Juneau's only mortician makes every death dignified

Posted: Friday, April 25, 2003

JUNEAU (AP) A little dab of pink for the cheeks, a quick flip of a small black wand to lift the lashes amid the lingering scent of embalming fluid, and a cadaver is ready for its final picture.''

Some might say it's creepy, but Bill Wilkerson, funeral director for the Alaskan Memorial Park and Crematory, says at least he knows none of his subjects can hurt him or complain.

Wilkerson, 65, runs the only funeral home in Juneau. He cares for the bodies of souls recently departed throughout Southeast and considers it his contribution to the community.

Wilkerson saw his first dead body when he was 16 years old. He was working as an emergency medical technician and driving ambulances in Tillamook, Ore. The ambulance service was housed in the same building as the local funeral home.

You know as an EMT, you deal with death all the time, it's just part of the job,'' said Wilkerson. My first may have been a traffic accident; 'course in those days we also had a lot of logging accidents. It didn't bother me in any way to alter my life, I guess. Death was just another step. You kind of get used to it.''

Other people didn't always feel the same way.

I remember coming home and sitting at the dinner table, and everyone was talking about their day and I told them I had seen a body,'' he said. My job didn't make for very good dinner conversation. But no one in my family ever really thought it was strange.''

Wilkerson eventually spent more time working in the funeral home than on the ambulance. But he wouldn't fulfill his career goal for another few years.

My parents wanted me to be an optometrist,'' he said. After my first year at Pacific University in Oregon, I knew that was a mistake, so I went back home and back to the funeral home.''

He never looked back at optometry. He earned his degree in mortuary sciences at the San Francisco School of Mortuary Sciences. He began working as a licensed mortician in 1960.

In 1994, Wilkerson and his wife, Charlotte, moved from North Dakota to Juneau.

It's a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a week job,'' Wilkerson said. Proportionately, the same amount of people die at 2 a.m. as 10 a.m. You have to be ready to go for that call in the middle of the night.''

Charlotte Wilkerson said she respects what her husband does for a living.

He is very sensitive,'' she said. I never really thought he was strange for what he did for a living. It is an unusual profession, but he is very good at it and I tend to judge a person by who they are and not what they do.''

It's inevitable that Wilkerson will have business, but he said every day is something different.

No two funerals are alike,'' he said. Every family has different needs. As long as it's legal, I'll do it, within reason.

Some people want to be buried in their backyards. That's not feasible. ... Some people want to be buried with their pets. I'm not in the pet extermination business. I realize that's a big blow to pet enthusiasts.''

Wilkerson said his job begins with picking up a body and taking it to the mortuary in the Mendenhall Valley. The body is taken to a sterile, white, fluorescent-lit room and placed on a metal table. Here, Wilkerson and his assistant drain the body's blood and replace it with any number of brightly colored embalming chemicals.

There's a certain amount of dehydration that happens when a person dies, and blood will pool and coagulate in the extremities and can give the nails a bluish color,'' Wilkerson said. The embalming fluid will flush out the capillaries and give the body a more natural look.''

Wilkerson, or his assistant, then dress the body and apply makeup if that's what the family has requested.

Once the body is ready, Wilkerson will help the family make the final arrangements, including picking out a casket.

Some people go for the solid bronze 'Cadillac' of caskets, while others go more simple,'' he said. The funerals are for the family, really. They look at it as the final picture of their loved one. Depending on how the family sees the deceased, that generally determines what they're buried in.''

During the funeral process, Wilkerson said that the funeral director acts as a calming influence when emotions are running high and decisions are difficult.

You're supposed to be strong,'' he said. You're no good to the family if you get emotional. They need someone who is clear-thinking, and sometimes you have to interpret what they would like because they aren't able to tell you.''

But for even the most stoic of morticians, there are exceptions, Wilkerson said.

Infant deaths are hard,'' he said. and friend's funerals.

I directed both of my parents' funerals. It was very difficult, but I wouldn't have let anybody else do it.''

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