"I know of one woman who even rolled around on her bed to find out which position she'd be most comfortable in in her coffin."
When Jay Musselman teaches someone how to sell funerals door to door, he sits him down and looks him in the eye. Musselman himself is a salesman extraordinaire, and his stare crackles with magnetism; his words bore into one’s consciousness like hungry termites.
"We tell them of the fifty percent savings and we mention appreciation."
He says if a person wants to be successful at hawking cemetery plots, he has to forget about funerals and concentrate on just one thing: getting people to imagine dealing with death tomorrow. “Our prime competition,” Musselman says solemnly, “is the natural human feeling of immortality.”
Jay Musselman says if a person wants to be successful, he has to get people to imagine dealing with death tomorrow.
Musselman actually thinks about funerals quite a bit. He’s the director of “pre-need” sales at El Camino Memorial Park, one of the two major door-to-door funeral merchants in San Diego County (Greenwood Memorial Park is the other).
Marvin Borgmier: "Facts alone are not enough."
He spends even more time thinking about how to chip away at that feeling of immortality, however, since the typical attitude on the other side of the door is “defensive and uninterested.” “The fact that everyone’s going to die doesn’t help us one bit,” echoes Marvin Borgmier, the pre-need sales manager at Greenwood. “It’s a known fact that you also have to have emotion to sell this. Facts alone are not enough. If it was facts, they’d all be lined up here, waiting to buy plots.”
“Funerals were not devised by funeral homes and mortuaries. They were devised by churches and society."
Through the efforts of Greenwood and El Camino, a surprising number of San Diegans have lined up and bought. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and the Death Movement enthusiasts may have sculpted broad, subtle changes in our attitude toward human finitude, but the “pre-need counselors” hustle the nitty-gritty of death preparation, and it apparently has paid off. Greenwood and El Camino together sold more than a million and a half dollars worth of pre-need cemetery property last year. El Camino estimates that almost fifty percent of its funerals last year were planned ahead of time, while Greenwood pegs its figure closer to seventy percent.
Although the concept of such planning is as old as the pharaohs’ tombs, Borgmier says the modern variation of it began at Forest Lawn Cemetery in the late Thirties. The Greenwood sales manager says it originated with Dr. Herbert Eden, the visionary founder of the famous Los Angeles burial grounds, who figured “by planning, man didn’t have to look forward to just a graveyard or a boneyard.’’ The idea was simple but dramatic: it suggested that by planning, individuals could make death arrangements free from the trauma of grief; they could buy more sensibly, plus they could also probably profit by paying today’s prices rather than future ones. By 1945, Greenwood, along with other cemeteries, had jumped into promoting pre-need sales, and today Borgmier figures that ten percent of the people in the county already have arranged their afterlife accommodations.
Borgmier says he could retire from his twenty-year vocation, but he doesn’t want to — he really believes he’s helping his fellow men by selling them plots and crypts while they’re still alive and kicking. Although Borgmier trained Jay Musselman before Musselman moved on to El Camino, the two men’s personal styles differ radically. Compared to Musselman’s aggressive slickness, Borgmier seems like an amiable grandfather. While an unpredictable streak runs through Musselman, Borgmier has reduced the business to formulas.
To maintain his sales force of more than thirty men and women, Borgmier advertises for new counselors every few weeks, and he holds classes in the wood-frame pre-need office on Forty-third Street just outside Greenwood’s ornate back gates. The large, air-conditioned “classroom” radiates the trappings of Success Through a Positive Mental Attitude; instead of folding chairs, a pack of brown vinyl armchairs face the podium. Gaudy plastic slogans and photographs of the sales people crowd the walls. Amidst the clutter adorning the room, reminders of the grim product surface like skeleton costumes at a Halloween party: a gold-plated shovel hangs from the wall across from rosters of the department’s “Gold Diggers” and “Bigger Diggers” (salesmen who’ve earned the biggest commissions).
Today Borgmier’s class consists of just one person, a quiet young black woman named Agnes (“I used to sell Avon, and this doesn’t seem too different,’’ she explains). The huge room dwarfs both of them, but Borgmier nonetheless presents his well-tested formulas with the patience of a kindly chemistry professor. Although El Camino salesmen establish prospects through a variety of techniques (including mailings and club presentations), canvassing is the reigning dogma at Greenwood, and Borgmier promotes it with a near-missionary zeal. He instructs Agnes, “If you use that verbatim PDC (personal direct contact) approach, you’ll Find that you will be guaranteed success.” Borgmier warns her of the long hours. His funeral salesmen first work from about 9:30 to 11:30 each morning, trying to hit about sixty doors in that time. “We know that better than thirty won’t be home because more than fifty percent of the couples today work. But that’s what we’re out there for!” he pumps enthusiastically. “Mostly we're interested in finding out where those working couples live.” The salespeople then return in the late afternoons and evenings to visit those working homes, trying to find couples who will finally tolerate the pitch. “If everything is functioning correctly, you’ll be making more than two dollars for every doorbell you ring. You’ll be making $26 to $28 for every lead, and for every presentation, you’ll be making $127. If you know that ahead of time, it takes some of the scariness out of the straight commission,” he advises.
Borgmier warms to his subject as he approaches the heart of today’s lesson — step-by-step instruction in presenting the Greenwood pitch. A picture book illustrates it, and the sales manager hauls that out reverently. “This presentation has about 300 hours of think tank work in it,” he beams down at his student. He makes her take notes on how the presentation is organized: an introduction, then five pages on Greenwood’s new entrance, eight pages on the Greenwood image, thirteen pages designed to inflame the listener’s emotions. “Now Agnes, if I walk up to you and say you’re going to die, what are you going to say to me? You’re going to say I’m nutsl You just can’t do anything without emotion.” Blithely, he flips through the pages showing grief-stricken families. “But it has to be properly controlled. So we developed just the right amount of emotion in the presentation.”
He recalls one of his presentations which got out of hand. “I was talking to this old Iowa farmer and his wife who’d come out here to live. And everything went just fine until I asked him, ’Now John, what kind of songs do you want at your funeral?’ I’ll be darned if he didn’t break down and start crying. He said ‘Ma, you tell him. He’s getting to me,’ and then he went out in the yard to compose himself. But you know I had a terrible time making the sale after that!”
The memory shakes Borgmier up for just a minute, and then the good-humored grin returns. He’s getting to the Five Buying Motives, and once more, he tells Agnes to be sure to write them down. “There’s love, pride, fear, need, and profit, and we cover all five,” he says. “We use the profit motive only once. We tell them of the fifty percent savings and we mention appreciation. But love, pride, fear, and need — we probably hit them five or six times.”
Fear is the strongest, he tells her with certainty, fear of leaving a spouse behind to shoulder the pain of making death arrangements, or fear of being the one left behind. Women are most susceptible to the latter, he informs her. “We men are probably the most damnable stubborn people about this time of life! But woman, the way she was created of something, she realizes that death is inevitable. And she realizes that it probably will befall her husband first. So when I’m making a presentation to a family. I’m really watching her." Need, pride, and love follow closely behind, Borgmier says, with Spanish-speaking people most responsive to appeals to pride. “They always want the best, even if they only live in just two rooms. Your people, black people, are like that too, Agnes, but they’re not quite as proud as the Spanish-speaking.”
When the lesson is over, Borgmier relaxes in his spacious office, puffing on one filter-tipped cigarette after another. After so many years in the business, the generalizations float out of him as easily as the smoke. He figures the average pre-need customer is about fifty-two years old, and the worst age group, surprisingly, is the very old. “When they get to be eighty or ninety, they begin to get the inward feeling that they’re going to make it another thirty years,” he says, chuckling. “They know the statistics are kind of against them, but they figure they’ve made it that far. Hell, they laugh at you!”.
Young people don’t make good prospects, he says, “and I can understand that. If someone had come to me thirty years ago and tried to sell me cemetery property. I’d have thought they were crazy.” Similarly, Borgmier says, the rich make for tough customers since “they don’t worry about money. Their lawyers can take care of things ... so you can only sell them on pride.” He says nurses are the best customers (“They really want to help people’’), while doctors and lawyers give him the shudders. “The doctors see death all the time and they kind of steel themselves to it. With the lawyers, it’s that cunning mind; they think they can outsmart death!”
Still, Borgmier cautions that you can’t always predict how people will react, and out in the quiet Clairemont street, Tom Holman shakes his head in agreement. Holman is the sales manager for El Camino and he’s also one of the firm’s top salesmen. Today he’s sharing some of his street wisdom with a new trainee. “People still surprise me,” he says as he walks from one neatly tended doorway to the next. “Just when you think you’ve got them figured out, they’ll prove you wrong.”
Holman is a bearded, bear-like man with a growly, booming voice, but his sales style is Early Puppy. He bombards each prospect with the irrepressible cheeriness of a cruise ship director. After he bounds up to each door and rings the bell or knocks, he backs away about ten feet (“I do this to avoid threatening them,” he whispers to the trainee), and when a face finally emerges’, he cries out, “Hello there, how are you doing?” Then he introduces himself, and, eyes wide, asks if he can ask a friendly question. Everyone says yes, but the salesman bellows, “You’re so kind!” to each affirmative response. The barrage of enthusiasm works; it seems to soften them up, and when Holman asks, “You don’t own any cemetery property, do you?” all the people answer him pleasantly. But still the sales manager has misjudged the street; the income level is lower than he'd expected, and more than half the people living on it already own cemetery property.
Between responses, Holman explains his techniques to the admiring trainee, a quiet woman who’s grown tired of working as an accountant. “I phrase the question negatively because if you say, ‘Do you own cemetery property?’ it’s too easy for them to say yes just to get rid of you,” Holman says. The woman expresses amazement at how much better Holman's boisterous technique succeeds than her own restrained approach.
Occasionally, he hits a homeowner who doesn’t yet own cemetery property and he offers to send around a counselor with an El Camino record book (‘‘To keep track of the vital information you might need if there ever is a death in the family. We do this as a service”), yet no one is interested. At one house a dried-up, graying woman seems ready to shut the door, but then she turns around and yells, ‘‘Dave, are you interested?”
“Interested in what?” her husband snaps back.
“Oh, some guy here is selling plots.” “No, I’m not interested,” the man’s voice floats back. “I intend to be disintegrated and blown into space.”
Holman guffaws. “See, you just can’t predict what they’re going to come up with,” he repeats as he walks on to the next house.
Here, a man in his twenties admits that he doesn’t own any cemetery property, but when the salesman mentions the record book, the young man mutters that he belongs to “that Tele-thing, you know?”
“Telophase?” Holman asks politely.
“Yeah, that’s it,” the homeowner responds. Holman walks away, but he doesn’t believe the guy for an instant; the excuse is a familiar one. The brush-off reminds him of a poem, however, which a fellow salesman made up; with a smirk he recites it to the trainee. “Roses are red, violets are blue. We’ll shake and bake you for $252.’’ The two stifle their giggles as they approach the next door.
Mention of cremation provokes an even more dramatic response from Borgmier. Greenwood’s sales manager says his people will sell any death arrangement that a customer wants — “if they let us give ’em an explanation first.” And Borgmier’s explanation reflects the missionary fervor more than ever. “Anything cheap you’re going to get cheap!” he declares. He says people don't understand that the funeral ritual allows both the conscious and the subconscious to acknowledge the reality of death. ‘‘They think it’s a lot of hogwash ... but it doesn’t hurt the person that’s gone, to the best of our knowledge.
“Funerals were not devised by funeral homes and mortuaries,” he continues. “They were devised by churches and society. And when folks ignore this, it’s just like when they ignore marriage, and you have all these people living together ... it tends to destroy a country’s moral fiber. I tell you the way a country buries its dead tells you a lot about the moral fiber of the country. A country that throws its dead in the ocean is in terrible condition!”
Across town, Jay Musselman at El Camino remains calm when the topic of cremation comes up, but his charismatic eyes grow icy. He even blames the funeral industry for some of the current popularity of cremation. He argues that the industry overreacted when organizations like the Telophase Society sprung up to fill a legitimate demand, and the public in turn began turning to cremation as a backlash against the funeral people. ‘‘I believe there’s a substantial segment of the public which is just overreacting. They’re choosing cremation for the wrong reasons,”
Musselman says. “It’s lack of consideration or lack of thought. People spend less time planning their funerals than they spend planning their vacations.”
Musselman looks like a pudgy Jack Lemmon. Like Borgmier, he chain-smokes, and silver threads have begun to streak his mustache and thick black head of hair. A former IBM salesman, Musselman turned to the pre-need business when the restraints of working for a corporate giant got on his nerves. Profanity peppers his words, which stream out of him like commercials out of a television set.
“Here’s one example: one day we find a little old man sitting out in his car, crying. I send out one of my people to find out what’s wrong, and it turns out that the little old man had his wife cremated exactly one year ago. He doesn’t know where else to go — so he comes here and sits in his car. . . . You see, had the little old man given prior consideration to the emotional impact of the decision, he might have thought a little differently.
“We’re so goddamned sophisticated,” Musselman muses, dragging on a cigarette. “You know the Mexicans and Negroes have no problems with death. They let it all hang out. They have a beer bust and everyone cries, and then — phhhht — they go back to the living.” Is cremation right for anyone, then? “It is right for the person who takes into consideration the feelings of all the survivors,” Musselman fires back without hesitation.
Musselman has mapped out the art of selling death like a general planning a battle, and he says his salesmen fight the hardest battle when they return to prospects’ homes with their record books and pitches. He says if they can cross the thresholds then, everything else comes easily: giving the presentation, even getting the buyers to contemplate the details of their own demise. “Sometimes they even really get into it at that point. I know of one woman who even rolled around on her bed to find out which position she'd be most comfortable in in her coffin. But that was kind of an extreme example.”
Musselman doesn’t like to discuss the economics of his business, although when pressed, he says the average pre-need couple spends about $1100 on the property and $2500 for mortuary services. Like Borgmier, he says he doesn’t like to emphasize the price savings, since it constitutes the weakest motive for buying. The pre-need customer doesn’t save that much money, he says, and if he considers his funeral trust only as a monetary investment, he may be tempted to pull his money out and spend it on some flashier money-maker.
Instead, Musselman pushes the pre-need concept as a form of “grief therapy,” one which he says has been overlooked despite all the Death Preparation consciousness. “Look, take the example where you have a young couple; they’ve never thought about funerals. But one day he gets wracked out on the freeway and she has to come here all alone. She stumbles around; she doesn’t know what she’s doing. And in the future, when she thinks back on it she has the worst possible memory of the experience. Now compare that with the experience when a salesman comes to the home. The guy doesn’t want to spend the money. He’s saved up all this time for a motorcycle, but she bugs him about it and finally he agrees. And that night she's so happy that she jumps in the sack with him and it’s the best time ever. What kind of a memory do you have then? The best possible kind!
“The mutuality of the decision helps prevent some of the hang-ups. It prevents worse memories: ‘Okay, he’s dead. At least I can deal with the fact that he’s dead. But that son of a bitch at the mortuary didn’t have to sell me this expensive casket.’ ’’ Musselman looks reflective. “Yet all the grief seminars and everything, they’re all after the fact. We’re myopic. Actually, I think we’re a bunch of assholes.”
But if the pre-need salesman plays on his customer’s emotions — if he draws upon fear to induce them to buy — does the customer really benefit after all? The decision is still an emotional one, so does it matter when the survivors actually make it? Musselman smiles, and for an instant he looks like a barracuda.
“You bet it’s an emotional decision. I wouldn't want to argue that for a minute. But you tell me how much emotion you’re going to feel when you see the person you love stretched out on the table!” he spits out the words. “And you’re going to tell me that’s the same thing as making the decision when everyone’s whole and happy. That’s bullshit. I can’t believe these people who come down on us for the high cost of dying; then we go out and try to make the decision making more rational and they say we’re playing on people’s emotions. You try and tell me that you can compare the two kinds of emotion!”