The mother enters the visitation room, which is empty except for the casket against the far wall. The small ceiling light shines on the body and gives it a glamour-shot glow.

"Oh, the flowers are beautiful," she says.

"Is that OK?"

Friends and family members comfort one another during a viewing.
Mark Graham
Friends and family members comfort one another during a viewing.
Beckwith pitches Golden Gate with a public access television infomercial that blends spirituality with salesmanship.
Mark Graham
Beckwith pitches Golden Gate with a public access television infomercial that blends spirituality with salesmanship.

She nods and approaches her son. "I guess that shirt is just not going to go around his neck."

Just when it seems she will keep complaining, she stops. She is touched by the sight of him.

"Oh, that smile," she says, holding the edge of the casket in one hand. She looks at her son with warmth in her eyes.

"Thank you so much for making the adjustments," she says.

"Yes ma'am. Thank you for putting your trust in us."

And he backs out of the room, his head down, and his arms clasped in front of him.

Back inside his dim office, Beckwith looks proud. He knows he's done it. "That's the best feeling in the world."

----

The worst feeling in the world came when his mother passed in 2000. Since she was shot in 1977, she had been in and out of the hospital with complications, never fully recovering. Before she passed away, he was shy. He is still shy, he maintains, although that part of his personality seems to come out when he is alone and anxious.

For example, at the first television taping of Ask the Undertaker in July, before he went in front of the camera, Beckwith was not his professional, outgoing self. He sat with his back to the prep room, facing a window, working through pre-show jitters. He was slouched and consumed by thoughts. "I'm trying to experience the anxiety now," he said, "so I don't have to on the show."

When the producer entered the room, called out his name and said it was show time, he jumped up and hurried over. The producer looked at him and said, "You look just like a child!"

He had to become less shy after his mother died. He thinks of his undertaker personality as if it is the coat that he puts on in the morning. "I can just be the undertaker, and I don't have to be the shy John Beckwith."

If his mother taught him to endure, it was his father who taught him the ins and outs of the funeral business.

"I don't think I ever remember being introduced," Beckwith says. "I don't ever remember seeing the first body. I don't remember it because I've seen them all my life."

His father told him he was being groomed to take over the business from a young age. The two would practice how to be a funeral director in the living room with chairs and a pretend casket. "It was almost like football practice." And he never thought of the lives of the dead he handled. All he learned about them was what he needed for the funeral business. "I just thank God he gave me that gift to move on to the next person."

His mother's funeral was the only one he had trouble moving past. "I wanted to be the one who closed her casket. I wanted to be the one who rolled her out. In closing the casket, I was definitely the son," he says, and not the undertaker. "I remember my sister fussing at me about it, 'You need to stop messing with mom and just close the casket.'"

In his office, there is a sketch of her hanging on the wall. He is always commissioning various artists in the community for yet another sketch.

----

When people grieve, they often turn to their spiritual leader, their pastor. Since Golden Gate opened in 1985, they've had pastors on the staff. This has served to guarantee Golden Gate future business. As a church grows larger, so does the number of funerals for any funeral home with a relationship with the church.

The pastor in the morgue with Beckwith that first day, Denny Davis, has been on staff with Golden Gate since the home buried its first body. Back then, Davis ministered to only a couple hundred people. Today he is the pastor at St. John's Baptist Church, which has two locations, one in Grand Prairie and one in Southlake.

Davis now has about 12,000 church members, and Golden Gate does about 90 percent of the funeral services at his church. Beckwith himself tries to be the funeral director for each of the funerals at St. John's. It's a vertically integrated business model where all aspects of the death service industry are under one roof.

Four days after the motorcycle victim, Granville Boddie, arrived at the morgue, Beckwith is leading the funeral service at St. John's. Boddie was a member of the church.

Before heading to the church for services, Beckwith stops his car in front of a one-story home with a high-ceiling entrance at the end of a cul-de-sac in southern Dallas. The day is rainy and the sun hidden behind gray clouds. He wipes his shoes on the scratchy welcome mat and walks to the kitchen where the family and friends of the deceased are getting ready to leave for the funeral.

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