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Patience and understanding are key

Published Oct. 13, 2005

Even though the back door is open, the thermometer on the wall of the funeral home's cremation room almost is at 90 degrees. "It's only 8:30 in the morning and we've already had eight calls," Jim Reese says as he tapes an 8-inch cardboard box filled with ashes he had just removed from the pickup truck-size, stainless steel crematory. The cremains, or the ashes left after a body is incinerated at temperatures reaching 1,400 degrees, were to be picked up later by another funeral home.

Reese, 48, who for the past 21 years has owned and operated E. James Reese Funeral Home in Seminole, has two funerals scheduled today.

"It's going to be a busy day," Reese said, shaking his head after noting that one arrangement had been delivered to the wrong funeral home.

The open, polished, wooden casket in the larger of the funeral home's two chapels contains the body of a man in his thirties, dressed in a suit and tie, his hands folded on his chest. The family has scheduled viewing hours from 2 to 4 p.m., immediately followed by the funeral. Afterward, the remains will be cremated.

"This is a rental casket. The family wanted to have a funeral before the cremation," Reese said. "It's fairly common."

By 9:45 a.m. Reese is at the VA Medical Center at Bay Pines. Disposition forms and a death certificate are obtained from administration staff before he takes the body from the hospital morgue.

Back at the funeral home, the tags on the body are verified with the paperwork, and the body is placed on a gurney in a walk-in cooler. By law, Reese must wait 48 hours before cremating the body, which must be kept refrigerated until then.

Reese's casket display room contains about a dozen models. There are several colors and finishes, from golden metal to polished oak. Prices range from $495 for the least expensive to a $5,100 solid bronze casket. Reese acknowledges that it is not a place where many feel comfortable.

"When a family walks into this room, they are here to make a purchase they don't want to make. They are generally upset and can even be hostile, so you really have to be very patient and understanding. Many people think funeral directors become hardened, but you don't. You become adjusted," Reese said.

The St. Petersburg native became interested in the funeral business after his best friend took a part-time job in a mortuary. Reese was attending St. Petersburg Junior College and there were few part-time jobs available.

"Everyone thought he was crazy. I would go visit him there at night while he was answering the phones. It began to look exciting."

To become a licensed embalmer, he served a three-year apprenticeship under funeral director William C. Kilgore at the former Arlington Memorial Chapel in St. Petersburg and completed a yearlong course at the Kentucky School of Mortuary Science in Louisville. After serving another yearlong apprenticeship and passing the state exams, he became a licensed funeral director in 1968. He opened E. James Reese Funeral Home in February 1970.

"When I was 21 I knew I wanted my own funeral home," he said. "I basically designed this building, helped to build it and even laid the grass out front."

He and his assistant, Bob Cotrell, do almost everything themselves. Reese's wife, Barbara, occasionally helps with the phones and paperwork. His eldest son is attending mortuary school in Atlanta and probably will join Reese when he graduates.

At 1:15 p.m. Reese and Cotrell load a veteran's casket into the hearse for the trip to Bay Pines National Cemetery. Cotrell stays to supervise the other family-viewing starting at 2 p.m.

The service at the cemetery, which includes a Veterans of Foreign Wars military honor guard, lasts about 30 minutes. Because the actual burial at Bay Pines is done by the cemetery staff, Reese leaves as soon as the family departs.

By 2:30 p.m. Reese is back at the VA hospital retrieving another body. Outside, rain begins to come down in sheets.

The rain and lightning continue relentlessly as Reese pulls the station wagon to the back of the funeral home. The body is removed, the tags are checked and then it is put in the cooler.

Reese is about to cremate one of the bodies that is in the cooler, but decides not to in case the electricity goes out. Fifteen minutes later, standing in his office waiting for the funeral service in the chapel to begin, the electricity goes out. After about two minutes, the electricity comes back on, and Reese is visibly relieved.

By the time the funeral ends and the family has departed, Reese will have two more cremations in addition to embalming the second body brought back from the VA hospital. The body will be shipped out of state the next day and according to the law, must be embalmed.

Only then will he be able to go home, which is right behind the funeral home, and hope the phone doesn't ring at midnight, or even later.

"I've had calls at all times of the night," Reese says, "but it's just part of the job."