Young undertaker comforts the living, cares for the dead

His friends affectionately call him The Undertaker.

Jon “J.D.” Alley is a single man of 22, a college sophomore at UAA, and a Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity brother. He enjoys outdoor sports, movies and filmmaking.

He's also a funeral director apprentice, crematory operator and removal specialist at Evergreen Memorial Chapels in Anchorage and Eagle River.

“He's a really good guy,” said Ben Drake, president of Sigma Alpha Epsilon's UAA chapter. Alley joined the fraternity in December 2005, and Drake first met him during Alley's pledge interview.

“At first, I was like, ‘Oh, great,'” Drake said. “He wears a lot of black 'cause he works at a funeral home. He has the emo glasses and everything. I thought he was going to be weird, one of those very dark people obsessed with death. But, he's really chill to hang out with.”

Alley mediates between the living and the dead when people die and their loved ones begin a new life without them.

Most families he sees are encountering death for the first time.

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Some have seen a loved one through years of agony during terminal illness, caring for that person while feeling helpless to ease the suffering. These people may shed tears of relief and happiness, because their loved one is at peace and no longer in pain.

Others are shocked by death's cold breath when someone they love is lost to accident, suicide or homicide. They feel angry, confused and in turmoil. Some laugh rather than cry. Some are silent as a tomb. Others cry as if they are broken for the first time.

“I take them by the hand,” Alley said, “and show them there's a light at the end of the tunnel. I sit them down. I explain what I'm here to do and what I'm going to help them with. Then, I let them make decisions on how they want to respect and honor their loved one.”

Evergreen Memorial Chapel's main chamber downtown seats 75 to 100 adults, and is surrounded by rooms used for mementos _” such as photographs or favorite objects of the deceased _” and reflection. The funeral home encourages families to select CDs to play during services, Alley said. Otherwise, speakers infuse the rooms with a stream of instrumental melodies that caress the listener like a light warm blanket.

In the arrangement office, six chairs confer around a dark, wood table with a gleaming glass top. One wall contains a series of four posters with the theme “Celebrating a Life Lived.” Each is blue, and each has its own title: “Live,” “Laugh” “Learn” and “Legacy,” with a host of questions beneath. “When did he smile?” asks the “Laugh” poster. “What delighted him?” “How did he enjoy life?”

The opposite wall displays seven more posters. From left to right, they depict the stages of ritual the living perform for the dead. Each of the seven contains a photograph and a heading. The first is Visitation, the second Funeral, the third Ceremony, the fourth Farewell, the fifth Gathering, the sixth Memorial and the seventh Tribute.

The family members of a recently deceased person confront a bouquet of options. The rooms behind the arrangement office are lush with displays of urns, head panels, mementos that can be customized and sections of caskets to choose among.

Caskets for cremation come in various types of wood and are simple but elegant. Caskets for burial are more elaborate in design and come in wood or metal. Sculptural embellishments depicting everything from golf clubs to crucifixes can be affixed to most of the burial caskets.

“If I was to die, I'd want to be cremated, and I'd want to be in the cherry because of the color and the finish,” Alley said, running his hand over the gloss of a cherry wood casket section.

Alley said his work is uplifting, because he gets to help people at a difficult time in their lives.

“We're really in the memory business,” he said. “We only get one shot, so we have to make sure it's perfect no matter what. It's not as if you're going to have two funeral services.”

Alley took his first step in to the funeral industry when his high school required students who, like Alley, passed exit exams on the first try to select a business to job-shadow at for three days.

He said he remembered the fascinating stories he heard as a child from his grandfather, who was an undertaker, and decided Evergreen Memorial Chapel's Eagle River location was a good place to fulfill his school requirement.

“It really opened my eyes,” Alley said. “It wasn't scary. It was just a natural and very peaceful place where, when somebody passes away, someone has to take care of them. It was something I felt totally comfortable with. I've never had a nightmare since I've been working here.”

Evergreen Memorial Chapels first hired Alley as a gardener and maintenance worker when he was 18. He became a funeral director apprentice within a year and is currently working toward his funeral director's license.

“There's a movie called ‘The Natural’ with Robert Redford,” Alley said. “He's a baseball player. He's an older guy and they find out he's naturally great at what he does. I always thought of that movie with me in the funeral industry. I'm just naturally good at what I do.”

Alley doesn't only care for the grieving; he also cares for the dead. He picks up the remains from the home or hospital, prepares the bodies for the embalmer, applies cosmetics and cremates them. He also sometimes assists the embalmer by handing him or her utensils.

When a person dies, the remains are picked up _” usually from a hospital _” and taken to the funeral home. There, the body is thoroughly cleaned and the hair washed. Fluids fall into a sink, then drain into a sewage where they are treated and sanitized. The embalmer makes an incision on the neck at the right common carotid artery, where the embalming fluid is inserted. The jugular vein is the exit vein; the embalming fluid circulates through the arteries, pushing the blood out through the jugular. Ideally, the fluid extends throughout the circulatory system, entering the tiniest blood vessels.

The embalmer massages the body to work the fluid throughout the tissues. Sometimes veins have collapsed, and parts of the body must be accessed through new incisions. Or, a topical treatment of embalming fluid may be applied to the skin.

A small incision above the navel allows the embalmer to puncture organs and empty their contents before filling the cavities with embalming fluid. Afterward, the incision is closed.

Embalming fluid kills living flesh but somewhat preserves dead flesh by slowing the decay process.

Alley helps with pre-funeral preparations by dressing the bodies and, occasionally, applying cosmetics. Before the remains are dressed in clothing of the family choosing, wounds or other vulnerable areas of skin are covered with a special cloth to prevent the clothes from getting damp.

The funeral home's staff asks the family for a recent photo and, if the deceased was a woman, whether she had a favorite lipstick, eye color, foundation or nail polish. Cosmetics are applied to approximate as closely as possible the look the deceased had when they were alive.

“I think of everybody as my own family member,” Alley said. “You give everybody that respect and treatment.”

When Alley had worked at the funeral home a little more a year, he received a routine call from a hospital to pick up some remains.

“I opened the door, and she was there,” he said. “And didn't look like her. I didn't want to believe it.”

Alley's friend, Jill, a sweet girl with blond hair and blue eyes, had died when her car veered off Highland Road.

She was 19. Alley was barely 20.

He took her back to the funeral home, cleaned and dressed her, and helped the embalmer. He had dinner with her family the night before the funeral and served as the funeral director at the service.

“I thought about the past, reminisced about the good times and tried to look at the brighter side of things,” Alley said. “I saw her memorial and came to realize, you know, that's life. I couldn't have done anything about it. And, hopefully, she's in a better place.”

Alley said he is rewarded by the contribution he makes in people's lives and by the perspective his work gives him.

“Life is fragile,” he said. “Death doesn't care how much money you have, what car you drive, what clothes you're wearing. It's gonna get you. The next time you're angry at your brother or sister or someone you love, stop and think about what's important. Everybody who comes here, I'm sure they wish for 10 more years with their loved one. But that's never gonna happen. They're never gonna be there again. It's human nature that we get angry and think things through, and sometimes it takes someone's death to make you truly understand.”