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Death Becomes Her

Melissa Lopez
Christopher Gardner

The Young and the Rested: Melissa Lopez makes no bones about her job preparing the departed for their final moment in the spotlight.

True confessions of a student funeral counselor

By Ami Chen Mills

Melissa Lopez, 22, beams as she describes her funeral. "I'm going to have the kind of music I like, not this," she says with a wrinkle of her button nose. She's referring to the piano music which wafts through the sweet and mildly stuffy air of the Mission Chapel Funeral Home, where she works. "I listen to this all day long."

Instead, Melissa, a funeral counselor, will receive her respects to oldies tunes or Wild 107.7. "I wanna be buried in my little clubbing outfit. And I told my girlfriends, 'You're doing my hair. You've got to be strong because no one else knows how to do my hair.'" Her rosary will be here, at the chapel. As for her epitaph? "Maybe, 'Always smile'--'cause that's me."

With long chestnut hair and thickly lined doe eyes, Melissa retains a straightforward, teenage amicability. She signed on at Mission Chapel when she was 16 and a student at Notre Dame High. Now, six years later, Melissa, an undergrad at San Jose State, plans to stay: "People think it's morbid, but I love working with these families."

We tour the innards of the Mission Chapel of Rancadore and Alameda, a family-run enterprise located in a mission replica in San Jose. Edged by manicured lawns, with a bubbling fountain near its entrance, the chapel is a tidy oasis in a neighborhood strewn with garbage and broken glass.

Inside the west chapel, speaking in low tones above an occupied casket, Melissa says her job is to host grieving families and prepare the departed for their time in the spotlight. Like the fellow we're gazing curiously at now, a 50-something, balding Latino man looking a bit crowded in a pin-stripe suit.

"He looks like he's frowning," I note. I've never seen a dead body up close, and the strangeness of it is made stranger still when Lopez pokes casually at the man's cheek. "He's still setting. See? He's still kind of soft. Once they're set, it's really hard to change the expression."

Geez, I wonder, is it sometimes, well, too late to make these people presentable? What about the, er, smell?

"They do decay," Melissa chirps. "Just like if you left some meat out. Some people put cologne on them. I say, 'Do anything that reminds you of them.' It's Dad ... Gosh," she says, fondly, "He looks just like the son."

Looming above us, a life-size Jesus kneels at a faux-stone altar, set off with plastic plants, wrought-iron candelabras and an American flag. In this and the larger east chapel for the popular dead, honey-colored windows frame narrow atriums running the length of each room, and massive wooden beams support thick, adobe-style ceilings and walls.

The Mission Chapel organizes funerals mostly for Latinos, Portuguese, Italians, Protestants and Vietnamese. "For them we have the Buddha, we have incense," Melissa says of the latter group. "The Latinos don't sing and dance like the Vietnamese. The Vietnamese are having a party with those [dead] people because they are going to a better place. There's bells and gongs and chanting. You'll catch us chanting here sometimes. We know all the songs."

The coffin room is crowded, oddly enough, with coffins. They have firearmish names like "Winchester Shade" and "Remington," or "Pink Pawn" and "Gold Brushed Pink Shaded Fatima," which includes a plastic figurine of Our Lady of Fatima. Prices range from upwards of $8,000 for bronze and copper models with a comforting "monoseal" (although signs atop these warn: "There is no scientific evidence that any casket or sealing device will preserve human remains") to a sad flannel casket for the destitute dead at $405. "We tell the family to dress it up. The kids put pictures on the side here," Melissa notes, encouragingly.

When three relatives of the body in the west chapel arrive, Melissa excuses herself to direct them gently toward their loved one. Once he's in view, there is a god-awful wail, pure anguish drowning the light background music.

"You hear crying all day long--there's Kleenex all over this place. But you totally have to be strong here. You want to put your arms around them and hug them, but you can't." Still, Melissa says, "I wouldn't change my profession for the world. I never thought I'd end up here, but God gave me this gift."

The family in the west chapel has quieted, and the son who looks so much like his unfortunate father is kneeling at the coffin with his arms stretched over the body. "A lot of people who are afraid of death don't want to come in here. They think there's ghosts," Melissa explains. "They're afraid of the unknown. But it's really very nice and peaceful."

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From the November 7-13, 1996 issue of Metro

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