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A business and an art form

Naomi Havlen
Jordan Curet/The Aspen Times
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In the funeral business, as in life, death is a sure thing.At Farnum-Holt Funeral Home in Glenwood Springs, preparedness for the inevitable comes in the form of prearranged funerals.Owner Trey Holt, who represents his family’s fourth generation in the mortuary business, says whenever a series of obituaries appear in local newspapers, the funeral home experiences a spike in people wishing to prearrange their own end-of-life services. Years ago, Holt even helped a 26-year-old woman prearrange her funeral. Holt asked the woman if she was ill, and when she shook her head, he wondered if she had plans to end her own life.”She said, ‘I just want to take care of it, and if I don’t pay for it now, by the time I die the cost is going to be triple. I’m single, I travel a lot, I hike and kayak, and I’m very active,'” he recalled her saying.”If something happened to her, she didn’t want her parents to pay for it,” he said.Holt said it was an uncommonly considerate gesture. “I wouldn’t do that for my mom,” he laughed.When a funeral is prearranged, prices from that date are locked in – it’s against state law to inflate prices from that point. The woman is still alive, but her family will benefit from 1980s prices when her time does come.The business at Farnum-Holt is death. Prearranging a funeral is just one way of making death a little less burdensome and traumatic for the customer.This is the essence of what Farnum-Holt tries to do every day – take a horrible, inevitable event and make it as respectful and dignified as possible. These are the guys who call the shots at life’s finish line.

Easing people through the death of a loved one is the foremost duty of Farnum-Holt employees, but they do much more. Working for a small, family-owned business means taking care of everything – meeting with families, transporting bodies from the place of death to the funeral home, embalming or cremating remains, overseeing memorial services, selling caskets and urns, filing death certificates and even washing the hearse.Trey Holt is also the Garfield County coroner, assisted by about five deputy coroners, including his two employees at the funeral home. Farnum-Holt provides service for around 360 deaths per year, or about one per day.

And they’re the only local provider of mortuary services. The nearest similar establishment, the Rifle Funeral Home, is owned by the Holt family, as are five other locations in Colorado Springs, Florence, Canon City and Pueblo.The Holts also own a cemetery in Canon City, and a monument company in Colorado Springs that makes their grave markers. They purchased the business in Glenwood Springs in 1986.Although initially on Cooper Avenue, Farnum-Holt is now sandwiched between the old railroad tracks and the bank of the Roaring Fork River, down the street from the Garfield County Courthouse. Built in 1979, the brick building had two large garage bays where sports cars were going to be repaired, but an architectural firm moved into the building before that happened. Farnum-Holt remodeled the building after buying it in 1990, and those two bays were turned into a chapel that seats 160 people and a showroom for caskets.Farnum-Holt is unusual in having two apartments on its upper level, where Trey Holt and his family live, as does funeral home manager Steven Pollard. Holt is married and has twin 8-year-old sons and a dog; Pollard lives with his dog, Merlin.The crew at Farnum-Holt defies any grim or morbid funeral-home stereotypes. Instead, they’re open and willing to discuss the ins and outs of their strange and very serious job. They even have a sense of humor.Pollard has a European coffin in his apartment that he may turn into speakers; he has a T-shirt that says “I put the fun in funeral.” Holt and his wife, Tammy, tell lighthearted stories about their early days of dating, before Tammy was comfortable with Holt’s line of work. One of their 8-year-old twins wants to be a funeral director when he grows up, and asked for two suits for Christmas.”When we went to church yesterday, I didn’t wear a tie but Jared was dressed in his suit,” Holt said of his son.Despite their casual nature, the Farnum-Holt crew members are very serious about their profession, not to mention life and death in general. “I’m not afraid of death, and I do appreciate every day,” Holt says. “I see that life is precious and a blessing.”

Dressed in a pinstripe suit for a typical day at the mortuary, Thomas Walton, 29, looks young for the job of a funeral director. His blonde hair is neatly combed back and, although he is tall, his thin frame allows him to quietly glide through the office without attracting much attention.Walton was 13 when he saw his first body, at his grandfather’s funeral. “I was intrigued with how they prepared the body, and embalming, so ever since I was 13 I’ve been wanting to get into this business,” he said.Four years ago, Walton graduated from a 15-month mortuary school in Dallas. Of the 115 people who entered the school with him, just 20 graduated.”You get your science degree in the process – it’s a tough school,” he said. “There’s anatomy, chemistry … you have to do 13 embalmings before you can graduate.”Working with death involves emotional ups and downs, and it’s not for the squeamish. Despite Holt’s family history in the mortuary business, he didn’t realize he could bear the grim realities of the work until his father asked him to assist with a tanker truck explosion that killed seven people.

“I helped with the removal of those people, and I think that’s when I knew I could do it,” he says.Steven Pollard’s first day on the job, 25 years ago in San Diego, threw him directly into the darker side of the work. Pollard had been hired as a driver for a funeral home, and a co-worker was showing him around the complex on his first morning. In the mausoleum, a widower stood in front of his wife’s vault, removed his jacket and shot himself in front of Pollard and his tour guide.”I had only been there for two hours,” Pollard said. “The guy giving the tour said ‘This is the wildest place in the world.'”After lunch, Pollard went on his first call to pick up a body at a home. As he and another worker approached the house, they saw a group of people standing on the lawn outside.”The older guy I was with said, ‘Do you know why they’re all outside?’ and I said ‘No, I don’t.’ It was because the lady who died had been in the bathtub for the past six days. The windows were black with flies,” he said. “I was wearing a brand-new suit, and on that first day, I sloshed that woman out of the tub.At the end of the day, I said to myself, ‘It’s a very interesting job, and I want to stay. Not many people can do this, and if I can get really good, I’ll do a job a lot of people don’t want to do. I’ll focus on being the best I can be.'”

Seventeen open caskets sit in Farnum-Holt’s casket room, each waiting to be chosen by a family to accompany someone to their final resting place.Resting on metal arms and legs, they hover at eye level. The room includes a $6,500 box made of rich, brown mahogany, and a solid bronze casket that glows softly nearby for $5,800. On the opposite end of the scale is a plain, 20-gauge silver casket for $975.Farnum-Holt leaves families alone in the casket room to make a choice, and the chosen box is used for burial. Then that style is reordered to be placed back on display. The practice of giving a family privacy to choose a casket, Pollard said, is worlds away from corporate funeral homes where he worked in the past.”It was the worst experience of my life. When a family came in, you were required to try and sell them a nice casket,” he said. “They took me to casket-selling seminars, and it was just filthy. I knew it was wrong, and I vowed never to do it again.”A walk-in closet-sized room next to the caskets, the viewing room, is where families can see their loved ones before embalming or cremation. These visitors (no more than 10) must sign a form stating they understand that the body has not yet been embalmed. Walton said plenty of family members would rather remember their relative as they were alive, while others find it cathartic to get a last glimpse of a body.Pollard said he tries to be as honest as he can with people about seeing someone one last time.”I don’t candy-coat anything – I tell them how it is,” he said. “If a person is not viewable, I tell them they’re not, and explain why. The only thing we want to do is bury their dead with respect and dignity – that’s our primary goal.”Farnum-Holt’s chapel seats around 160 people, with windows overlooking the Roaring Fork River. On the other side of the building is a small room with a display of urns for cremated remains. Some of the more unique choices include a garden sundial that can be filled with ashes, and a small wind chime with a special compartment for ashes. They also sell necklaces and pins that can be opened and filled with ashes.Farnum-Holt has a virtual lock on an essential service in this area, but Holt says that’s exactly why they do their best to keep prices reasonable.”We have to be so careful,” Holt said. “We really have tried to keep prices just at the national average. And we offer some packages for very low cost, because if people can’t afford us, we’re still the only funeral home. My deal is that if someone can’t afford it, I don’t want to be owed $3,000. I would rather be paid $1,500.”

There is no dark basement of Farnum-Holt Funeral Home where bodies are embalmed or reduced to ash. A tour of the seldom-seen parts of the business starts by walking through a door off a break room marked “Employees Only.”Storage shelves line a bright hallway lit by fluorescent lights, where extra urns and paper for funeral programs and cards are kept. From here, one door leads into the embalming room, and the other into the garage.The embalming room is no larger than a one-car garage. Kitchen-style cabinets hold bottles of formaldehyde in various colors – primarily shades of pink, which will replace bodily fluids and give a body a healthy, rosy complexion. A table in the middle of the room is where bodies are laid out; fluids removed from each body flow through a tube into a toilet at the far end of the table – a disposal method used by many funeral homes.In this room bodies are bathed, and their eyes and mouth are set in position for display. They are injected with embalming fluid and formaldehyde for a healthy appearance before cosmetics are applied or hairstyling is done.”Sometimes a family will request a hairstylist who has done someone’s hair for years, and we’ll call to see if that person wants to come in,” Holt said. “Through the years, very few of those hairstylists have declined that request. We ask them if they’re comfortable, and we’ll stay with them if they want us to.”Farnum-Holt’s garage is a more cavernous space with a high ceiling, and includes the cooler where up to seven bodies can be held. A tall stack of flattened cardboard boxes sits next to the cooler – they look like flattened refrigerator boxes, but they are actually used to put bodies into the crematorium. The Cadillac hearse is lodged in the garage, next to a door that leads to the crematorium itself, also called a retort.The retort is roughly the size of a restaurant’s walk-in refrigerator. Walton said the cremation process involves temperatures of up to 1,600 degrees Fahrenheit, and takes six hours to complete – three hours of burning, and three more to cool down. Remains that are removed from the retort are placed in a metal canister alongside the crematorium that includes a grinding device, to reduce any bits of bone to a powdery ash.

You won’t hear receptionist Lluvia Sotelo say “Good morning, Farnum-Holt Funeral Home” when she picks up the phone, or “Have a good day” when she hangs up.”When you’ve lost someone, it’s not a good day,” Holt said. “We’re very careful not to say that to people.”Boxes of tissues are placed strategically around the building, from several in each row of seats in the chapel, to a small table in the viewing room and alongside bowls of potpourri in the reception area. Sorrow and death are intimately linked in our culture, and Walton said it’s difficult to help a family through the loss of a child, or any person who died before their time.But the guys at Farnum-Holt say they find ways to balance their emotions with the task at hand.”If you get caught up with a family’s grief, then you wouldn’t be doing your job,” Holt said. “You need to go in with the attitude that you’re doing something for this family during what could be the worst situation they’ve ever faced. If I can ease some of that, I know I’ve done my job.”

It’s this sense of duty that Steven Pollard likes about his job.”We want to take care of every little detail for people,” he said. “Hopefully people will say, ‘Gosh, Steve really took care of us during the worst time in our lives, when we really needed someone.'”It’s not just bereavement that the Farnum-Holt staff sees each day – emotions run the gamut. The arrangement room, where families sit around a large square table or on a nearby couch to discuss details of a service and obituary, is where families first meet with the funeral directors.”It’s an art form to get people to talk,” Holt said. “I often will sit here and there is extreme anger, either at us, or toward each other. We’ve left the room many times saying, ‘When you are ready to talk, we’ll come back in.’ It can be stressful in this room.”Holt’s grandfather once watched a man pull a gun on his brother during a consulting session. The funeral directors try to give families time to agree on all decisions, and they never take sides.”Everyone has to be in agreement, and if they’re not, we’ll get sued, and we’ll lose,” Holt said.In this litigious society, there are plenty of protocols in place to protect funeral homes. If a widowed woman who has three children dies, each of her children must sign a form approving a cremation, as it is an irreversible process. But it only takes one of the children to approve a burial for their parent.

Some high-powered executives and celebrities pass through the Roaring Fork Valley, and that means Farnum-Holt comes in contact with the famous and infamous.When Michael Kennedy was killed in a skiing accident on Aspen Mountain in 1997, Pitkin County officials asked Farnum-Holt to bring a vehicle upvalley to act as a decoy, so a separate vehicle could transport Kennedy’s body to Grand Junction for an autopsy. As it happened, there was another death in Pitkin County that day, so Farnum-Holt transported a body downvalley to Glenwood Springs anyway. Sure enough, the national media was following.Former NASA astronaut James B. Irwin died in Glenwood Springs while jogging in 1991, and Holt said NASA was insistent that he not touch the body so they could perform their own autopsy – primarily to determine if his time in space (he had also walked on the moon in 1971), had anything to do with his death at age 61. As the Garfield County Coroner, Holt compromised with the agency, allowing NASA to recommend their own pathologist for the autopsy.Author Hunter Thompson’s 2005 suicide at his Woody Creek home affected Steve Pollard, especially when he had a hand in transporting the gonzo journalist’s remains.”He was one of my icons – I had read most of his books, and followed him through his career, and then I was called to go there,” Pollard said. “I ended up having to handle one of the people I looked up to.”High-profile deaths also include incidents covered by the national media, like the 1994 Storm King fire tragedy in Glenwood Springs that killed 14 fire fighters, or a 2001 private jet crash at the Aspen airport that left all 18 people on board dead. Holt does his best to restrict media access to ensure a family’s privacy.For the incidents involving multiple deaths, Holt received help from community members to obtain a refrigerated truck, sawhorses and boards to hold the additional bodies. He’s asked television crews to stop filming the Farnum-Holt building during a service for a local 18-year-old killed in a car crash, and has received help from the city of Glenwood Springs to block off the mortuary’s garage area, filled with body bags on gurneys, from prying camera lenses.

For all the grieving families who walk in the Farnum-Holt doors, gaze at the staff members and ask “why?”, the people who work there appreciate their role as the community’s shoulder to lean on.”When we’ve made the experience bearable for them – that’s my favorite part of the job,” Holt said. “Funeral directors are almost like referees in sports. People should know that they’re there, but the directors are just there to make sure everything goes OK.”Holt’s wife, Tammy, says they frequently see people long after a funeral is over, an advantage to working in a smaller city.”You get to see that people are OK again, after seeing them so grief-stricken,” Tammy said.Walton said every day on the job is different, which is one reason he enjoys his line of work. His 6-year-old adopted son regularly asks him questions about death, and Walton is personally comfortable knowing that his time on this planet is limited.As for Pollard, he knows someday he’ll be cremated, saying his body is “just my earth suit while I’m on this planet – once you’re dead, everything that was and is you is gone.”Naomi Havlen’s e-mail address is nhavlen@aspentimes.com


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