The Mortician’s Daughter
A girl’s bedroom with Pepto-Bismol pink walls rests above a cold embalming room where numerous bodies are stored during the winter months. Rose Kelleher, the daughter of mortician and funeral director, Jim Kelleher, has lived in a funeral home since she was three years old.
Smith-Kelleher Funeral Home in Greenfield, Massachusetts has been a family business since its doors opened in 1946. Originated in Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts, Daniel Kelleher and Pamela Smith Kelleher raised their five sons above the funeral home. “My great-grandparents started the business back in the 1940s. That’s where the ‘Smith’ part of the name comes from. My nana grew up in the funeral home and still lives there now. She wanted to be in the business,” said Rose. “When my grandfather got sick, my nana needed more help around the home and asked my dad, who is the second oldest of five boys, to help.”
Rose’s father, Tim, decided to take on the responsibility of working in the family business despite his disinterest in funeral services. “He had actually gone to college for tree logging. He wanted to be a tree logger,” said Rose. “So she asked him for help and made him go back to school for two years to get his mortician license. Since then, that has always been his job. He never had a job as a tree logger so he’s stuck with it now. Then we moved to Greenfield and built the second Smith-Kelleher funeral home.” The second Smith-Kelleher Funeral Home opened in 1998 and houses the Kelleher family and the occasional houseguest.
The large brick building stands on Franklin Street in Greenfield, Massachusetts. Instead of the traditional backyard, the Kelleher residence has a large parking lot out back to accommodate for services. The downstairs is the funeral home and service rooms, where the actual services take place. “In the back hallway there’s the morgue, or the embalming room,” she said. “We also have a family room down there. Our PlayStation is there and my dad’s workout equipment is there,” she said with a chuckle.
Upstairs is where the Kelleher family lives. “The parts that we live in are not that big,” she said. It consists of bedrooms, bathrooms, a kitchen, and living room just like a typical home. “My room is directly above the embalming room. And it’s top secret. Nobody’s allowed in there. There’s actually a notice on the door that says it’s illegal for anybody who’s not a licensed mortician to go in there, so I’ve never been in the embalming room. I really want to go.”
Although she lived in the same home for almost her whole life, Rose did not realize that she was sleeping above some unwanted houseguests. “When people find out that I live in a funeral home there always like ‘oh my god, are there dead people in your basement?’ and I’m always like ‘no, you fucking idiot, there’s only dead people there during the services.’ My dad will spend three days preparing the body. He does everything. He picks up the body, he embalms it, he clothes it, does the hair, makeup, and nails,” she said. “A few weeks ago I had to go to a service with my mom and somebody said something about how there wasn’t a burial because the ground was frozen. And I was so confused and my dad explained that we couldn’t do burial services in the winter. He said that they just stay in the morgue underneath my bedroom. It freaked me the fuck out. That’s really the only time that I’ve been mind blown.” According to Rose, “we’ve had people in our house since October or November. So there’s probably about 20 dead people in my house right now.”
Along with the embalmed bodies during the winter there are more unwanted houseguests year-round. “Our house is definitely haunted,” she said confidently. “There were several times when my dad has heard music from the 1930s and 40s playing up there. He would think it was my brother or I and it we were always sleeping. He eventually realized that it was in the attic and it sounded like a record player was playing up there.” According to Rose, the funeral home used to be an office building before the Kelleher family renovated it and moved in.
However, the worst part about living in a funeral home was not the dead bodies or the ghosts. According to Rose, the Kelleher family gets “ripped off” more often than one would imagine. “It’s a really hard job,” she said. “My family gets ripped off all the time because there’s nothing we can do if a family doesn’t pay the funeral bills. Some people just don’t pay. We hold the service for them because it needs to happen regardless and the person needs to be embalmed and buried. So some people just don’t pay.”
Unfortunately, this isn’t the only downfall of living in a funeral home. According to Rose, Smith-Kelleher Funeral Home has been broken into and robbed many times.
“We’ve had people break into our house, not thinking that it’s a house or people live there. So they would just walk in and use the bathroom or do weird [stuff] like that because they think it’s a business. Which it is, but you can’t just walk in,” she said.
The most bizarre incident happened in the Fall of 2012 when a middle-aged man made an appointment with Tim Kelleher to talk about funeral and burial options. According to Tim, this man was “acting weird and asking strange questions.” The last question the man asked was if there was a cost difference depending on where the dead body gets picked up. Tim explained that there is one flat pick-up fee and it does not matter where the body needs to be picked up.
In February of the same year, the same man showed up to the Kelleher residence, but with different intentions. “It was midnight and I looked out my window before I went to bed. It was snowing out and it looked like a car had crashed into a telephone pole in front of our house. There was a fire truck, and an ambulance, and a police car outside,” said Rose. “It turns out that it was that same guy and he tried to drive into our parking lot, but he couldn’t get in because of the snow. So he parked outside of our bushes and kept the car running and put a plastic bag over his head and duct tapped it around his neck to kill himself. His logic was that my dad would just be able to go outside and pick him up with a stretcher and bring him back in so his family wouldn’t have to pay for the pick up fee.”
According to Rose, it ended up taking more time for the funeral home to receive the body because of the snow. They had to transport him to a hospital about 45 minutes away and it took Tim three hours to get to the hospital, then three hours back with the body. “It was so messed up,” she said.
Although the funeral industry comes with never-ending job security, Rose is not planning on taking over the family business. “ My brother and I are not going into the business and it doesn’t look like any of my cousins are at this point, but my dad’s youngest brother just got married and they are going to have kids so maybe one of them will get the mortician trait,” she said. “Growing up, people would always ask my brother and I if we were going to take over the family business. My dad would always answer for us and say, ‘Nope. No they aren’t.’ So we didn’t even have a choice.”
According to Rose, she has been involved with helping her family around the house when there are services going on. “If my mom and I stand with the doorman, Ron, and talk to him some people will assume we are in the business and they’ll ask us questions,” she said. “Sometimes my dad will need help loading a casket into the hearse, so we’ll have to go and help him pick it up.”
The normalcy of living surrounded by death may make some uneasy, but the Kelleher family has become used to being around the mortality. “It’s so normal to us now,” she said. Rose’s phone lit up at the end of our conversation with a text from her mother. “What are you doing?” it read. Rose replied by saying she was telling me some stories about living in the funeral home. Her mother quickly replied, “It’s just like living anywhere else, isn’t it?”