"I put the fun in funeral home!" declares Beverly Henley, one of the few funeral directors and embalmers in Texas who also owns her own business. Lest anyone take offense, Forest Lawn's silver-haired impresario insists she encourages all her employees to have a sense of humor. It balances out the rigors of their profession, as well as Henley's second calling as a critic of corporate funeral homes, whom she describes as "nasty and wretched. They're pretty conniving toward the consumer. The biggies do a lot of things that we independents pay for."
By the time she opened Forest Lawn at Turtle Creek in 1994, her reputation as a national gadfly to the industry had begun. CNN traveled to Dallas to profile her and her claims: that the international funeral corporations--two of which split the city's business almost 50-50, she says--charge exorbitant and often hidden fees, take goods they buy wholesale and mark them up ridiculously and aren't honest about some of their practices.
"I was a free-lance embalmer [working for one of the corporations before she started Forest Lawn]," Henley says. "They'd lead relatives to believe that the embalming would take place at the funeral home of their choice, when in fact the body would be carted away to a centralized embalmer at another location." On more than one occasion, the family would ask to follow their loved one to the funeral home. "I'd think, 'Oh, shit,'" she recalls. "We'd drive to the home, let the family watch us take the body inside, then as soon as they weren't looking, turn around and load it back up [to take to the central embalmer]."
Such frustrations were paramount in her decision to open her own establishment. Like many in the business, Henley is licensed as director and embalmer; she does the lion's share of both at Forest Lawn, holding mourners' hands, preparing bodies and navigating through floral arrangements and religious rituals. Inside an antiseptic back room, she makes incisions with two tubes--one to push in the embalming fluid, the other to push out blood and bile into a urinal-like flush receptacle. She also does her own RA work--"restorative arts," that is. For corpses damaged in accidents, she takes liquid and scented wax skin and refashions ears, noses, cheeks and foreheads by hand.
She thinks it perfectly natural that more women have begun to gain her kind of status in the funeral industry. "We're nurturers," she says. "We're detail-oriented. Planning a funeral is like planning a wedding."
Still, no amount of preparation can anticipate all the variables for such an emotional event. "Funerals tend to bring out the peculiar side of human nature," Henley says. When asked to illustrate this remark, she describes a little scene that she absolutely, positively swears she witnessed. To wit:
One of her clients was an old man who died after a protracted illness. He had several grown sons, as well as an adult daughter from whom he'd been estranged for the last years of his life. Apparently, after her father's demise, she became interested in the possibilities of his will, and there was some feeling she might make a last-minute appearance at the funeral. Also, Henley adds, "I think she was a little, you know..." and taps her own temple.
Sure enough, as the priest read over the casket during the service, a car pulled up and out came the daughter in a trench coat and heels. Her brothers tried to ignore her, but she began weeping and wailing at the graveside, "It should've been me! It should've been me!" One of her brothers started calling her a "cunt." She, in turn, paused between sobs to call him an "asshole." The priest and the onlookers kept their eyes trained firmly down.
As her bellowing reached a crescendo, she threw off her trench coat--turns out she was stark naked underneath--and leapt into the grave atop the casket, again wailing, "It should've been me!"
"It was like somebody threw a firebomb into the crowd," Henley recalls. "Everyone scattered. The priest got in his car and left."
Her brothers spent several long minutes angrily trying to talk her out, but she refused. Finally, one of them said, "All right, it should've been you," picked up a shovel and started filling the grave with dirt on top of her. She scrambled out frantically, her hair and body coated with soil.
How did Henley get such a full view of the fracas? "We were hiding behind a tree nearby," she says.
Forest Lawn Funeral Home is located at 3204 Fairmount St. Call 214-953-0363.