A Funeral Director in NYC: talented and bewildered

Yuhong Pang
Jan 8, 2018 · 6 min read
Photo courtesy to RubberBall Prod. Getty Images

Terry Watson throws his professional black cosmetic box in the trunk and drives his Cadillac to Saint Paul Church in Brooklyn. An old black woman is there, waiting for him.

He is greeted at the door by Carnelia Alston, a funeral director, who leads him to a back room. There, dressed in a white, frilly gown, is an 87-year-old woman. She lays in repose in a light wooden coffin. Her funeral will be the following day and Watson has been summoned to make her look her best.

He carefully combs her grey hair, splits it into several strands and curls it with an iron roller, each curl laying on top of another. Watson looks at her photo and decides to give her what he calls “old lady makeup” — the simplest one he has designed for the deceased who usually wore no makeup at all. He chooses it over “Runway makeup,” “Office makeup,” and “Daytime makeup.”

He first shapes her eyebrows, painting them with a black pencil and brushing off the excess with a cotton stick. Then he applies some foundation on her face, concealing a scar on the forehead with brown tint. His new iPhone 10 suddenly rings as Watson is applying a little lightener under her eyes. A strange number from Memphis comes up.

Watson is doing the makeup for the deceased.

“Why do strange people call me now?” He quickly flips his phone upside down, looking annoyed.

Half an hour later, Alston returns.

“Do you like it?” Watson asks.

“Oh, she looks nice,” Alston replies. “Your work is always beautiful.”

That is Terry Watson’s gift. He takes pleasure in hearing people talk about how the deceased he has worked on look so much like themselves at their funerals. The compliments and appreciation from his colleagues and family have offered him some satisfaction in his 18 years professional life in the funeral business. But Watson knows, deep down in his heart, this is not enough.

Terry Watson wants more. He wants his own funeral parlor. Four years ago, he embarked on a five-year plan to launch his own business. He is 51 years old now and time is running out.

Watson used to deliver mail for the U.S. Postal Service. He had dropped out of college after his first semester. Back then, he was studying computer science and hoping to catch up with the cutting-edge technology, he says. But he soon realized that was beyond his capability after he failed the mandatory courses in the first year. Two years later, Watson got married and had two sons. Still, even with a secure government job, he was restless.

As it happened, he had vivid, painful memories of his own grandmother’s funeral. Watson had spent most his childhood summers with her. “We were really close,” he recalls, his eyes moist. He was 14 when the family was summoned to North Carolina where his grandmother had been hospitalized. She died three days later.

But then, at the funeral home, Watson couldn’t believe his eyes when he finally saw his grandma lying in the casket.

“What did they do?” he recalls thinking. “She doesn’t look like herself. She looks horrible!” He angrily confronted the funeral director, who explained that that was the best he could do. Watson would never forget it.

In 1999, he decided to pursue a career in funeral business. He switched to an overnight shift at the post office and started studying mortuary science during the day in Manhattan and did his residency in New Jersey after class.

“Sometimes, he gave me a heavy textbook and let me ask him the definitions of certain terms and diagrams,” recalls his son David.

New York State has strict rules for funeral directors: a national exam, a two-year residency and a final state test. To prepare for the exam, Watson left the postal service and fully immersed himself in learning about and working around the deceased. “I lost lots of sleep and kind of ruined my relationship,” he says. “But I really wanted it.”

After graduating from the American Academy McAllister Institute, Watson worked first at New Jersey funeral home before being hired by the Frank R. Bell Funeral Home in Brooklyn. He saw his job as a stepping-stone to his dream. He worked at every position in the funeral business and took particular pride in his skill at embalming. He characterizes his work there as “work in the back.” Unseen, but essential.

He believed in seeing each body he worked on as an individual case, and so used different products and methods. “I don’t want any family to feel the way I felt when I saw my grandmother,” he says.

Watson’s tool box for the restorative art.

The tools he used to beautify the deceased were quite similar to those used in plastic surgery: a heating iron erases the wrinkles; injections reshape the mouth; eye caps keep eyes open; and cotton helps to reconstruct facial features for those who have died in car accidents.

“He treats it like an art more than just something to make people happy before the burial,” David Watson says of his father, adding he grew up seeing how serious his father was in the restorative art and hearing praise from the families he served.

Watson says he started to get more and more calls from the families he had served before, but was not allowed to freelance at other funeral homes.

“People want me to do their funerals because I’m good,” he says. “Why can’t I do that part time?” He wanted more than repetitive work and a fixed salary of $80,000 a year. So, after a falling out with his employer, he left Frank R. Bell, where he had worked for ten years, to strike out on his own as an independent funeral director. Back then, he was confident he would launch his own business in the near future.

Four years passed. He was still freelancing. He had concluded that to open his own business he would need at least $500,000. He did not have it. Instead, he continued taking calls from various funeral homes to assist with all aspects of funerals — transporting the body, embalming, arranging the ceremony. His income varied with the work — he earned just $50 for his work that day at St. Paul’s. It was less than he had expected.

Driving home that day from the church, he stopped at a crosswalk near a men’s homeless shelter. Two men were panhandling among cars stopped at red lights. Watson waved them away. “Maybe they make more money than I do,” he said.

Time has passed faster than Watson expected. “If I can’t be stable in five years, I will go to find a regular job,” he told himself when he left the security of the funeral home.

Even though his son David has always looked up to his father as an entrepreneur and has faith in him, Terry Watson is losing confidence.

He has started to search for different kinds of jobs online. He has even filled out five applications to be a flight attendant — three times at American Airlines, and one each at Delta and United Airlines. All rejected him.

He had thought he would make a good flight attendant, given his experience in customer service. But he quickly saw the difference in a video test when he was asked: “If a customer is agitated on the flight because his carry-on is far away from them, how would you handle it?”

Watson’s instinct told him to reassure the customer that he would move his bag closer, just as he had done over the past 18 years, catering to his clients’ requirements no matter what. However, he learned, that doesn’t apply to airlines. A flight attendant friend later told him that he was not supposed to promise customers anything because he needs to take care of all passengers instead of only one.

Watson is still looking for new jobs. Though he finds that funeral work represents his experience and talent, he admits that he is tired of handling the deceased.

“I have been trying to get to that point since 1999 and it is 2017 now,” he says with a resigned sigh. “I don’t see it unless a miracle happens.”

Yuhong Pang

Written by

Columbia Journalism School 18'; reporter; visual storyteller; city flaneur

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