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Q&A: Durango mortuary owner talks shop

Dignity defines Ryan Phelps who says he talks with his ‘clients’ during embalming
Ryan Phelps owns Hood Mortuary in Durango. He said he never planned to become a mortician when he took a job at Hood while in college. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Hood Mortuary owner, director and mortician Ryan Phelps agreed to answer some silly, some serious and some ghoulish crowdsourced questions in a Q&A with The Durango Herald about a profession most know little about.

Phelps grew up in east Texas. His family moved to Durango when he was a junior in high school. He met the love of his life, Krystal, in high school. After high school, he attended Fort Lewis College for a brief time, while he was also hired to work as an evening attendant and general housekeeper at Hood. He decided to leave FLC and attend mortuary school in Texas where he earned an associate degree in applied science and became a general service practitioner. He returned to his job at Hood, married Krystal, and was promoted to manager in 2002. He purchased the business in 2005, the same year the couple’s daughter was born.

“And we brought her home to the funeral home,” Phelps said. “We’ve lived here ever since about 2002. (Our daughter) has never known another home other than living here at the mortuary. She is a senior in high school now and will be attending Baylor in the fall.”

DH: Why did you become a mortician?

RP: I started here when I was 18. And I really had no interest in being a mortician or a funeral director. But in working with the families, and with my experience, with the clients in their stages of grief, I discovered I had a knack for service and for comforting and being there for a family in a very difficult time. And also my supervisors noticed that and they encouraged me to go into this as a career. I had no intention for doing this out of high school, I promise.

Have you ever heard some strange sound or something out of the ordinary while working alone in the mortuary and gotten the heebie-jeebies?

One night, I was up till 2 in the morning stringing some wiring for cameras. And I was in a crawl space area that not many people access, and I just had a feeling that I shouldn’t be there. It just was the heebie-jeebies, the hair on the back of my neck standing up. So I decided that I was going to apologize to whatever made me feel that way, whatever spirit, whatever thing, and I crawled out of the space that I was in and went to bed and finished it up the next day. I attribute most of those things to too much caffeine (laughs) or not enough sleep. But obviously, you know, there are things that go on beyond the seen, and if we have a feeling toward that we acknowledge it and be respectful of it.

Ryan Phelps, owner of Hood Mortuary, said he talks to the spirits of the bodies he works with, wishing them well on their journey. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)
Has anyone ever come alive on the table, or have you ever realized someone is not dead?

(Laughs) I have never had the experience of anything more than very peripheral muscle movement after a person has passed away. I’ve never experienced a client waking up. I’ve never had anything more than just normal nerve action occur, that would be fairly typical for someone who’s passed away. And I’ve always said that if I had somebody who wasn’t, you know, expired, and they were to come alive, either while I’m transporting or once I arrived back, it might be enough to make me quit. (Laughs)

Rumor has it that taking out someone’s contact lenses after they die is very difficult. Is that true? And how do you treat the eyes after someone has passed?

It is not difficult to take out contact lenses. I could go more in depth, but brevity being the key phrase, when we are preparing an individual for a viewing we place something very similar to a contact lens on their eye that is flesh colored instead of being clear like a contact so that if the eye were to come open, you wouldn’t see the white of the eye. In addition, this small cap, we call it an eye cap, has a little bit of a grip to it. So therefore it will help a person’s eyes stay closed. So in a manner of speaking, if we were to take the contacts out we kind of put something right back in that’s very similar to it. That is the only effective way that the eye can be kept closed. It’s a standard in the industry. And it’s just kind of something that we do especially on people who are going to be viewed. If there’s no viewing, we probably won’t do that.

Have you ever sensed a spirit when working with a body?

I don’t know if you’ve ever watched “Six Feet Under,” but the lead character in that series spoke to the people as if they were sitting next to him in the room watching him care for their body. I do that a lot of times. I’ll just speak to the person. I don’t envision them next to me. But I do envision them – some sort of a presence and I speak to them and say nice things to them and ask how heaven is, and just in general kind of have a rapport with them. And I can kind of further that a little bit more in that I’ve taken care of people who would not be considered the best people in society. And I believe that after you die your spirit is more pure, and I still speak to them and I say you know, ‘What you did is what happened and it’s over with and I hope you’re in the presence of good things now.’”

Hood Mortuary owners Kristal and Ryan Phelps live upstairs from their business. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)
Have you ever gotten an answer?

I’ve never gotten an answer more than just a feeling and, you know, feelings are something that are very real. So it’s always a warm feeling and a comforting feeling to know that I’m treating them as if they are watching me. And so no ill feelings, no bad things can be done to those people because you’re pretending or feeling as if they’re right there with you. Nothing more than a feeling though.

What is the process for draining the fluids from a body? And then how do you preserve that body and how long does that last?

The best way to describe the embalming process is like a high-speed blood transfusion where we use pressure and formaldehyde-based chemicals to replace bodily fluids, specifically blood. It is a technique used for three purposes: preservation – i.e., for viewings and things of that nature; disinfection – so there’s public health and safety after we’re done with that if the person had an infectious disease; and the third reason is cosmetics – a person generally is going to look better after embalming. As far as how long it can last, we’ve had individuals be able to be viewed up to two months later, when we employ embalming in conjunction with cooling, like refrigeration. And they’re perfectly viewable. And I’ve also done disinterment where I’ve brought a person to the surface and moved them per the family’s request. And you know, an embalming that I’ve done before I noticed how good the person looked and they were almost viewable at that point – years later.

Phelps takes pride in his ability to give the dead dignity through the embalming process. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)
Did you ever break into a sweat or get weak in the knees or feel ill and have to go outside when you first started?

I can only think of one time. I was told by the owner to go assist with an embalming. So I go into the room and begin the embalming and then he came in and said we have a funeral starting in 30 minutes or an hour. So go eat and then come downstairs and work the funeral. So I took off my PPE, went into the lounge and grabbed my sandwich. And something about the texture of that turkey sandwich that day just kind of made me turn my stomach a little bit and I didn’t vomit or anything, but I just put the sandwich back in a Ziplock baggie, put it back in the fridge, went downstairs and the owner said, ‘Did you eat?’ and I said I don’t really feel like eating. And that’s really the only time I’ve had my stomach turned to the point where I just didn’t feel well after, you know, having direct contact to human.

Do you have a favorite television show or movie about your profession?

I’ll have to go back to “Six Feet Under.” It personified the quirkiness of funeral service, particularly the first episode. They had advertisements for chemical companies, the embalming fluid chemical companies, and they showed a side to funeral service professionals that was very real. We are just like everyone else. We have the same problems. We have the same family life, etc. But we’re trying to put all that aside while we’re serving a family and put on this persona of professionalism and care and genuine concern. So it really humanized funeral service professionals.

gjaros@durangoherald.com



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