems, is another. “You stay up all night,” says Shayneh, still nostalgic for her party days. “That’s the time to let it all hang loose.”

The psychological pressure of the profession aside, there is the problem of dealing with friends. Frank Anderson, a family service counselor at Jenkins-Soffe, says that with this business you are never off duty. Providing help for the 80-year-old widow unused to paying all the bills her deceased husband once took care of, along with the suffering of other survivors, is a full-time vocation. “Your friends are always calling. It makes you realize how important you are to them. But it also means you’re on your guard a lot.

When the daughter of a close friend died tragically at the age of 2 and requested that the Starkses prepare the funeral, it was to Ballard that Jason Starks turned for advice. “You have to separate your feelings from the person and the task of embalming,” Starks says.

The parents wanted a cremation and the mother, a friend of Jason’s, did not want her embalmed. “I set her features, I cleaned her up in case her mum wanted to see her. The thing with a child is the plan changes constantly. They’re not thinking rationally; you need to be prepared for those changes. I didn’t want to be in the position of having to say she couldn’t see her if she wanted to. You go the extra mile, you prepare the deceased just in case someone changes their mind and wants to see them.”

Two things irritate Shayneh Starks. One is telling her, “I bet people are dying to see you.

“I still have to feign laughter,” she says.

The other is hearing people say, “My dad told me to put him in a pine box and throw him in the back yard.”

For her the body is a sacred place, almost a personal obsession. The idea of moisture getting into the coffin, of decomposition upsets her.

“I’ve seen it, it’s not pretty. We devalue other people and ourselves if we don’t value our bodies,” she says. “Lots of people don’t see the need for funeral services. But I always wonder how they do later on emotionally.”

And yet preparing the body for burial can be so violent, so invasive: the aspiration of gases; the cleaning of the viscera; the sewing up. No orifice or organ left untouched. The end result is a shop mannequin of a relative. It is a theatrical illusion in a box. It’s a prop to help you grieve and reach for closure.

Or is it?

“There’s no such thing as closure,” says Shayneh. “There’s only chasing rainbows. You don’t get over death, you just think about it less often. At the end it has nothing to do with bodies, it has everything to do with the living, taking survivors by the hand and pulling them through to the end.

But what all of their work with the dead finally amounts to is a renewed focus on the living, none more so than in the form of their little girl, Sofia.

“My only concern is my daughter,” says Shayneh. “How to juggle everything. You always end up sacrificing the family.”

Sofia is a pudgy baby with a glorious, generous smile. She was born the day after Halloween. “At school,” her mother predicts, “the kids will either think it incredibly cool to be invited to the party at the funeral home or they’ll say, ‘Don’t talk to that girl.’”

As she clings to her mother, Sofia stares at you with a gaze reminiscent of her parents. In a child, it seems the epitome of innocence, but in her parents, it is impossible to escape the feeling that, for all they deny, they have seen and know something we don’t. “I don’t have any special knowledge,” Shayneh says.

There is a beauty, a tranquility to the Starkses, to Soffe and Ballard because each understands the meaning of life'that death is never expected, that each day of life is an irrefutable gift because it might end from one second to the next'and that however sad the loss of a loved one, in the end death is not about the departed, but those they leave behind.

Perhaps Kurt Soffe, called one Christmas Day at 3 a.m. to take the body of someone’s father from a home with unopened presents beneath the tree, sums it up best. “I am so aware that at any moment life can be impacted. I’ve sat beside my sleeping children at night and just wept after counseling a grieving mother or caring for a little boy whose father ran him over with a large lawn mower. What constantly amazes me is that they still get out of bed the next day, they still function, they put their lives back together and go on.”

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