No ordinary tale: Addendum to funeral homes story

February 6, 2021 — by Selina Chen
Photo by Selina Chen

A variety of coffin designs are mounted on the wall in the casket showroom at Alameda Funeral & Cremation Services.

Finding sources for a story on local businesses was the simple matter of opening up Google Maps and looking at every business within the city boundaries of Saratoga. The first establishment that caught my eyes? Alameda Family Funeral & Cremation.

I’d like to think of my interest as purely journalistic: surely readers would wonder how COVID-19 affected — and possibly boosted — the funeral services business. But I must admit that another part of my fascination was personal curiosity: Somehow I have reached this point in life and never attended a funeral, nor do I know much about how they are conducted.

So, I found myself armed with my notepad, pen, cell phone and camera outside the funeral home.

The empty lobby was a welcoming space with a small fireplace and numerous portraits that line the walls. I took a few tentative steps forward and was greeted by an amiable old man (Mr. Rubino, I learned, a facility manager and funeral counselor) who happily accepted my request for an interview. From there, I recited the steps I now know by heart: social niceties, requesting permission to record, interviewing, social niceties and more social niceties. Bingo, mission accomplished.

And yet, my curiosity got the better of me and I gave up trying to justify my actions with reporting. I asked for a tour, and Mr. Rubino readily agreed.

I was led through two solemn chapels and a small casket showroom that displays fine coffins with intricate designs. I was a bit dazed by the somewhat surreal contrast of dark caskets against impeccably white walls and pale fluorescent lighting, until Mr. Rubino’s voice cut into my contemplations, “Just a heads up, the next room has a body in it. Is that okay with you?”

I later organized the jumbled responses in my brain into three categories: 1) The only time I’ve seen corpses was in Nepal when they were burning bodies by a river, but it was a fair distance away and there was too much smoke to discern any details. 2) I hide behind pillows during gory scenes in movies and am freaked out by the roadside dead animals. 3) No, no, NO, this is NOT okay.

But my mouth decided to respond with a crisp “Yeah, there’s a first time for everything.”

So, with trepidation, I watched as Mr. Robino tapped a few numbers into the electronic lock and pushed open the heavy metal door of the crematory.

First reaction: the overwhelming smell of chemicals (formaldehyde?) reminded me of the unpleasant (understatement?) pig dissections in 9th grade Biology, for which I had forgone lunch in fear of throwing up. Second reaction: oh, there really really really is a body in the center of the room.

I shall spare you the detailed description of the deceased lady’s dry and hollow face, so I’ll just say that I saw a corpse in an open casket.

My eyes were glued onto the aforementioned corpse, and I barely paid attention to Mr. Robino as he spoke about statistics and procedures of cremation.

In a stupor, I faintly registered that Mr. Robino had closed the door between us and the crematory, and was leading me out of the funeral home. I ran on autopilot and exchanged the final social niceties before stepping back out into the sunny world.

I blinked. A typical Friday afternoon for a high school reporter, indeed — and one I won’t soon forget.

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