StoryCorps 516: Married to the Mortician
Michael Garafalo (MG): For one night at the end of October, we celebrate the things that scare us, that gross us out, that make our skin crawl. I’m talking of course about Halloween. And for most of us, that one night is enough.
But for the people we’ll hear from in this episode, the stuff of other people’s nightmares is just everyday business.
Lynne Houston (LH): You were coming toward me with blood on your hands going, “It’s okay. It’s okay.” [laughs] So I dropped the food and ran out of there.
Don Burke: It grew very quickly from one rat to 72.
Dawn Burke: Someone who came in the other day said it’s like the Taj Mahal for rats – they have lots of space.
MG: Plus, a classic Halloween story from our archive.
Juliet Jegasothy (JJ): I said there is something happening there are some crooks or somebody trying to frighten me at the door. He said, ”Don’t open the door, don’t do anything, don’t make any noise, be quiet.”
MG: It’s the StoryCorps podcast from NPR. I’m Michael Garofalo. Stay with us, if you dare.
MG: Welcome back. Halloween’s coming up, so we pulled together some stories about people who do things that sound, well, to be perfectly honest, a little creepy. But for them, it’s totally normal.
You know, StoryCorps conversations often touch on love, death, or work but the couple in this interview covered all that just when they were talking about their first date.
Their names are Lynne and Greg Houston and they met 25 years ago. Lynne was working at a restaurant in Buffalo, New York. Greg was a mortician at the funeral home across the street.
LH: You placed an order over the phone and said, “Can you deliver some lunch to the funeral home?” The door was unlocked, so I came in with meatballs marinara, and you were doing some kind of autopsy or something. And I remember I just stood there staring at you in your white gown with blood all over it.
GH: When you walked in I didn’t think anything of it.
LH: You were coming toward me with blood on your hands going, “It’s okay. It’s okay.” [laughs] So I dropped the food and ran out of there.
LH: But later on you asked me out to dinner. And, back then, every day you were on call.
GH: And then we got a call.
LH: We were at the restaurant. I was like, “I’ll wait here. I don’t want to go pick up a body.” And you said it was nothing to worry about. I remember bringing the gurney in and you put it in the back of the van. We were driving and you stopped at the red light real quick. And then that gurney, and whoever was on there, rolled right up between us. Who feels like eating after that?
LH: Oh my God.
GH: Well, he wasn’t going to dinner with us. I wanted to see if you would hang in there because that was my lifestyle. And if it would freak you out, then there was no reason to go any further.
LH: But that was the second date…
GH: Yeah… Like a Band-Aid, right off…
LH: [Laughs] At that time a lot of women would have run for the hills. But I remember you said, “Hey, you want to go up to Long Island for a weekend?” But you didn’t say that we were going to go to a military funeral. You came to pick me up in a hearse and you said, “We just got to go drop off the colonel, then we’ll have the whole weekend.”
And when we did finally get to this cemetery, those gates opened, and you knew everything. You knew what to do and what to say to them and all of a sudden, I see you in a whole different way.
To me, that was my weekend because after that it was like, How is he going to top this?
GH: They’re all special. That’s why I like doing an average person because that person’s not average to that family. And that’s why it’s so important when you make arrangements to listen — you got two ears and one mouth, use them in proportion. Get them talking, so they’ll find that, Okay, I know I can live on.
MG: Funeral Director Greg Houston and his wife, Lynne, at StoryCorps in McLeansville, North Carolina.
I’m joined now by Danielle Roth, one of our interns here at StoryCorps. And she’s the person who invited Greg and Lynne to record their interview. Hi Danielle.
Danielle Roth (DR): Hi Michael.
MG: So, how did you end up finding these guys?
DR: A friend told me about a dating website for people in the funeral business. It’s called Dead Meet dot com. This made me curious, and after some research I came across Lynne’s blog: Life as a Mortician’s Wife dot com. And on her blog, she actually refers to Greg as “Morty.”
MG: So, we heard in the clip what it’s like dating a mortician but being married to a mortician, does it still get sort of mixed up with their domestic life?
DR: You mean like at home? Yeah, a lot actually. Lynne told a story about making a pretty startling discovery in Greg’s drawer one day.
LH: I was putting some clothes away or something, and I open up a box and there was an ear in there, and I was like, Oh my god. What is that?
GH: you make these in case of an accident. They’re all wax.
LH: I mean, it looked real.
GH: I had my father’s eyes, with the glass eyes.
LH: Oh gosh. Fingers.
GH: fingers, and heads, yeah
DR: Like he says, these body parts are a part of his craft. You know, he tries to make people look like themselves for their funeral service, and he takes it very, very seriously. Lynne really got to see that first hand after her sister died in a terrible car accident… and Greg helped diffuse a family crisis.
LH: Her daughter wanted to see her. She did not believe that she had died. But I had know what happened to her in that accident. I was like, there’s no way we are able to do an open casket. And I remember you called me in and said, “You’re going to have to see her, Lynne, so you can see if Tammy, her daughter, can see her.” And when I walked in there I was like in shock. You made her look like my sister. I came out, and I said, “OK, Tammy, Let’s go.”
MG: So, Greg and Lynne got married on All Souls Day, which is two days after Halloween. It’s the day when Catholics remember their dead. It’s also the Day of the Dead in Mexico. How did they choose that date?
DR: Well, it wasn’t intentional. The priest marrying them chose the date, And it took them a little while to figure out the significance.
LH: We weren’t even thinking about what that date was.
GH: No, [the Father] picked that date.
LH: But he knew when we said November 2, you and I didn’t.
GH: No, exactly.
LH: And so then we started getting these little gifts in the mail with little skeletons and hot sauce they were bringing in with a little skeleton hanging from it. I was like why are these people sending this to us? So I did a little research and I went oh no, no no no, we are getting married on the Day of the Dead. [laughs]
MG: Danielle thanks so much for bringing them to StoryCorps and for joining us here.
DR: Of course. Thank you.
MG: Next we’ll hear from another couple, and this husband and wife have dedicated themselves to an animal that is even more despised than journalists and politicians. Rats.
MG: Dawn and Don Burke LOVE rats. So much so, that they turned their Idaho home into a rat sanctuary. Here’s how they got started.
Dawn: I always thought of rats as filthy, disease-carrying animals. But, this neighbor of mine had pet rats. They were just so soft and cuddly. And years later, I stopped by a pet shop on a whim, so that was how I got Druscilla. I brought her in, and you just said, ”Ok, I’ll put the cage together.” [Laughter]
Don: And then eventually we brought home Asha and Berka.
Dawn: And Annie, Mattie and Lex.
Don: It grew very quickly from one rat to 72.
Dawn: I have to brag that we were the very first rat sanctuary in the United States to have our 501(c)(3) status. We have all the cages on tables, and we leave them open. Someone who came in the other day said it’s like the Taj Mahal for rats–they have lots of space. We like to have it that way because we’re trying to make up for how people mistreat them and raise them as snake food and just throw them away.
Don: So why don’t you talk about Annie?
Dawn: People call it their heart rat – that one rat that they never forget. And Annie would run to the door when she heard the doorbell to greet everybody. Everybody loved her so much.
Don: Remember she was your own private teeth cleaner?
Dawn: Yes. [Laughs] People call them Rodentists. And Annie was really gentle, and she would get back to my molars, you know, and pick food out. [Laughter] I just adored her.
Don: Sometimes people don’t realize just what rats can become. They can be a real pet.
Dawn: The other night I was giving Bartholomew his medicine, and I felt something cross my feet. And Domino had gotten off the table, and he came looking for me.
Don: That was the most surprising thing to me is that they don’t just scurry on the floor like you’ve seen rats do. It’s like when they’re really happy they hop like bunnies.
Dawn: And that’s one of the things we’re trying to teach people is that they have a heart.
And I want to thank you for doing The Rat Retreat with me. I know it’s cost us a lot of money and put us in the hole financially having 72 rats at one time. But, I’m just really grateful to have you as a partner to do this with me.
Don: And the feeling is mutual.
Dawn: Bernadette and Barney.
Dawn: Jack Frost and his pink eyes.
Dawn: George, Vanessa and Savannah.
MG: Dawn and Don Burke, who run the Rat Retreat in Boise, Idaho. You can see photos of their rats on their Facebook page. Just search @RatRetreat.
We’re going to wrap up with a story that is one of my personal favorites. It was recorded back in 2006, in New York. And it comes from a woman who is originally from Sri Lanka… her name is Juliet Jegasothy.
Juliet Jegasothy (JJ): We came to America in 1969, we were just newly married and we came to Brooklyn, New York and I was so terrified to even open the door because I had heard all these horror stories about crooks and gangsters and guns in New York. So there was this one evening that Brian was working in the night and I was alone with the baby and the doorbell started ringing and then I go and look through the peephole and it was like a really scary person standing outside. So I didn’t open the door, I told my baby to be quiet and then again the doorbell rings and again. I look through the peephole and I’m like really scared. And the third time it rang there were more than one person and they were all looking really scary and screaming at me through the door. So, I called Brian on the phone and I said there is something happening there are some crooks or somebody trying to frighten me at the door. He said, ”Don’t open the door, don’t do anything, don’t make any noise, be quiet.” So I stayed in the bedroom and this went on and on for almost an hour.
You know all the years I was growing up I was the most, I think, wimpy person. I used to cry for everything. So by now, I’m like sweating and ready to die almost. And then Brian calls around nine o’clock and he says, ”I think, there is something called Halloween going on today and that what has been happening and people are supposed to come and ring the doorbell.” So that was an experience I’ll never forget. And it turns out that my daughter loves Halloween.
MG: Juliet Jegasothy with her friend Sheena Jacob.
That’s all for this episode. These stories were produced by Danielle Roth, Jud Esty-Kendall and me. Find out what music we used in this episode on our website, StoryCorps.org and leave us a review on Apple podcasts or wherever you download our show. Don’t forget we also have a voicemail line where you can call in and leave a message for someone that you hear on the podcast. The number is 301 744 TALK. Until next time, this has been the StoryCorpse podcast. I’m Michael Garofalo. Thanks for listening.