In a era where some people find more time to stare at their smartphones than connect with their loved ones, even funerals are becoming a phone-in order.
Michael Alarcon, manager and funeral director at in Mission Viejo, said he has had clients try to call in funeral arrangements. To Alarcon, it's a problem when people make funerals rushed affairs rather than a time to begin to heal.
"If you do not create this environment where it is OK to grieve, you don't get that sense of healing," he said.
The independently owned Fairhaven Memorial Services opened its new Mission Viejo facility Sept. 22 while also celebrating its 100th year in Orange County.
The new south Orange County facility offers a variety of services similar to the Santa Ana location, including a chapel, funeral services, reception area and employees trained to help during the some of the hardest moments of your life.
The Mission Viejo team had been working out of a 400-square-foot office and learned to “think out of the box” when planning a funeral. With no chapel of their own to use, they learned to make any venue into an appropriate setting. Parks, beaches and bowling alleys were just a few of the locations.
Alarcon said he wants the facility and its employees to be seen as more than the “Lurch-type” funeral home. He wants his face to be known in the community so residents have a friend to turn to in hard times.
“I want to be out in the community to make people feel more comfortable,” he said.
Fairhaven has every aspect of a typical funeral home -- funeral planning and embalming or cremation services. But Alarcon sees it as offering much more. The chapel, which Alarcon said was built with a theatrical eye, will also be used for weddings and other celebrations.
“It is amazing the ambience you can create with sound and lighting,” Alarcon said. “If this is a production, you have only one day to get this right.”
Movie afternoons, sing-alongs and horse races (wooden horses) are offered to members of the community to make the facility more welcoming and to begin building a support system.
Alarcon encourages people to plan early and make sure family is aware of any final wishes.
“As soon as you feel mature enough to make that decision, you should,” he said.
Building a Career Around Death
Alarcon began in the nursing field and made his way into the funeral business when he helped a family friend run his mortuary. From there, he attended school to become a mortician. His internship in a small town in Montana gave him a chance to see every aspect of the job. On call 24 hours a day and seven days a week, Alarcon said he had more dinners and outings interrupted with calls from crime scenes than he can remember. For Alarcon and his wife to attend a movie, Alarcon needed to call the sheriff’s station and tell them in which row they'd be sitting. Alarcon always expected that tap on the shoulder on his nights out.
Alarcon said, however, that death seems to happen more frequently in the middle of the night.
“Night time just seems like the best time to slip away,” he said. “Maybe it is because they don’t want to see the family suffer more.”
During his internship in Montana and employment in California and Colorado, Alarcon perfected his work. It was his job as a mortician to take the most physically damaged individuals and make them look as close to their living selves as possible.
He said he has become quite skilled over the years. The typical embalming process, which could include complete face reconstruction, lasts about two hours. Alarcon said he has spent up to nine to 10 hours making a body ready for an open casket service.
“If you talk to any embalmer, they think they are the best,” he said.
Alarcon has seen many gruesome scenes and heartwrenching tears. He said some days all he wants to do is go home to his wife and six children to give them a hug.
“Appreciate life, appreciate the little things you take for granted,” he said. “This job makes you realize how precious life is. You can’t pull back that time. Why would you want to end that day with an argument? That is the benefit of this job. It makes you appreciate life.”
I Hope You Dance
Though he’s seen brutality and death his entire 20-year career, Alarcon said he is affected more by the funerals than the bodies he has prepared for burial. It is the stories, the tears, laughter and “goose-bump moments” that stay in his memory.
“It’s always the funeral. It’s the people, the sharing. It really makes you feel like you know that person," he said.
Alarcon said one funeral will always stand out in his mind. He recalled that moment:
A father and his three daughters walk into the chapel to say goodbye to their wife and mother. You could tell the mother took her little girls everywhere. She meant the world to them. The woman, who died from a brain tumor, loved country music. One of her favorites songs was played during the service -- I Hope You Dance. As the song reverberated through the wooden beams of the chapel, the father stood to dance with each one of his daughters.
“If it doesn’t stir up your heart a bit every time, you need to get out of this business,” Alarcon said.