The teacher scanned the room full of students. "There's an opening for a job in a funeral home," he said. "Who wants it?" It was 1961 in a vocational class at Dunedin High School. None of the students raised their hands. The teacher pointed toward a tall, thin teenager. "You will do this," the teacher said. "Oh, please, not me," Merl Faupel thought. But he didn't fight it. The teacher had his mind made up. For a reason Faupel still doesn't know, this teacher picked him, and that charted the course of his life. Since that part-time job, Faupel has not left the field. This year marks his 50th anniversary in the funeral business. For 30 years he's had his own facility, Faupel Funeral Home, which is located in Port Richey.
"People ask me all the time, 'How do you stand your business?' " Faupel said. "But I love it. I love my business.
"I can help people when they need it the most."
His first job was vacuuming a funeral home. He was so terrified that he refused to turn his back on the bodies in caskets. Could they be zombies? Spirits? He didn't know. He just knew they petrified him.
But he stuck with the job. Back then, funeral homes also provided the ambulance service for the area, so that part was fun for a young man — sirens and fast driving.
"That was cool," Faupel said.
Faupel started doing more: transporting bodies to the funeral home, driving grieving families to services. He married right after his high school graduation in 1962. His wife, Ruth, had a child, Jennifer, the next year. Faupel found himself a teenage husband and father. He couldn't continue to ramble aimlessly with no ambition. He had to grow up fast, and decided to focus on a career in the funeral business because he'd been doing it and liked it well enough. The job became a calling to him later.
In 1966, after attending mortuary science school, Faupel got a job with North Funeral Homes, which had locations in Pasco and Pinellas counties. William A. North, the founder, became Faupel's mentor. This is where the job stopped being a job and became a mission and passion. Sure, there are difficult days. He's had many sleepless nights on the eve of big funerals — the biggest are usually teenagers killed in car crashes. He goes through all the details, over and over, because he wants everything to be perfect for the family.
At first, seeing death in its various forms was difficult: babies, suicides, decayed bodies. Broken, numb, grieving loved ones. Soon, he learned it was not his duty to absorb that pain every day.
"My job is not to cry with the family," he said. "I have empathy, of course. But it's my job to make it easier on them."
He views his role as being strong, calm and caring for people during what could possibly be the worst time in their lives. He gently finds out what the family wants — cremation or burial, what type of service — and guides them through what needs to be done.
Faupel is a religious Christian who believes things happen for a reason. He said he wouldn't be able to do this job without his faith.
"Life is unfair," he said. "Young people die. Old people die. Life is absolutely unfair.
"I don't question Him. I just try to help each family."
Faupel's goal was never to build an empire. He just wanted to help people and provide for his family.
"Take care of the families you serve," his mentor, North, often told him. "Don't worry about the money."
North was a quiet, caring, respectful man who often helped needy families, Faupel said.
North died in 1995 at age 75. Faupel still misses him dearly.
"He was a great role model," Faupel said.
Faupel opened his own business in 1981. He had a little building on U.S. 19 and then bought the lot on Ridge Road, where his funeral home is still located.
He opened at the new location on Oct. 1, 1981.
He had one call that month.
He had one call in November.
He starved and scrimped and saved and borrowed money.
"Oh, my word," he told himself. "What have I done?"
Then in December he had five calls.
In January, he had 12.
He did everything himself until he could hire a staff — picking up the dead, taking them to the funeral home, cleaning, embalming, dressing, makeup. Preparing the rooms for services. Driving the hearse. Sitting with grieving families. Dealing with bills and accounting. The only thing he wouldn't do is hair.
"I just can't do it right," he said. So he'd hire a hair stylist.
Now he has a partner and a full staff. In 2009, he bought Morgan Funeral Home in New Port Richey, though he hasn't changed the name because he wants to keep and respect the history of the business, which opened in 1977.
Faupel doesn't work as much as he used to. Retirement is on the horizon. He believes in his mission and believes he's spent his life well.
He's also gone through terrible times in his own life: He's buried his parents, his first wife and two sons, David and Douglas, identical twins. Faupel and his current wife of 33 years, Eva, learned when the boys were born in 1980 that Douglas received too much blood in the womb and David had gotten too little. Douglas lived for 22 hours. David survived, but was diagnosed with cerebral palsy. He died at age 19.
"David was a true joy," Faupel said. "He taught us the value of life."
Faupel is now 66. He and his wife have two other children, Lisa, 20, and Steven, 19. Faupel spent decades being on call all the time, leaving dinners, leaving parties, getting out of bed at 2 a.m. to rush to pick up a body.
He has a boat that he uses on his days off. He and Eva have been traveling a lot: Israel, Amsterdam, Venice. He golfs.
"I'm a normal person," he said.
He hasn't set a date for retirement. He's just backing off a little bit, he said, and living more.
Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this story. Erin Sullivan can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6229.