When I learned that Walter Kosary died recently at age 93, I have to admit I was surprised. Mr. Kosary buried my father, aunt, uncle, minister, scoutmaster, principal, and many other of my family, friends, and acquaintances. He did the same for the families of other parishioners at my long-closed, but beloved, Hope Lutheran Church, and the loved ones of others on the south side of Chicago. Mr. Kosary seemed like a modern-day Methuselah who would just keep going and helping others forever. But we all have to die someday. I don’t know how his health was in recent years, but in my mind, I always pictured him doing what he’d done since 1948—burying the loved ones of his friends and neighbors. Mr. Kosary was a man of great energy. He always seemed to be working and on the move. A few years ago, I stopped by his office after attending a wake at his funeral home on 99st and Kedzie, and wondered if I would see the Mr. Kosary that I remembered. There he was hard at work—in his late 80s—looking dapper and energetic.
That’s how Jim Lack, a funeral director in Chicagoland for nearly 60 years, remembers him, too. “I knew Walter really well. He was a great guy,” Jim recalls. “He was a ‘funeral director’s funeral director.’ He did everything in this business—pick up the body of the deceased, embalm it, organize and oversee the wake, and manage the funeral—and he always wore a suit, vest, and tie, not only when he was working, but anywhere I’d see him out and about.”
My father was good friends with Mr. Kosary. Before his various occupational incarnations as a building inspector and painter (which included painting the end zone logos and yardage lines at Soldier Field for the Chicago Bears for many years), my dad worked for Mr. Kosary as an apprentice embalmer/funeral director at his funeral home on 59th Street in the 1970s.
“Your dad would come home smelling like cigars,” my mom recently recalled about my dad’s days in the funeral business and Mr. Kosary’s propensity for smoking stogies.
I don’t know how long my dad worked for Mr. Kosary after he graduated from Worsham Mortuary School, but it wasn’t too long. My dad said that Mr. Kosary was the kind of guy who liked to do it all and didn’t really need to bring anyone new on. So, my father began working part-time as an embalmer/funeral director at Fern Funeral Home on Western Avenue in Beverly, while still keeping his day job as a painter.
I have stronger memories of my dad’s time at Fern. I remember that when my father came home from work, his clothing smelled of formaldehyde, which has such a distinct smell that I can conjure its antiseptic scent to this day. My brother and I were fascinated by his embalming scalpels and blades, which he kept in a tan wooden box. My dad also took me to the funeral home several times when I was 5 or 6. I remember sitting on a counter in what I now know was the embalming room. There was all types of strange equipment nearby (but no bodies). I also recall playing hide-and-go-seek with the kids of other funeral workers in the casket display showroom, but why I was there, I’ll never know. My dad was a serious man, and maybe it was his way of telling me about death. Or maybe I was brought along for more basic reasons such as he needed to pick up his paycheck or collect a forgotten wallet or other personal item.
My family once even transported the casket of a child, and as many floral arrangements that would fit, in our faux-wood-paneled station wagon because the hearse broke down. I remember my brother, myself, and my mom and dad all crammed into the front seat and the sweet-sick smell of too many flowers in one confined spot, and occasionally glancing back at the casket in the back of the car. It was odd to think that the back of the car, where my brother and I once engaged in luggage fort wars on a family vacation to Florida, now held the body of a child my age. But the more I think about this story (which my mom recently confirmed), I realize that we must have been attending a funeral, and my dad might have volunteered our station wagon because it was large enough to hold the casket and because he was licensed to transport the dead.
My dad loved being a funeral director. He had a helping spirit and a natural gravitas that can’t be taught or faked. But he was pursuing his dream to break into the industry at the wrong time. In the 1970s, the funeral business was still dominated by family firms, and my dad was unable to land a full-time position.
“I remember your dad and all these men and women sitting around our dining room table studying for exams during mortuary school,” my mom recalled recently, as we sat together at the same table 40 years later. (Yes, the Morkes family is thrifty; we don’t replace tables easily!). I think of all those men and women at the table and in other dining rooms around Chicagoland and realize that it must have been very difficult to get a full-time job in the industry if you weren’t from a “funeral family.”
My dad received an offer to purchase a funeral business in a small town in southern Illinois, but his mother and grandmother were still alive and needed care, so he returned to painting, and rehabbing and selling homes in his spare time. If my dad had accepted that offer, the trajectory of my life would have changed drastically. No Hope Lutheran School, Luther South, or Loyola University. No Amy nor Liam! No first job at a publishing company and a writing and editing career (at least probably not). Of course, my dad’s life would have been vastly different, too. No more working in dangerous parks in run-down neighborhoods. No need to carry a gun—and sometimes use it—to defend himself on the job. No more having to deal with petty workplace issues that are the bane of any worker. Of course, business owners face their own set of challenges.
A few decades passed. On Sunday, December 8, 1996, Mr. Kosary came to our home. My dad, only 59, was in hospice care. He’d stopped treatment for pancreatic cancer because the chemotherapy treatments were killing him faster than the cancer was.
It was a windy evening. My mom recalls that when Mr. Kosary walked in, he said to her, “Marion, what are you trying to do, kill me!?” My mom liked to hang big seasonal windsocks from a small flagpole near the front door, and Mr. Kosary got a face full of winter windsock as he rang the bell. My mom remembers telling him in her matter-of-fact way, “No, Walter, it’s just a windsock.”
Soon after Mr. Kosary’s visit, I started (but never finished) a poem about his visit:
Dad’s friend and funeral director—
Sits on a chair near Dad’s hospice bed
and shows him glossy brochures of
caskets that are brown, silver, and grey.
That feature fisherman
and Chicago Bears logos.
He opens albums of mass cards
With green hills
Walt holds each photo up and Dad
indicates his choice with a shaking finger.
“George,” he says, “I feel strange
and terrible doing this with you.”
“Walter, don’t worry about it.
How about a beer?
Andy, get Walter a beer.”
I hand Walter a glass of beer and keep one for myself.
He sips, and they play an impromptu guessing game
“Pabst Blue Ribbon?”
“Augsburger,” my Dad finally says,
a smile creeping across his face
as if he’d just revealed the location of a pile of gold.
My dad died five weeks later. Mr. Kosary was there to prepare him for the wake and burial, like he was there for thousands of wakes and funerals over the years. A constant in the disturbing world of death and change. A few days later, I wrote a few lines about that painful day:
At the grave,
mom held the triangular-folded American flag.
Friends and family shivered in the brisk winter wind.
I laud the mourners,
over 100 strong,
who stood till the casket reached clay.
Deer stood nearby,
three at the edge of the trees.
The number 3 plays a significant role in our culture. They say that deaths come in threes, the ideal photograph is composed of three distinct vectors to create the most striking appearance, and jokes and stories should be told in threes for the optimum effect on audiences.
In my life, this “Rule of 3s” also applies to funeral directors. I’ve known three funeral directors well, and they all were/are gems. In addition to the dapper and hardworking Mr. Kosary, there was my dad, and there is Jim Lack, whom you met earlier in this essay. He started out in the funeral industry in the early 1960s when the deceased were still sometimes waked in their homes. His father was a funeral director, and he and his brother have kept up the family business. Jim is the father of my friends Steve and Christine. I’ve known him since I was maybe 19 or 20 years old. We share the same birthday, November 20. I would describe Jim as the “funny funeral director.“ Not because of anything he did on the job (I’ve never seen him at work), but for his sense of fun in life and his kindness to me and Steve and Christine’s other friends.
When I was in my early 20s, Steve and my friend Ann lived in an apartment above one of his funeral homes, and I’d hang out there several times a week. None of us had a lot of money, so we just got together and enjoyed each other’s company. We’d sometimes play Frisbee on the funeral home’s gravel roof. One of Steve’s early bands would practice in a closed-off room away from the deceased at the home. I even got to take the mic once and have a cassette tape that captures this inglorious moment (think Neil Young with a survivable case of anthrax). And sometimes we’d simply watch TV (Twin Peaks was big during this time).
Jim loved (loves) the nightlife. He is a hard worker and a hard liver. Because of his work as a funeral director in the south and southwest suburbs, he knew (knows) everybody: police officers, hospital staff, paramedics, other funeral directors, and restaurant and bar owners and bouncers.
Sometimes, he’d take us “near adults” out to see live blues music at the “Tippon Inn” on Western Avenue in Blue Island. He liked to have a good time and he wanted his son and friends to have one, too. I remember the first time a few of us heard the name “Tippon Inn.” We laugh about this today, but for some reason, we thought it was some sort of exotic Japanese drinking establishment. (This was a completely irrational idea because this was the meat-and-potatoes, shot-and-a-beer Beverly of the early 1990s, not the microbrew, art walk one of today.) When we arrived, it turned out that the bar was actually called the “Tip-On-Inn,” which was a perfect name for a blues saloon for raucous drinkers. Jim knew the doorman well, and our small, mostly underage, group walked right in. And there was the live, heart-rending sound of pain, loss, and suffering, and occasional joy right on the stage in front of us—Chicago blues in all its glory. At one point, the performer left the stage and walked through the crowd as he played. Then he headed out the front door and, within seconds, was in the middle of Western Avenue, cars whizzing by on each side, playing the blues. It was a special moment. It felt cool to be underage and sitting in a bar—something that will make me crazy if my son does the same thing in 10 or so years (yes, I’m officially old). My friend Vanessa felt the same way about Jim: “He made us feel cool and welcomed, for sure,” she recalls. Maybe a Western Avenue adventure was a proforma aspect of this musician’s every performance, but it was amazing to us, and I’m glad Jim took us there.
Jim also sometimes attended backyard parties I occasionally held at my parents’ house in Beverly, which is known for having large backyards. A few blocks from my parents’ house, one house had a tennis court, another had a large greenhouse. Our backyard had neither, but it was a big wild place with tall prairie grass, lots of trees, a large garden, and big bonfires on party days. Jim would sometimes join us at a party, and that’s when the fun would start. It seemed like he was always coming from work in his suit, white dress shirt, etc., but that didn’t stop him from asking us if we wanted us to see his impression of bacon frying. Before we could answer, he’d have his coat off and be on the bare ground wiggling around like cooking bacon, gradually curling up like bacon did while cooking. He also loved doing impressions—F. Scott Fitzgerald (in which dishes and food sometimes got knocked off tables) and Bette Davis. As young adults, I think we were all fascinated that an adult (one who had such a serious job) could let loose and be himself. He was not worried about what people thought, not worried about getting a little dirty—just focused on living in the moment. This is a great lesson that I’ve incorporated into my own life although I leave the “bacon frying” and dish scattering to him.
Some of my favorite stories about Jim involve his excitement at his son Steve being the bass player in a hit band. In the 1990s, Veruca Salt became popular on the indie scene. They played their first show ever in 1994 at Phyllis’ Musical Inn in Wicker Park, and all of Steve’s friends were there, and so was Jim. The neighborhood was pretty rough at the time, and I remember strategically picking a a spot at the bar so I could keep an eye on my new car across the street. After that first concert, the band went on to play at all the great music spots in Chicago—Cabaret Metro, Double Door, Lounge Ax, etc.—and then the great music spots in cities around the United States. We were excited for Steve, but Jim was uber excited, and continued to be as the band grew in popularity, playing on Saturday Night Live (Steve and Christine tell me that Jim took Dave Grohl from the Foo Fighters on a beer run that night), and eventually playing concerts all over the world. Incidentally, Veruca Salt regrouped a few years back. They sometimes tour and have a great album, “Ghost Notes,” that is critically-acclaimed by Pitchfork, other hipster reviewers, and non-hipster me. My advice: Download it, turn it up loud, and enjoy.
Jim attended every Veruca Salt concert in Chicago (and some in other cities) and we Generation Xers (young at the time, but no more) looked forward to seeing and hanging out with him. One time, he arrived wearing a denim jacket with the cover of “American Thighs,” the band’s first album, embroidered on the back. Steve tells me that during the band’s heyday, a fan just showed up at the funeral home and dropped it off for his dad. Steve also told me that it was not uncommon for Veruca Salt fans to stop at the funeral home to meet Jim and talk about the band and his son. Who would’ve thunk!?
The Veruca Salt jean jacket was a cool look for a cool guy. I really got a kick out of how Jim embraced Steve being in the band, and it was fun to hang out with him at each concert. (If I had a band, I could never picture my dad attending my concert with a jean jacket with our band’s name on it. That is way too much to ask of a German-Lutheran Midwestern dad.) We became sort of an extended family fan club. At one concert, Jim made it official, passing out Veruca Salt necklaces (with the name of the band spelled out in gold lettering). We had Veruca Salt bling! He got such a kick out of giving the jewelry to us. I still have the necklace, and I need to track it down the next time I see Jim or attend a Veruca Salt concert. Steve tells me that Jim is never without his Veruca Salt necklace.
I recently called Jim to catch up. It was great to hear his voice and discuss old times—and thank him in my own way for being so nice to me and the rest of us late-teen/early twenty–something goofballs. I was happy to learn that he’s still working as a funeral director, although issues with his eyesight have slowed him down a bit. “But I’m still working,” he told me. “I show up every day and help my brother.” As the last of three great funeral directors that I knew, this was good news. It’s nice to know something in life has stayed the same.
Copyright (text) Andrew Morkes
Copyright (photos): Photo of Walter Kosary (family of Walter Kosary); photo of George Morkes (family of George Morkes); photos of James Lack (Jim Lack and family)