manassas journal messenger 02/06/01

faces behind the funeral:
A look into a business of living, not dying

Emily Kuhl


MANASSAS – The words “funeral director” carry a heavy connotation
in the collective mind of society. It’s nearly always of a man, usually
old and pallid, who lurks in the dark confines of the funeral home, and
is more concerned with the dead than the living. Mysterious, maybe. Creepy,

And 100 percent untrue.

The funeral business is one of the least celebrated professions – ironic
considering how vital the service provided – but also one of the most puzzling.
There’s almost as much mystery surrounding those who work in the business
as there is around death itself. Who are funeral directors? A closer look
at these people can yield some surprising insights.


Taking the good with the bad

When Bernard Ames opened Ames Funeral Homes in Manassas in July 1959,
he and his wife Helen knew business might not take off immediately – an
understatement to say the least. They didn’t get their first call until

Luckily, they had a backup plan in case it never took off.

“People in the olden days, they tried to keep folks out of the
business,” he said. “It wasn’t easy to get an apprenticeship.”

Ames held various jobs, including work in construction and at the post
office, after finishing his apprenticeship because he could only find part-time
work at a local funeral home.

Ames, who has now been licensed for more than 50 years, attended Eckels
College of Mortuary Sciences in Philadelphia before completing an apprenticeship
in Cheriton. Other than his military service during the Korean War, it is
the only time he has left Virginia.

The state requires funeral directors to earn a 12-month certificate
and complete an 18-month apprenticeship. After passing state and national
board exams, an apprentice is licensed.

As in many cases, Ames’ involvement in funeral directing stemmed from
family. His uncle was a funeral director, which helped him learn about the
business from as early as 5 years old. His interest slowly grew, and by
the time he left home, he knew he wanted to devote his career to becoming
a director.

“I think most of the people who get the opportunity and get over
the misconceptions enjoy it,” he said, pausing. ” ‘Enjoy it’ might
not be the right word, but I think they feel some degree of satisfaction.”

“This is a service for the people, and it’s a service someone has
to give,” added Helen. “If this is the type of service you want
to be in, it can be very rewarding.”

How many people take this positive point of view? Judging by the numerous
misconceptions Ames said he has encountered, not many.

The public’s perception of death provides the most obvious misunderstanding.
It’s a natural association to pair the profession with being stressful and
emotionally draining. But that’s only half correct, Ames said.

“You’d have to say it does get emotionally tough,” he said.
“But is it any more draining on me than the people who come in here?
We’re both human beings, so is it any more draining on me? – except, I have
a method of therapy, that is, I am a part of it.

“A fireman hates fires, but the fact that he fights to save a life
might make it easier on him mentally than someone just watching it and wishing
they could stop it.”

Ames said there’s also a misunderstanding over the cost of funerals,
where some people assume directors are getting rich off their clients. He
pointed to the number of family-owned businesses that file for bankruptcy
and are subsequently bought by conglomerates as evidence that this is not

“But I think the greatest misconception is that the public is not
really aware as to what the funeral director does,” he said, explaining
that too many people rely on outside sources for information when a loved
one dies, which can result in families being misinformed.

“The best person you can get your answers from is a funeral director,”
he said.

And as long as the myths exist, there likely will never be a shortage
of questions.

A calling to ease the burden of grief

Don Price could probably sit in his office and talk about grief for
hours. In an odd way, he’s sort of an expert. He’s not a counselor or a
therapist, but after 23 years in the funeral business, he might as well

Price – who likens himself to a minister or priest – learned as a 17-year-old
the comfort that can come from working in the field. During his initial
three months in a funeral home, he was too scared to approach a body. But
his first preparation resulted in an epiphany of sorts.

The child he worked on was a 7-year-old boy who had been electrocuted
while tree climbing after a thunderstorm. The peace and comfort brought
to the family when they saw the child showed him how important his services

It also gave him a sense of purpose.

“This is a business that if you’re not put here to do it, you won’t
last very long,” he warned. “It’s just a calling to ease the burden
of grief.”

Price has seemingly made it his mission to ease as much suffering as
possible. While he and his wife, Debbie, carry out the everyday duties of
running a funeral home – the visitation, the funeral, the administrative
responsibilities – he gives special attention to helping clients deal with
the aftermath.

“Sometimes it’s three months, six months before [the family] realizes
that person is dead,” he said. “The body and mind have a way of
coding out that tragedy.”

Price has seen how a seemingly stable support system can crumble when
a loved one dies. His nephew was killed in an automobile accident several
years ago, and he recalled how his brother and sister-in-law had trouble
finding people to reach out to. Next-door neighbors who’d been close with
the family for years suddenly shut them out after the 21-year-old died –
not an unusual response, he said.

“Anything people don’t understand fully, they fear,” he explained.

As an aid, Price Funeral Home established support groups for people
to talk about their experiences and feelings with others who have suffered
a similar loss. He said it’s a vital program, but convincing people to come
isn’t easy.

“People think if they go to a support group they’ll be put on a
spot or they might cry,” he said. “Well, it’s good to cry.”

There’s no denying an element of stress exists in a business of death.
It is dealt with on a daily basis on a multitude of levels. But Price said
it doesn’t bind people to their job the way the rest of us might expect;
it’s just the opposite. Helping somebody find peace and resolve in their
life is so powerful, he said, it makes separating from the pain less difficult.
The focus changes from death to life, from suffering to healing, from endings
to beginnings.

Price expresses gratitude for the work he and his family are doing.

“I think I’m probably one of the luckiest people in the world in
that I know what flips my switch – this business,” he said. “And
I could still do it 18 hours a day if I had to.”


A new generation

You know how the story goes: Boy meets girl. Boy and girl fall in love.
Boy and girl marry out of college. Boy and girl move away to start a life
in a new town. Boy and girl open funeral home.

Just your typical love tale – at least in the case of Todd and Susan
Wolfe. They fell in love while attending the Pittsburgh Institute of Mortuary
Sciences in 1997. After graduation, they worked at different funeral homes
– Susan at Lee Funeral Home in Manassas, Todd at funeral homes in Woodstock
and Arlington – until the fall of 1999, when Todd joined his wife in Manassas.
They married last August, and though they don’t own their own business yet,
he said it’s a long-term goal for them.

The Wolfes represent a new wave of funeral directors, both because they
are young and because they got into the business out of a concern for the
profession – and without the ties of family.

“This is a field where a lot of people have an interest simply
because they don’t know about it,” said Susan.

Which probably accounts for the increase in younger people attending
mortuary colleges, she said. Todd estimated the average age of his classmates
at PIMS to be 27; Susan said one of her peers was as young as 18.

But the Wolfes are still the exception, not the rule. And while she
hasn’t personally encountered criticisms, Susan explained that her age still
takes some people by surprise.

She recalled a family pulling her aside following a service one afternoon
to question her about it.

“We were taking bets on how old you are,” the family told

“I said, ‘I’m 25,’ and they said, ‘You’re very mature for your
age.’ Most people can’t picture funeral directors who are 25,” she

“Everyone likes to second-guess me,” said Lori Blasius, a
23-year-old funeral director at Blasius-Baker Funeral Home, also in Manassas.
She added that on top of being young, her gender also can alarm people.

“I answer the phone and people say, ‘Can I speak to the funeral
director?’ and I say, ‘I am the funeral director.’ “

Blasius, a PIMS classmate of Todd and Susan, joined her father Clifford
as part owner of the home, which has been in her family for four generations.

She said that her job can be overwhelming at times, but she has managed
to have friendships, a boyfriend and as much of a life as possible outside
her work.

“I think the most difficult part is having a family. I wouldn’t
tell a woman not to go into the business, but if she plans on having a family,
I might push her to go elsewhere,” she warned. “You don’t work
9 to 6.”

“I’m on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days out of
the year,” added Susan. “It’s a lot of hours, but I wouldn’t change
what I do for a living.”

It’s a common attitude in the business. Despite the myths that exist,
most of the directors said that the public is becoming more educated. Society
is growing aware that this is a business for the living more than it is
for the dead.

Across from Price’s desk in his office is a standard water cooler. The
label plastered across the front advertising the brand of water captures
the hope, not despair, that pervades the funeral profession.

It reads, “Almost Heaven.”

·Contact Emily Kuhl at [email protected]



to consider tourism board

Caryn Goebel


The county may today come one step closer in creating a new bureau that
would draw more tourists and visitors – and their spending money – to Prince
William County.

But even if the Prince William Board of County Supervisors approve the
resolution, issues still surround the creation of the Prince William/Manassas
Conference and Visitors’ Bureau, including whether the city’s monetary contribution
warrants representation on the 13-member board of directors.

A tourism study group who drafted the articles of incorporation and
bylaws of the new bureau had originally included a Manassas representative
selected by the city council on the board of directors, but scrutiny on
the county level said the city’s annual contribution of $35,000 toward tourism
wasn’t enough to merit a seat on the board.

The county contributes 3 percent of its hotel-tax revenues toward tourism,
currently promoted under the Park Authority.

Liz Barnes, director of communications for Prince William County, said
that comes to about $695,000, plus grant money, that’s earmarked for promoting
tourism. Another $182,000 is directed to historic Rippon Lodge, where county
officials hope to create a historic visitor’s attraction in the coming years.

Some critics have said the inequity of money contributed by the county
and city toward tourism should be taken into account, so much so, that the
first draft of the bylaws had representation by the city on the board of
directors stricken from the document.

In response, Manassas officials said they want to be part of the bureau
that would market the Prince William region as a leisure, corporate and
meeting destination and have convinced county officials to include a Manassas
representative on the board.

But it’s not ironclad.

Manassas City Manager Larry Hughes will meet with county officials Friday
to hash out how much more the city would have to contribute to be part of
the tourism bureau.

Hughes said city council members have made no public comment on how
much the city could annually afford to contribute to tourism, but it could
never be as much as it pledges.

“This is something that has to be worked out,” Hughes said.

There is room for discussion, but Hughes wouldn’t say how high the city
could go in its contribution.

There is frustration felt among city officials who realize that Manassas
is landlocked, unlike Prince William County, with little growing room to
help increase its tax revenues, Hughes said.

Whether or not the city has a seat on the board, the infrastructure
of the tourism board will continue to grow.

County officials hope the non-profit organization will be in operation
by July 1, the beginning of fiscal 2001.

County supervisors recommended last year that a new organization take
over from the Park Authority, because growth in the industry requires special

When the bureau takes over this summer, four employees under the Park
Authority’s bureau will not transfer, Barnes said.

Tabitha Mullins, the current director of tourism, and one full-time
and two part-time employees, who operate the Tourist Information Center
in Occoquan, would maintain employment only at the request of the new board
of directors.

The tourism bureau will be governed by the board of directors, seven
of whom will be appointed by the supervisor of each magisterial district,
and one at-large appointment.

Two additional members will be recommended by the Prince William County
Tourism Association; one from a recommendation from the Prince William County
Economic Development Advisory Council; and another representing a tourism
attraction operated by the Park Authority.

The last member will come from the city only if an agreement on monetary
contribution is made, Barnes said. If no common ground is found, the last
seat will be taken from a county or city resident who shows a demonstrated
interest in tourism.


project brings dispute

Keith Walker

Although the members of the area’s rowing community organized to support
development of land that is bordered by Lake Ridge and Occoquan Club Road,
others were on hand at the Citizens’ Advisory Committee meeting to counter
their overwhelming attendance.

Developers, who want to put 300 houses on 320 acres near the end of
Springwoods Drive, have promised to build a 12-acre public park and boathouse
so area high school rowing teams can store their boats and have access to
the Occoquan River.

The project would be part of the development of a town center near the
McCoart Building and along Prince William Parkway.

Tom Moulen, of Manassas, said he’s been rowing on the Occoquan for 30

“I’ve probably seen the Occoquan change more than anyone. I don’t
think the developers are asking all that much,” he said.

“This is really the last opportunity that we have for public access
to the Occoquan. To have this large body of water out there and only have
Fairfax County taking advantage of it is really a shame,” he said.

Fairfax County has access for public rowing available at Fountain Regional

Jack Kooyoomjian, who described himself as a citizen volunteer on past
projects similar to the one before the advisory committee now, reminded
people to be cautious when considering the options.

“You’ve got to make sure that not only are the proffers solid,
but to make sure that you have the infrastructure to make those guys [the
developers] follow through,” he said.

Harold Harris, of 4435 Prince William Parkway, is more pessimistic about
the process.

“If they want to row, they should by some land, build a boathouse
and row. They’re just another special-interest group,” Harris said
after the meeting.

“This committee is nothing but whitewash. The county staff and
the big developers get together and decide. They’re going to do what they
want to do and nobody is going to watch out for us,” he said.

Jesse Oaks, chairman of the Sector Planning Committee, said the committee
is interested in hearing from everyone in the community.

“We’d like to get input from as many people as we can. We have
time at the beginning of each meeting for people to talk,” he said.

Oaks said the committee will be considering ideas on the entire project
until mid-summer. He encouraged people to visit the committee’s Web site
at to submit ideas and voice concerns.

to be charged for threats

Nancy Carroll


An Osbourn High School student is to be charged with harassment by computer.
The 15-year-old girl threatened to injure and kill two fellow students,
police said.

The case began on Jan. 31 when a female student approached School Resource
Officer Greg Cash complaining that she and her friend were being threatened
by a fellow student. The girls talked to each other in various chat rooms
simultaneously from their homes, Manassas police said, and had made chat
logs of the threatening messages.

“Any time you get a large group of students together disagreements
happen,” Cash said. “But these were very serious threats.”

“These girls have had confrontations before,” Cash said, although
both he and Osbourn Principal Jack Graham agreed that this kind of bullying
was rare.

Manassas police and school resource officers worked closely with the
Virginia State police and the Bureau of Criminal Investigations to identify
who was sending the threats.

The High Technology Investigative Unit were able to identify the culprit
using Internet service provider records.

“Young people feel that they can be anonymous on the Internet but
they are not,” Virginia State police spokeswoman Lucy Caldwell said.

As awareness of computer crimes grows Caldwell believes that more police
agencies will invest in technology that enables them to identify internet

“Many local law enforcement agencies are setting up computer crime
units,” Caldwell said. “Detectives are now beginning to work with
Internet companies to crack down on this kind of activity.”

Caldwell pointed out some of the dangers of the Internet.

“We have had many cases of young people being threatened over the
Internet,” she said. “It is potentially very dangerous.”

Caldwell says that part of the problem is that young people do not know
who they are talking to in chat rooms. Participants can chat using false
screen names, never having to reveal their true identity.

“This was very scary for the girls involved,” said Caldwell.

Police searched the homes of three Osbourn students believed to be involved
in making the threats and seized computer-related material including computer
discs. Two of the girls were cleared of all suspicion, the third girl is
awaiting charges of harassment by computer, police said.

Graham did not give details on what would happen to the student, although
he said that the school has a strict policy concerning these kinds of incidents.

“We take all threats very seriously,” said Graham. “I
can suspend a student in this kind of situation for up ten days.”

-Contact Nancy Carroll at [email protected] at [email protected]



assembly required in robot competition

Tiffany Schwab

PRINCE WILLIAM – The happy group gathered in a tight circle, faces beaming
as they watched their pride and joy take its first steps.

Or, rolls as the case may be.

The faces belonged to the students at Stonewall Jackson High School
and their mentors – parents, teachers and engineers from the community.
The baby, well, it was a half-completed robot they created together.

The robot will face off against others of its kind at this year’s FIRST
Robotics Competition, a nationwide engineering contest that pits schools
against each other to build a robot that can perform a variety of tasks.

Teams have six weeks to brainstorm, design, construct and test their
robot, according to FIRST.

Stonewall is a rookie in this year’s regional competition. About 30
students and a dozen mentors have been working on the robot nearly every
night since the beginning of January.

Students were not sure they would even get this far with the robot,
said 10th-grader Aaron Hampton.

Like the other teams taking part in the competition, Stonewall started
out with a box of about 900 parts and some directions, but no particular
design for the robot.

“When the box came with all the materials, everybody said, ‘We
can’t do this. It’s impossible,’ ” Hampton said.

They thought the teachers would pull out of the competition.

But they didn’t.

Hampton said with teamwork and the help of the engineers and mentors,
everything came together.

“We were happy we finally saw it moving,” he said of the robot.

Taking a turn at the controls, Hampton guided the robot, sending it
careening around the workshop floor like a curious toddler.

Stonewall’s robot looks somewhat like a platform on wheels, with vertical
aluminum beams holding an arm that, when complete, will be able to lift
balls and place them into a 7-foot goal.

It uses electronic, pneumatic and mechanical devices to perform its

The team and its 5-foot tall robot will compete at the NASA Langley
Regional competition, which will take place March 8-10 at Virginia Commonwealth
University in Richmond.

In addition to playing ball at the competition, students must guide
the robot to cross a teeter-totterlike device and grasp the goals to place
them on the teeter totter. Teams score points for how much their robots
accomplish in two-minute matches.

“That’s the easy part,” said Kevin Surber, a team mentor and
technology education teacher at Stonewall.

“When we get to VCU, we get paired up with three different teams,”
Surber said. “You never know who your partner’s going to be. I think
that’s the spirit of the competition.”

FIRST, which stands for “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science
and Technology,” is a nonprofit organization with a mission to “generate
an interest in science and engineering among today’s youth.”

That mission is alive at Stonewall.

Chris Pauley, a sophomore, hopes to go into engineering one day. Working
with the robot was a first for him.

“It’s very interesting, very new,” Pauley said.

Taking part in the competition got him working on the designing and
planning process and creating a machine.

“I’ve never done anything like this,” he said.

Is he still interested in engineering after this experience?

“Yes, definitely,” Pauley said.

At Monday night’s work session, mentor Walter Hubbell, a civil engineer,
made a few suggestions for Pauley, who found a part on his own to fit the
grasping arm of the robot.

“Hmm. That could work,” Pauley said.

Mentor Larry Jackson, an electrical engineer with Lockheed Martin, said
he’d like to see students doing more hands-on work with the robot.

But, with only six weeks, time is limited and the mentors are having
to do a lot of work, teaching students as they go.

Mimi Nguyen, a system software engineer with Lockheed, added that this
is only their first year competing and the students have done a lot, including
designing an initial prototype of the robot.

“They’re the driving force behind wanting to make this work,”
Nguyen said.

Not all students on the team are technology wizards, and they don’t
have to be.

Rhina Ascencio, a 10th-grader, said she has little experience with technology,
but has learned much since joining the team.

In addition to working on the robot, Ascencio helped create the team’s
Web site.

“This is a stepping stone for me to get a glimpse of what this
is all about,” she said.

She is writing a chronology of the team, which calls itself Technohazard,
recording students’ thoughts and a detailed description of what the team
did each day.

Students’ comments have been positive, she said.

“Some people said it was a good way to meet people and do something
they had never done before,” she said.

And in her view, “It’s kind of cool being here than being at home.”

Also, students have had to learn to make group decisions and work with
people of different backgrounds and ages.

Plus, “We have developed a special relationship with the teachers,”
said David Alvarado, a 12th-grader. “I never imagined I’d be shaking
the hand of my teacher.”

For more information on the competition, check out FIRST’s Web site
at and Stonewall’s team Web site at

· Contact Tiffany Schwab at [email protected]