A celebration of Ron’s life will be held September 21 at 2:30 pm at the Tiburon Yacht Club, 400 Trinidad Drive, Tiburon, CA. Ron is survived by his long time companion Stephen Nimz, his sister Mary Muff and husband John, his niece Jeanne Maraglia and her family, his nephews Dan, Dave, Mike and Jim and their families. ***********************************
By Ron Hast
Several months before February 1957, my best friend and soon-to-be lifetime partner in business, Allan Abbott, and I bought a 1941 Packard Hearse for $40 plus $1.20 sales tax. We were both 19.
Each of us had entered college and he had chosen a career in geology. His classes included field trips to the desert and the hearse seemed perfect, novel and cheap for that purpose. My parents weren’t impressed. We were able to mine enough halite (salt crystal clumps) in Amboy, California, to sell to a rock shop and pay for the hearse.
My inspiration to consider floral transportation with the hearse resulted from a part-time job at age 12, assisting the delivery person for a florist. Even though I was scared entering funeral homes and placing flowers next to bodies, it seemed fascinating.
One director said it was difficult to find reliable help to transfer flowers from the funeral home or church to the cemetery following services. Calling on more funeral homes, we left our telephone number on a piece of paper offering floral transportation. Our total liquid financial assets were less than $100, including the hearse.
We were first called by Mary O’Connor to report to the then Luke O’Connor & Sons Funeral Home in Los Angeles on February 21, 1957. While loading about 30 sprays, easels and baskets, carrying them one by one carefully, Mrs. O’Connor said, “Have you ever done this before? You are so careful with the flowers; most transporters handle them in quantity.” I assured her the flowers would be perfect when the procession arrived. We proceeded to Holy Cross Cemetery and quickly went to other decorated graves and determined which setup seemed most attractive. The first funeral director who mentioned flower transportation drew a picture of a grave site, showing the grave, mound and chairs, and drew an “X” for sprays, “O” for pots and “U” for standing easels — as if setting a stage. Jim O’Connor told his mother he had never seen a more detailed setup of flowers. Our phones have not stopped ringing since then.
Soon, we left college and began the Abbott & Hast Flower Transportation Service. Our fee for floral delivery was $7.50. We bought and sold old hearses to upgrade along with our expanding need. Our first new car purchase was a 1958 Chevrolet Sedan Delivery for $1,840. Old hearses for floral delivery were soon phased out.
We then changed the name of our firm to Abbott & Hast Mortuary Accommodation Company. We were engaged to transport a body from a distance of 400 miles for a charge of $95. Gas was typically 25 cents a gallon. We purchased a modified 1949 Cadillac limousine with two-man ambulance cot to expand on first-calls. A one-man call cost $12. We purchased two newer 1948 Packard hearses suitable for hearse service, for which we charged $15. Utter-McKinley Mortuaries (16 locations, 300 calls monthly) engaged us to obtain all death certificate signatures, enter vital statistics, file and deliver to the main location. Our revenue was $2.50 each, totaling $750 a month. We hired Allan’s brother full time as office typist and coordinator. Allan and a new motorcycle covered greater Los Angeles averaging 10 signatures per weekday. We rented the recently closed Ivy Overholtzer funeral home in the center of the city, with 10 indoor garages, for $275 a month. This building was among 29 funeral homes within an approximate square mile, a zoned area in the center of Los Angeles known as “death valley or mortuary row.” All were typically supported by their religious or fraternal connections.
Because we had bought a new typewriter on a payment plan with Bank of America, having made 16 payments of $11.16 on time with unblemished credit, we were able to finance three new 1959 Superior three-way side service hearses costing $12,500 each. We weren’t quite 21, the legal age to sign. They didn’t ask and we didn’t tell.
When a new freeway project condemned the funeral home we were renting, we leased the former AAA Auto Club building and converted 17 offices upstairs to a dormitory for our 24-hour staff. At that time, renting limousines for hire required a use permit per vehicle, which cost $5,000 per permit. We proved to the Transportation Board that the existing limousine services were not up to the funeral service standards that we committed to and were granted four permits free of charge having proved “need and necessity” after a bitter challenge by all other permit holders. We purchased four new 1960 Cadillac limousines for $8,200 each.
Our services expanded to serve more than 100 funeral homes every month primarily in the greater Los Angeles region. Many funeral homes did not own a hearse and/or limousine, and relied on us entirely. Our staff grew to over 50 and a fleet of over 50 vehicles. The most calls we responded to in one day was 203, during the Hong Kong Flu epidemic. Our services included floral transportation, hearse and limousine service, pallbearers, local and long distance first-calls, death certificate service, and airline shipping arrangements and transportation. We were the first company to scatter cremated remains at sea by aircraft beginning in 1965 when it became legal in California, with one flight per cremated remains (due to a law protecting cemetery interests). When restrictions were lifted in 1970, we began providing services by motor yacht, including the presence of families. We also provided the removal and relocation of bodies interred in cemeteries.
Our business activities all related to death care. Most achievement was from the investments in buildings and real property acquired, and appreciated values. Slim on profits, we agreed to have a consultant review our procedures. This gentleman suggested two concepts that stabilized our company. First, he drew up a report form on one piece of paper that would be completed and placed on my desk every day. It indicated the total amount of service income each business day, the total amount of money received each day, the total amount of owed bills on hand each day, the total amount of checks written each day and the bank balance. The report later included the same balances for the same day a month prior and the year prior for constant comparison. The second concept was significant. With every check deposited, four percent was written out of the general account and deposited at the same time in a separate savings account. The account was used only for special occasions, investments or occasionally for a loan to our general account. Our own internal bank stabilized any financial needs and allowed us to buy our first new airplane, properties and other investments. I cannot overstate the value of this one activity.
In 1960, the creator of the “Jim Wilson Desk” at American Airlines, Harry Bate, established a special outreach to funeral homes for the shipment of bodies system-wide, which also enhanced the patronage of family transportation in harmony with the decedent. At the time, a “sleeping bag type” rental unit known as PADAT was utilized by airlines, as its tight dimension strapped to the casket allowed for expanded opportunities to final destinations in smaller aircraft. But they had a major problem: caskets were constantly arriving at the funeral home destination with dents and damage, with no evidence of damage outside the container. The airline was forced to assume damage claims and sometimes pay for a new casket when the cause of the damage could not be identified. After studying the potential causes for damage, I created the wooden tray with the smallest dimension that would contain a standard casket. Allan fiddled with folded cardboard and we created “The Casket Airtray,” which had a folding inner liner and a telescoping top that could lower exactly to one inch above the crown of a casket. This allowed the funeral director and airlines to know which aircraft could accommodate the shipment. In May 1960, the first Casket Airtray was presented at the California Funeral Directors Association convention. Its general concept has become the world standard for most all shipments. We purposely did not patent the unit because it seemed wrong to restrict a product that would be needed all over the country and could be created and provided near the point of shipment. Although we owned the name Casket Airtray for 17 years, it became generic when the public referred to it as an “Airtray” — and could not be protected, even if we tried.
In 1975, we acquired Berg Publications, publishing Mortuary Management magazine. The Berg family had published this journal since 1914. In 1992, we established the Funeral Monitor weekly newsletter when a large corporation bought Funeral Service Insider and its founder and editor Jean DeSapio did not want to continue under the new ownership. Sue Simon now edits Funeral Monitor in an interpretive style. Some believe that since we are headquarted in California, we are regional. Actually, our publishing office is in California, but the Funeral Monitor editorial office is in Wisconsin, our magazine production office is in Michigan, our advertising office is in New Jersey, and the printing and mailing is done in Missouri. What’s more, our readership is truly national. There are only about 2,100 funeral homes in the 13 western states, where Mortuary Management is saturated, with the exception of consolidators. However, the remaining 20,000 funeral homes are in the eastern states, where more than 75% of our readers originate.
Of all the funeral homes we served, only one — Godeau & Martinoni — was problematic. They were always intense, with a reputation for being at odds with everyone, and we were no exception. They were always trying to take advantage of us, such as calling us to go on first-calls that they knew were very difficult (400+ pounds, etc.) and refusing to pay an extra charge of $3 to send an extra car, manpower and special equipment. But we got the last laugh. Next door to the spacious parking lot that joined their funeral home was a large commercial garage. The funeral home parking lot belonged to the man selling us the garage building. He asked if we would like to buy the parking lot, explaining that Frank Palmieri of Godeau & Martinoni had refused to pay $50 per month increase in rent. This meant we would buy all real property and buildings completely surrounding the funeral home. We promised not to say a word to anyone until escrow closed. When the Palmieris discovered the loss of the parking lot, they about collapsed. They wanted to exchange eight parking spaces near their front driveway for spaces a block away. We promptly had a fence placed across the front. When their families would arrive for arrangements, we would call and diplomatically ask to have the family move their car. One time a badly wrecked hearse was delivered to our lot and placed prominently visible from their arrangement office. They pleaded with us to move it, explaining that families thought it was theirs.
Recognizing major changes in death care, we began acquiring funeral homes. Our mission was finding attractive methods to support clients seeking simplicity and to offer choices, rather than react to these changes. Over time, we acquired 14 funeral businesses and some of the properties. Most continued to carry their historical names.
We created the Cremation Society of Los Angeles, offering simplicity cremation services primarily generated over the Internet. This effort secured the growth and profit of the funeral home it is joined with, allowing the long employed managers to acquire the business and property over time out of the income stream with no down payment.
Allan was never too enthused about the funeral business itself, but took great interest and responsibility for managing all of the needs of our large fleet of vehicles. He also was active in rental of funeral props, equipment and vehicles to the motion picture industry. Formal station wagon conversions having the appearance and function of a hearse, beginning in 1960, was also under his management. Phased out in about 1980, I was influenced by the plea from the Nurses Association of Los Angeles that diplomatically appealed to the Board of Directors that funeral directors not use badged vehicles (with landau bars) or formal hearses for removals. Some hospitals and other elder care institutions were experiencing constant view of these vehicles arriving to call for the dead and felt it was difficult and imposing on patients who were striving to recover, yet observing constant activity with death because of the vehicles. I understood their position and agreed that a ceremonial death vehicle is improper for death calls, if at all possible. It is not our place to “push” the issue of a death while those in shock or grief still recognize the decedent as a person.
I salute the many wonderful acquaintances and colleagues developed through this life’s work. Special to me is the constant friendship and contact with Elroy Bourgraf and Richard Ferneau, founders (1956) and operators of Ferno-Washington Company in Wilmington, Ohio, and now throughout the world. Through the years we’ve been privileged to test and critique many of the masterful products they have designed and produced for funeral service — and now including emergency, hospital and related products. All of us are taking it a bit slower these days, but still very much involved.
Over the years, our biggest tragedy was the sudden and unexpected death of Allan’s wife Kathy. His devoted love of her was exemplary. Just at a time we were able to reach out in life’s dreams, we both realized that Los Angeles wasn’t appealing anymore and began looking elsewhere to live. He and Kathy had loved Monterey, California, where he retired with a great view of the Monterey Bay, although she did not have a chance to see that dream realized. Our business office is also located there, where Allan’s son Gregory and daughter-in-law Ingrid manage the publishing business. Allan is presently busy editing his keen memoirs, hoping soon to hand them to a publisher. His recollections of the business are somewhat different than mine, considering his distinct interests and experiences.
The funeral homes have now all been sold or turned over to longtime employees who have proven their talent and ability to carry the burden and responsibility. They have earned the value of ownership and it is a privilege to be able to sponsor them.
Home for me is in Tiburon, California. just north of the Golden Gate Bridge on the waterfront. Not yet retired, and life is busy with fun and community activities — which aren’t scarce in a boating community. I am still tuned in to death care and its many changes, and hope to contribute to that interest for a time to come. My delight is in knowing Allan and I are successful partners and more so, enjoy an undying friendship to this day.