Mortuary lives on after TV show
Poway Bernardo Mortuary owner Carl Comer, left, and new general manager David Moravee are celebrating some staff changes, along with the 40th anniversary of the business.
After the reality show “Family Plots” died a natural death in 2005, the Poway-Bernardo Mortuary, has resumed to a somewhat normal existence after the departure of television lights and cameras.
Now turning 40, the business also has several new staff members and one returning one, newly assigned general manager David Moravee, who replaced outgoing GM Rick Sadler two weeks ago.
Gone are some of the members of the Wissmiller family — dad, Chuck, and embalmer Shonna Smith, while Melissa Wissmiller stayed to be a part-time funeral director and Emily Wissmiller Vigney left temporarily, but recently returned to her role as office manager.
Most who watched the show on A&E got hooked on the family’s interaction while on the job as well as the behind-the-scenes look at what running a business that deals with consoling people, selling caskets and assisting with funeral arrangements was like.
The show’s two-season run was the talk of the town here and nationwide and it was good for business too, said owner Carl Comer.
But the show did become fodder for some network talk shows, which raised questions about how viewers perceived the family tactics, Comer said.
“The greatest compliments came from other funeral directors, who watched the show,” he said. “They said it was a very real portrayal.”
Unlike another TV show, “Six Feet Under” on HBO, funeral directors and others “in the business” said that show showed little of what “really happens,” Comer said.
It may be that the mortuary business does not appeal to everyone, but Comer insists that most of those who are drawn to the job are “very passionate about their work,” because they want to help others when they need it most, after a loved one dies.
“This is one business where we treat everyone the same,” he added.
Moravee, 42, has been two weeks in his new position, after a brief stint at El Camino Mortuary in San Diego.
Coming back to Poway, where he spent a few years on the Poway-Bernardo staff and appeared in several A&E episodes, was like “coming home,” he said last week.
“It’s really a nice fit here,” he said. “I knew I had no room to advance at the previous job, so I’m thrilled to be back and do what I hope I do best — help people.”
With 13 years in the mortuary business, Moravee calls himself “very detail-oriented,” but also someone who is passionate about his job, which requires a lot of people skills, he said.
Former mortuary assistant John Greeney, who left the Poway business for undisclosed reasons to become a funeral director at a different mortuary in San Diego, said that he could not be happier to hear that Moravee has returned to Poway-Bernardo.
“I couldn’t think of a better person than David to be the general manager,” Greeney said.
Kim Wiley, a longtime Poway resident, is also a newcomer to the staff and assists the front office.
Comer, who was given the business from his dad a few years ago, will be overseeing the operations, keeping an eye mostly on the business finances, he said.
Being connected to the mortuary business since he was a youngster, Comer said that his family has run the company for most of the 40 years, but he could not recall who started it in 1967, he said.
“He recalls leaning back as a youngster and grabbing a plush casket pillow — and thinking nothing of it,” he said.
He could never do hospice work, dealing with those who are in the throes of death, because working with clients in that situation would be too painful, but he does know how to help others deal with death and grief, he added.
Debbie Hartman-Fares, also new to the staff, helps families with planning funerals, as well as assisting with pre-need arrangements.
Her job brings her in close contact with clients, so much so that she sometimes cries when thinking that they have lost a loved one.
While others might think such a job needs detachment and a “clinical” approach, Hartman-Fares disagrees.
That closeness allows her to connect with families and help them in the grieving process, she said.
“I just got a call from a client who called from France to say how much they appreciated my help.” Hartman-Fares said. “That means a lot.”
Comer added, “It’s all so personal.”
Thomas Henderson, who replaced Shonna Smith as embalmer, is every bit as qualified as Shonna, whom Family Plots fans and local clients fell in love with because of her compassionate approach, according to Comer.
“He’s a perfectionist — and very good at restorative art,” Comer said.
That’s when skill and compassion comes in, making it as humanly possible to have those last few minutes with a loved one, knowing the body needs some cosmetic work to make it presentable enough to be viewed by a loved one, if no one else, Comer said.
“We encourage closure, both physically and mentally, but it always comes down to what a family wants,” he added.
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