THE REAL 'BERNIE'
January 23, 2015
By Audrey Fraizer
Todd Van Beck began his mortuary career in a funeral home that combined transporting both the living and the deceased.
Driving an ambulance came with the mortician’s job, Van Beck explained. Funeral homes took on the dual role and for very good reason—they were equipped with a vehicle of the right size.
“There were no minivans or SUVs,” Van Beck said. “The funeral home had a vehicle that could fit a body laying down. We also knew anatomy, and the phone was answered 24/7.”
So what if the funeral home-operated ambulance service had little to do with training, certification, or essential medical supply? State of the art in those days meant Van Beck was behind the wheel of a 1959 Miller-Meteor, converted station wagons, or a dual-function 1960 Oldsmobile (coach and ambulance) and “some nifty” Cadillacs.
“That time provided some of the most exciting moments in my life,” Van Beck said, who was in his 20s then.
Most of the vehicles that Van Beck commandeered in Nebraska, Iowa, and, finally, Massachusetts, featured all the bells and whistles—emergency lights-and-siren, flashy exterior, and “really, really loud noise.”
There were no pagers, no beepers, no answering services, and no voicemail. The funeral home received calls directly from the ailing patient or a member of law enforcement making a call from the station after word of a medical emergency came in on their radio. The single connection was the landline at the funeral home that personnel attended 24/7.
Medical supplies and training were minimal. The ambulance arrived carrying a couple of towels, some elastic bandages and 4-inch-by-4-inch gauze pads, a stretcher, some Timmons splints, and a not-always-full oxygen tank. A plastic vomiting basin was available for nauseated patients.
Training was on the job, and few had Van Beck’s basic first-aid knowledge. He said it wasn’t about medical care they could or could not provide.
The “load and go” funeral home operation was fast and efficient, and more so than many of the other methods of transport available, such as tow trucks that could haul the car and, unfortunately sometimes, the patient following an impact on the road.
“They tended to be slow,” Van Beck said.
Despite the exhilaration that came with the job, providing mortuary ambulance services and emergency transport also had its share of stress. Long hours were mandatory. Many ambulance calls came in after midnight, despite ailments the patient later said started earlier in the day.
Because funeral homes were the number called in a medical emergency, funeral home drivers were often buried in the thick of some of the most stressful events in their communities.
No money was made at the low rates charged and, even at that, patrons could be reluctant to pay. The money they did collect had to cover supplies, maintenance, staff, and laundry. Sheets were washed after each trip. Most funeral home directors looked to the benefits of advertising and the increased visibility and improved public image their business’ name on a funeral home car speeding to assist the living provided.
Van Beck is quick to point out the good side of what today may seem like an odd practice. He doesn’t dwell on the job’s complications or life tragedies, preferring the memories of human connection established in the unusual circumstances and, at times, comical manner in which things sometimes turned out.
For example, a funeral home in Nebraska where Van Beck worked also offered free delivery home from the hospital for mom and newborn.
“We’d turn on lights-and-siren two blocks from the home to announce the baby’s arrival,” Van Beck said. “That’s an interesting courtesy you don’t see anymore.”
Then there was the unexpected, like the time Van Beck said he “startled the bejesus” out of an unintended audience sheltering from a sudden downpour in the alcove of the hospital emergency drop-off.
“We were transporting this tiny, sweet woman named May from Don Orione Nursing Home in East Boston to Massachusetts General Hospital,” he said. “We liked May a lot.”
Van Beck had made the same trip several times and each time assured May that she was receiving his closest attention. Upon arrival at the hospital this particular time, heavy rains gave him an occasion to prove his word. He gently pulled the hospital blanket over her head before attempting a mad dash through a “cats and dogs” downpour into the hospital. May, lying prone on the gurney, was fine with that. She dozed off. The rain really started coming down even harder, prompting a decision to hold up in the vehicle, all while keeping May’s head covered.
That was not such a good idea, Van Beck admitted.
The rain kept pouring, giving every opportunity for those leaving the hospital to notice the body while waiting out the storm under the alcove.
“It soon became evident that everybody thought we had a corpse under the blanket, because no one was saying a word,” Van Beck said. “Everyone was somber and reverent like people tend to be in the presence of someone who has died.”
The hard rain stretched into minutes. People glanced and looked away. May stayed under the cover, at least until the blanket over her face threatened to meet the audience’s foregone conclusion.
“I think I am going to suffocate,” May said in a voice loud enough to be heard through the rain.
One of the bystanders—a woman—dropped the vase she was holding, scattering flowers and glass on the wet ground. The looks on the faces of others were enough to convince Van Beck it was time to go.
“We got the hell out of there,” Van Beck said. “It must have been a bumpy ride for May.”
Ambulance transit changed according to the times, with funeral homes relinquishing the service to fire departments, rescue squads, and private ambulance companies. While rules governing the safe operation of business vehicles on federal and state highways/roads/routes and the Fair Labor Standards Act bore the brunt of the service’s demise, the threat of litigation was the final nail in the coffin.
“We could lose a funeral home over a $15 ambulance call,” Van Beck said. “Someone could say we broke their back in transport and sue us. Truly, the ambulance service became too great of a burden for us.”
Van Beck held out until 1982 and is one of a handful of morticians who recall and is willing to share what the experience was like. People from later generations tend to poke fun at the service that once was, suggesting ulterior or ghoulish motives.
“It doesn’t make sense to a lot of people,” Van Beck said. “Yet, when we stopped providing the service, communities felt the loss. A former $15 to $20 ride was now costing far more.”
Van Beck stayed in the mortuary business and currently operates Forest Hill Funeral Home and Memorial Park in Memphis, Tenn. He looks back fondly upon the ambulance transport days of his profession, although also admitting the relief the end of the dual role produced.
“It was also an opportunity for a young man to see the raw side of life and realities of the human condition, with a few good stories to tell,” he said.
Van Beck’s blog is available at www.iccfa.com/blogs/todd-van-beck.