During my dad’s 30 years in business, there were only a few people who worked for him, but none of them for as long as his right hand man, Mr. John Fatz. He was such a regular fixture in our basement that he was like family, like an uncle or something. I hadn’t seen him in 20 years, but he was at my dad’s funeral, and my whole family was really happy he was there. He and my dad met sometime in the 60’s and started working together in 1974 up until my dad sold the business. He always had a very dry and dark sense of humor, as you would expect, considering that when it comes to dead bodies, I think this man has seen it all….even more than my dad.
I knew he had been in Vietnam, but wasn’t exactly sure what he did, so I asked him. In his words:
“I SPENT TWO YEARS IN THE ARMY, HAVING BEEN DRAFTED IN AUG. OF 1966. I WAS 23 YEARS OLD AND MARRIED AND OUT OF COLLEGE WHEN I WAS DRAFTED. IN JANUARY OF 1967 I HAD ORDERS TO VIETNAM. I WAS ASSIGNED TO THE 25TH INFANTRY DIVISION IN THE TOWN OF CU CHI, REPUBLIC OF VIETNAM. THIS WAS ABOUT 30 MILES NORTHWEST OF SAIGON UP NEAR THE CAMBODIAN BORDER. SINCE I WAS A LICENSED FUNERAL DIRECTOR (HAVING JUST GOTTEN MY LICENSE) THEY PUT ME IN A GRAVES REGISTRATION PLATOON. GRAVES REGISTRATION IS THE MORTUARY BRANCH OF THE ARMY, “GR” FOR SHORT. OUR RESPONSIBILTY WAS TO RECOVER, IDENTIFY AND ESCORT DOWN TO THE U.S. GOVERMENT MORTUARY OUTSIDE OF SAIGON, ALL U.S. PERSONEL WHO DIED IN OUT SECTOR. WE WERE A FORWARD COLLECTION POINT OUT IN THE BOON DOCKS. WE HANDLED OVER 800 US TROOPS WHILE I WAS THERE , WE ALSO HANDLED NON US DEATHS ALSO, BOTH CIVILIAN AND ENEMY TROOPS. I WAS THERE FOR A YEAR.
IN GRAVES REGISTRATION WE TRIED TO ID REMAINS BY VISUAL OBSERVATION FROM MEMBERS OF THEIR UNIT. IF THAT WASN’T POSSIBLE, WE HAD TO RELY ON FINGER PRINTS, AND IN A LOT OF CASES WE WOULD JUST GET A ROSTER REPORT FROM THEIR UNIT AND FIND OUT WHO WAS MISSING.THEN WE WOULD GET THE MAN’S MEDICAL RECORDS AND SEND THEM WITH THE REMAINS TO THE ARMY MORTUARY IN SAIGON , THEY WOULD DO BLOOD WORK AND CHECK FINGER PRINTS. THEY ALSO HAD ANTHROPOLIGISTS ON STAFF AND THEY WOULD LOOK INTO BODY STRUCTURE AND SO FORTH. ALSO EVERY G.I. IS SUPPOSE TO WEAR DOG TAGS, PLUS YOU ARE SUPPOSED TO WRITE YOUR NAME ON ALL YOUR ARTICLES OF CLOTHING, INCLUDING BOOTS. SOMETIMES IT TOOK A FEW DAYS TO GET A ID REPORT. WE DID NOT HAVE REFRIGERATION WHERE WE WERE, SO WE USUALLY GOT THEM TO SAIGON WITH-IN 24 HRS.”
You see what I mean? If you have seen dead bodies from war, how much worse can it get? After that, a regular old dead person would probably seem like nothing. I have major respect for him.
Knowing my dad’s motivation for getting into the strange funeral business, I asked Mr. Fatz what his motivation was for it. It turns out that his mom lived in a funeral home when she was growing up and both his grandfather and great-grandfather were undertakers too, so it was always of interest to him.
One of my stand-out memories of Mr. Fatz involves him embalming a body. He was in the morgue and I went down the basement looking for my dad. When you walked down the steps, you couldn’t automatically see into the morgue, you would have to go all the way down and turn right to see what was happening, which I would rarely do. I would usually just stand on the steps, where my dad would dress the bodies. When we were little, he would never let us see the bodies naked. It wasn’t until we were older that he allowed us to see them before they were dressed, but trust me, if you’ve seen one old dead naked person, you’ve seen em’ all and it’s not something you want to see anyway.
So this one time, I called out for my dad and Mr. Fatz said, “He’s not down here,” and I said “okay” and started to walk back up the stairs. Mr. Fatz said, “Wait, Celeste come here.” Now, I was a teenager by this point, so I was well aware of his sense of humor, and was somewhat trepidatious about going back downstairs but I was also curious as to why he would tell me to come back down, so I did. I turned the corner and looked into the morgue to see a body missing half a leg, and the part of the leg that was still there looked like it had been chewed off or something. It was a sight from a horror movie and I had the appropriate reaction, which was one of shock and disgust. The funny part is that Mr. Fatz did that for his own amusement because he knew what my reaction would be. He started laughing as I quickly ran up the stairs saying “That wasn’t funny,” but of course, it was.
I went and told my siblings who also thought it was funny.
When I asked him to tell me some things he remembered while was working in our house, he wrote me the following:
“HERE’S ANOTHER LITTLE DARK STORY FROM THE LIFE OF THE J.P. DONOHUE FUNERAL HOME.
MANY YEARS AGO , PROBABLY BACK IN THE 1980’S WHEN YOUR PARENTS HAD GONE TO MAINE, I WAS COVERING AND I RECEIVED A CALL FROM THE ANSWERING SERVICE THAT THE CALLER WANTED TO TALK TO YOUR MOTHER. I RETURNED THE CALL. THE PERSON WHO I STARTED TO TALK TO HAD MET YOUR MOTHER A NUMBER OF YEARS BEFORE WHEN SHE WAS A NURSE IN THE ACCIDENT WARD OF FITZGERALD MERCY HOSPITAL. HE TOLD ME HIS NAME, WHICH I HAVE FORGOTTEN, MAYBE YOUR MOTHER CAN REMEMBER, BUT HE SAID HE WAS GOING TO COMMIT SUICIDE IN A LITTLE WHILE BUT HE WANTED TO TALK TO CISSIE. I EXPLAINED THAT I COULDN’T GET AHOLD OF HER. I THEN PROCEEDED TO TALK TO THE GUY FOR THE NEXT 2 HOURS TRYING TO TALK HIM OUT OF KILLING HIMSELF. WHILE I WAS ON THE PHONE WITH HIM I HAD MY WIFE CALL THE DARBY POLICE ON OUR OTHER PHONE AND TELL THEM WHAT WAS HAPPENING. THE POLICE SAID THEY COULD DO NOTHING UNTIL HE ACTUALLY KILLED HIMSELF. SO MUCH FOR THE POLICE. I FINALLY DID CONVINCE HIM NOT TO DO IT.
UNFORTUNATELY ABOUT A YEAR OR TWO LATER HE DID KILL HIMSELF BY JUMPING OFF THE DANNAHOWER BRIDGE IN NORRISTOWN, PA. AND WE DID BURY HIM. WITH A FUNERAL HOME YOU JUST NEVER KNOW WHAT YOU’RE GOING TO GET. THE FULL MOON BRINGS OUT THE WORST IN PEOPLE.”
I would really like to thank Mr. John Fatz for his stories. My whole family has always loved him and my dad and he had an excellent working relationship for many years.
Well, I hope my little blog is shedding some light on the lives of funeral directors because like I said before, it takes a special kind of person to do that job.