A funeral home is not a place where most people make their best memories. For me, however, this was the case.
More than one hundred years ago, Fife Funeral Home was originally built in East Chicago, Indiana just south of the railroad tracks. The family business was created by Canadian-born immigrant, James Herald-Freeman Fife I. He along with his wife, Alice, and children lived in an apartment just above the funeral home. Established on a city block, the structure resembled the traditional style and architecture of many of its neighboring constructions: narrow, vertical, and plain. The funeral home consisted of the basics: the chapel, the embalming room, and the garage for the hearse.
There was, however, a hidden room below the chapel which was not accessible to the public — one that characters in the movies look for with the guidance of a map or chronological list of clues. The room did not have one distinct purpose or use at first —it was just there. I wouldn’t say it was completely empty, as spiders usually nested their young and constructed their elegantly designed webs in the corners of the black void. But, after a few years it eventually found its essence. My great grandfather secretly placed a miniature black safe within the room to protect an important artifact of American history: the gun of John Dillinger.
The First National Bank of East Chicago and Fife Funeral Home were neighbors, and there was a friendly relationship between the two. The owner of the bank would allow my grandfather, a kid at the time, to park his toy cars inside of the vault next to large crates of paper money. It was a typical cold Midwestern day and the bank was busy handling deposits, extractions, transactions and whatever a bank normally does. My grandfather was inside of the vault to retrieve his toy cars that he parked in there the night before. All of a sudden, people shouted and shots were fired as notorious criminal, John Dillinger, along with his gang attempted a robbery.
Standing at a mere 5’7’’ and 150 lbs, Dillinger sported slicked back hair, a thin, well-groomed mustache, and custom tailored suits. However, his intimidation came not from his stature or looks. Instead, it was from the flamboyant and bold manner in which he skillfully had already robbed banks all across the Chicago area. This was not his first heist. No, and it was definitely not his last if you were to ask him
My grandfather, frightened and confused, hid behind a tall stack of cash within the vault. After the hold up, Dillinger and his men secured the money and fled the scene. Just outside the bank on the sidewalk, Dillinger shot and killed Officer William Patrick O’Malley. This was reportedly the first and only person Dillinger himself had killed. My great grandfather rushed outside of the funeral home to assist Officer O’Malley. My grandfather, coming out of the vault with his toy cars, noticed Dillinger’s handgun at the scene and instinctively grabbed it to take it back with him into the funeral home. Historians throughout the country have visited my family, offering millions of dollars for the gun. However, my grandpa along with the rest of my family today have no intention of selling the historical artifact. The money could tear the family apart and eventually end the business.
As the years went by, the city grew rapidly. The funeral home was relocated north of its original position, right above the train tracks. The large plot of land and an increase in traffic permitted the new building to be three times the size as the original. The budget afforded the expansion of the rooms: bigger embalming room, bigger chapels, bigger parking lot. Everything was bigger.
Most interestingly, an underground bunker was added to the building due to the growing tension between capitalist United States and communist Russia. The fear of a world war remained prominent in the city for decades as East Chicago, a massive producer of the country’s steel, appeared as a likely target for the Soviets to attack. The bunker was a 30 x 20 foot concrete room with all the supplies needed to survive an apocalyptic society following an all out nuclear war. The walls were dark gray, rough textured and gritty. There were shelves and boxes with canned goods, water bottles, toiletries, first aid kits, blankets, you name it. My grandfather decorated the bunker with posters to somewhat make it a “second home”. Two of the posters, a headshot of Sylvester Stallone and a campaign sign for Nixon, still hang down there, though they are now slightly decayed.
On many occasions, the bunker was utilized. My dad along with his six brothers and sisters and mom hid in the bunker during a tornado. They spent the day playing cards and snacking on processed granola bars under dim flickering lights until it was clear for them to go back into the apartment. My grandfather, however, spent the day upstairs waiting for the tornado to come within his sight. Once the opportunity came, my grandfather stood on top of the roof of the 100 foot tall building with his brand new, handheld video camera. A true adrenaline addict, he was able to get clear footage of the twister from only a few miles out. He would occasionally play the film at family parties. I remember being very intrigued by the idea of living life on the edge and to the fullest just like how my grandfather did.
Another sector of the funeral home was the state-of-the-art embalming room. Its seafoam green walls and tiles encompassed the cold, long steel tables. There was definitely a vintage feel. Also known as the prep room, it contained instruments of all sorts: drainage tubes, scalpels and blades, cavity injectors, hypo needles, clamps, forceps, and what have you. Drawers were stuffed with cotton balls which were used to clog all of the body’s cavities, including the eye sockets and mouth. Gloves and other sanitary items filled the shelves on the walls completely. Cosmetics, like nail polish and hair dye, gathered in the cabinets above the counter which the boombox was kept on. It appeared as a welcoming, inviting room; this was especially odd when you consider its purpose.
As a result of the Marlboro Cowboy Commercials, my grandfather became hooked on smoking cigarettes as a young adolescent. My grandmother, a nurse at St. Catherine’s Hospital in East Chicago, urged him to quit the habit daily. She would tear up, throw away, or just simply destroy any cigarettes found within the house. My grandfather, tired of the constant nagging, started to hide his packs of Marlboro Reds throughout the embalming room. He knew that my grandmother never stepped foot in there and wouldn’t plan on it as long as dead bodies were in there. He would reach behind a jar of formaldehyde or underneath a kit of scalpels to grab his cigarettes and exit through the back door into the hidden alley to peacefully enjoy his Marlboro Reds. Years later, I would come to find many of his forgotten cigarettes within the prep room. To be ingenious was to be deadly, however, as my grandfather would later obtain multiple health issues due to the years of smoking.
There was a courtyard, half concrete and half grass.. Weeds and other unwanted greenery, however, found its way through the concrete cracks. Its perimeter was enclosed by the chipped red brick walls of the funeral home and its neighbor. A rusty basketball hoop with a chain net stood tall in the center of the courtyard just like the uncut grass. We used black permanent marker to indicate the free throw and three-point line. The wall directly behind the half court mark supported a homemade quarter pipe until rain and snow eventually warped the cheap plywood into becoming a boobytrap. A used trampoline with missing springs was the main attraction.
I remember my two brothers and I would bounce on that not-so-bouncy trampoline endlessly. We practiced kickflips on a thin plank of wood and experimented with the moves we watched our WWE heroes perform on Monday Night Raw. The trampoline provided a safe way and place to do dangerous things.When we were feeling particularly daredevilish, we would jump off the roof of the funeral home on the trampoline.
At first, we stuck to simple landings. Later on, the adrenaline of free fall persuaded us to perform flips, both front and back, from about 100 feet off the ground. These stunts were later banned as neighbors called 911 to stop us. Eventually, our parents were contacted by the police and as punishment, the trampoline was taken down and thrown away. I have not seen that trampoline since.
Around that time, we started having to stay inside more because of a rise in crime in our neighborhood. One midwestern winter day, the gang known as “the Latin Kings” spray painted and vandalized.
Once East Chicago increased unemployment from the decline of the steel mills, gangs and crime rose through the heavy atmosphere of poverty. At first, it was banks and stores being vandalized and robbed. It did not take long before the funeral home became the next target.
One year, my father and I were called out by the county coroner’s office to pick up a body. We arrived at the back entrance and entered the freezer. It was of a kid, right my same age. The boy’s family arranged the funeral later that night. The morning of the boy’s funeral, I woke up early to help my dad set up the chapels. After getting dressed, I walked downstairs into the company of my father, a teary eyed mother, and a police officer. I looked just outside the window and saw several police cars. Confused, I went outside to see what was going on. Finally, I see it. The entire front side of the funeral home was spray painted. The graffiti consisted of racial slurs, arrangements of letters and numbers, and most notably, a crown with the initials ‘LK’ which spanned over the entire middle garage door. I would later come to find out that the boy was affiliated with the Latin Kings.. Shortly after he left the gang with the hopes of going off to college, he was murdered. This act of vandalism on the boy’s funeral was tragic and by far the most disrespectful thing I have ever seen. I never understood why this world was full of so much hatred. I still don’t understand.
The funeral home, although composed of various rooms and spaces, acted as one, unified institution. Each room had its own equally important purpose. The home was also efficient — tens-of-thousands of funerals have taken place there. Through generations of experience, my family has been able to perform their jobs well. Fife Funeral Home has been relied on by families for more than one hundred years to preserve the tradition of remembering and honoring the dead. Funerals have brought families and friends together. Funerals have taught many about life’s fragility and importance. Funerals have given people a reminder: a reminder that both life and death are inevitable.
Several years ago, my grandfather passed away due to damage that years of smoking and drinking had done to his body. His heart was failing along with other organs. The surgeon tried to extend my grandfather’s life through a multi-hour long surgery; however, nothing was sufficient enough to restore his youth and health. My father and I drove to the morgue to pick up my grandfather’s lifeless corpse and put him in the back of the hearse which he would use to drive to work.. Once we got to the funeral home, we placed him in the same embalming room he had worked in for over 50 years. Then, we dressed him in the same suit he had worn for the thousands of funerals he had been involved in. That night, the entire family assembled and planned the funeral using the same resources that our grandfather used to plan other people’s funerals. A couple of days later, we placed him inside a casket and brought him into the chapel where he had spent countless hours cleaning and preparing for other funerals. Many people came. People that shared no relation to us came. They gave their sympathy and condolences while telling stories about my grandfather. One elderly Black lady explained that my grandfather was the only one who would bury her father during times of segregation and discrimination. That funeral gave our family a great amount of closure, perhaps even satisfaction. My grandfather, James Herald-Freeman Fife III, began and ended his life in the same place in which he gave everything.