A Dying Business
By Thomas K. Arnold
(page 1 of 2)The 12-year-old girl is looking over the caskets. She points to one, then another. “I like that one,” she says to her father, “but I think Mom would like this one.”
The girl’s mother had hanged herself inside the house two days before, and the girl and her 3-year-old sister found the body.
“The father brought the older girl in because he wanted her to help out and be part of the decision-making process,” says Teri Featheringill, a counselor at Featheringill Mortuary in the College area. “The father seemed all right—but the daughters were having a hard time with it.”
Not only had their mom committed suicide, there were problems with the in-laws. They didn’t like the dad, and though their own daughter had just killed herself, they were already threatening to take legal action over custody of the children.
“After he brought in the 12-year-old, he brought in her older sister, 14, and had me kind of talk to her about things,” Featheringill says. “We’re not trained to be child psychologists, but our job is to be there and help the family when they need help the most.”
Teri’s father, Wallace Featheringill, has been in the mortuary business 52 years. His father was a mortician, and Wallace spent the first 16 years of his life in a small apartment above a funeral home.
“Dad came here in 1912, from Kansas City,” he says. “I’ve got a great picture of him on his funeral coach, pulled by horses, hanging in our friendship room.”
Zoom in to the small screen: In the acclaimed HBO television series Six Feet Under, the Fishers are a dysfunctional family who own and operate an independent funeral home in Los Angeles. The unexpected death of patriarch Nate Fisher leaves mother Ruth cold and needy, older son Nate Jr. struggling to take charge of both his family and the business, younger son David trying to reconcile his Catholicism with his homosexuality, and daughter Claire restlessly striving to establish her own identity.
Zoom out: Things aren’t nearly as tumultuous for the Featheringills, a real-life family that owns and operates an independent funeral home in San Diego. Three generations of Featheringills now work at the mortuary, which serves upwards of 600 families a year and charges a flat rate of $2,690 for a traditional funeral, casket extra.
Patriarch Wallace is 74 and still going strong, a licensed funeral director who joined the family business in 1952, after graduating from San Diego State College and briefly working as a banker. He and his dad built Featheringill Mortuary in 1962, and he’s been there ever since, in the same building at 6322 El Cajon Boulevard, next to a music store and across from a strip mall.
Marjorie, 73, is Wallace’s wife, a slender, attractive woman with carefully coiffed hair. A La Jolla native, Marjorie met Wallace while they were working at First National Bank; when he went into the mortuary business, she came along, to take care of the books.
Teri, 48, a pretty redhead, joined the family business after a divorce left with her with two young children. One of them, Kori Truesdale, has worked at the mortuary for six of his 23 years—full-time since last May, when he graduated from San Diego State University with a geology degree. Recently married, Truesdale, a weekend jock, lives in Ramona. He was scheduled to take his funeral director’s exam on April 30 at Cypress College near Los Angeles.
Except for Truesdale, the entire Featheringill clan has seen Six Feet Under and, for the most part, enjoyed it.
“It’s very accurate, and I think funeral directors everywhere were pleased that it put the family in a natural setting,” Wallace says. “Usually when you see a funeral director on TV or in a movie he’s some idiot wearing a top hat, and that’s the real good thing about the show —they made them real people.”
Daughter Teri is less enthusiastic. “I think it shows they can put a dysfunctional family into any occupation or situation and make a series out of it,” she says. “But they do portray the funeral industry in a way that’s fair and respectful.”
If the Featheringills—or any real-life funeral directors, for that matter—were to offer advice to the show’s producers, it would be this: Downplay the hardball competition and buyout tactics by the big chains. According to the National Funeral Directors Association, families, individuals or family corporations own 89 percent of the 21,710 funeral homes in the United States.
“The consolidation trend has slowed and really almost reversed itself over the last few years,” says Mark Musgrove, the trade association’s president. “I think what happened was that these big chains were acquiring funeral homes at too fast a pace and simply couldn’t concentrate enough on their operations. As a result, many of them are now divesting themselves of some of their homes, in some cases selling them back to the original owners or to other families.”
Wallace Featheringill says he was approached by a national chain of funeral homes in the early 1980s with a buyout offer, “and it was very attractive.
“But I wasn’t ready for retirement,” he says.