During my adult life, I actually had three careers. First was the four years I served in the military. When I left the military, I went to mortuary school, served a two-year apprenticeship, and then became a licensed funeral director and embalmer. I worked for funeral homes for twelve years. I started out in East Texas and most of my years were in San Antonio working for a prestigious funeral home.
They were rewarding years and I am proud of my career in the business. I left when I had a death in my immediate family and I could no longer work emotionally detached. I have many memories from the years I worked in the funeral business. Some are emotionally challenging, some involved historical individuals, and some in hindsight are comical. When you worked in view of the public, your demeanor was always dignified. When handling the remains of family members we served, we gave the same dignified and respectful care. However, I have to admit, behind the scenes were a lighter atmosphere between staff members. I have many stories of my experiences that will either pull at your heartstrings or enlighten you to the lighter side of funerals. I am going to share one of my experiences, which became notorious. I’ll let you decide if you think it was humorous.
Out of respect to the family that still owns and operates the funeral home, I am changing the name and the name of the owner. However, if your curiosity is such, you can find the story on the Internet by querying the name of the deceased that I have not changed. It will verify most of the details of my story.
In was March 11, 1977 and I was busy working several funeral services. Weisman Funeral Home is the largest (by volume of families served) and the most prestigious in San Antonio. While I worked there, we conducted approximately 100 funeral services per month. We often would conduct five or six services in one day. As I recall, this was one of those days. What made it unusual, the owner, John Weisman, notified all staff, working and on day off, he was conducting a mandatory meeting. The years I worked for the funeral home, this was the first and the last mandatory meeting we ever had.
We all met at 6 PM in our small chapel. When I walked in, I noticed Mr. Weisman’s demeanor was of heightened anxiety. When he began the meeting, he cautioned us that anything discussed in this meeting was strictly confidential. Under no circumstances were we to repeat the details.
Mr. Weisman told us he had received a telephone call from the attorney of Sol West III. Mr. West was a millionaire oil tycoon and socialite in South Texas. Mr. West’s attorney was notifying the funeral home of Mr. West’s sister-in-law and wife of his deceased brother Ike West. Ike West’s wife Sandra West had died in the Los Angeles California area and she was at the time worth more than four million dollars.
Mr. Weisman continued by providing the details of his discussion with Mr. West’s attorney. Sandra West had left a Will that requested she was to be buried next to her husband, by Weisman Funeral Home, dressed in a particular gown, and sitting behind the wheel of her blue Ferrari. In her Will, it stated if the details were not carried out, her fortune would be awarded to a named individual other than Sol West. Mr. West was the only surviving second-generation West family member. Mr. West was insistent that the money would stay within the West family.
The tension escalated when Mr. West attorney announced if the detail of Sandra West burial instructions leaked to the media, Mr. West would file suite against John Weisman and Weisman Funeral Home. Now we knew why Mr. Weisman was holding the meeting. We left the meeting that evening bound in our confidentiality and wondering what more bizarre details, the family would reveal later.
We didn’t have to wait long. That night on the Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, in his monologue, Johnny talked about the unusual burial request of some eccentric millionaires. He went on to state there was a Texas oil tycoon’s wife who had died and she requested burial in her Ferrari. Twenty-four hours later, the San Antonio Express ran an article naming Sandra West’s burial request. It named Weisman Funeral Home as the selected funeral home to carry out her wishes.
Mr. Weisman contacted the West’s attorney. He knew that when Johnny Carson taped his show, the family had not notified the funeral home. We found out later that someone from California leaked the information. Now we waited for the West family to contact us to plan the logistics of the burial.
Two days later, Sol West and his attorney came to the funeral home to meet with Mr. Weisman. A funeral home in California had completed the embalming, placed Mrs. West in a casket, and they would ship her to our funeral home. Mr. West also notified us that he had filed a petition in the California courts to protest the Will. We would arrange to have Mrs. West casket temporarily entombed in a local mausoleum until the legal issues were resolved.
Several weeks later, the attorney for the West family notified the funeral home that the judge in California ruled that the Will was valid. Sol West was responsible to follow his sister-in-law’s wishes or the court would award the estate to the other person named in the Will. Mr. West requested that we prepare the logistics of the burial as detailed in Sandra West’s Will. He asked, if possible to keep the details confidential.
Mr. Weisman include me with five other funeral directors to initiate the plans. We contacted a concrete company to build a box with one end open that was large enough to roll the car inside and then seal the end. We contacted a company to transport Mrs. West’s car from California. We also contacted a crane company to lift the concrete box with its contents into the grave.
Mr. Weisman asked me if I would come in the following day wearing something other than a suit. I was to go to Alamo Masonic Cemetery where the family had their plots. I was to measure to see if the box would fit in the area next to the grave of Ike West. He also wanted me to be discreet hoping someone from the media would not spot me. The San Antonio Express had already reported the intended grave site.
The next day I went out to the cemetery to measure. I had parked my car a block away and walked in hoping to not be spotted. As I returned to my car, a man came over to me and asked if I was from Weisman Funeral Home. I denied it and left the area. It never crossed my mind that I might be followed. When I pulled into the funeral home parking lot and got out of my car, the same man pulled his car behind mine.
I went in and immediately met with Mr. Weisman. I told him about the guy catching me. He laughed and said; “I didn’t think we could pull it off without the media finding out. At least they don’t know when it will happen. When we start digging the grave, they will be all over it.” He then changed the subject and asked, “What did you find at the cemetery?”
He motioned me to sit down and as I did, I told him, “On the left side of Ike West’s grave there is a curbing, which outlines the family’s grave sites. There is room enough between for a regular grave, but not the size we need. We could remove the curbing and then replace it afterwards. I know you told me her Will states she is to be buried next to her husband. There is more than enough room to put the box at the foot of his grave. If we did that, would it still meet the guidelines of the Will?”
Mr. Weisman took a moment to think, he said, “Good point. It is not our decision to determine whether it is or not. I’ll call Mr. West attorney and let him know of the options and let them decide. Thank you Chuck, you did a good job.” I smiled and left his office.
By the first week in May, we had received the car from California. They had completed the concrete box large enough to house the Ferrari. The crane company was ready to put the crane in place. The construction company that would be digging the grave and filling it with concrete was ready. In addition, we had rented a warehouse in a secret location to house the car, the concrete box, and eventually used to place Sandra West behind the wheel of her car. Mr. Weisman notified the family we were ready to proceed. The location of the grave was to be at the foot of Ike West’s grave. The judge in California ruled that the location met the detail of the Will.
There are discussions on the Internet about the Ferrari, in which we buried her. The argument is the year and model of the Ferrari and whether it was the Ferrari, she drove in California. I cannot verify or do I remember the specifics of the car. I do recall, the Ferrari was blue and they told us it was not the original, but one she had purchased for parts. The full interior was intact and we reclined the driver’s seat before placing Sandra West’s remains behind the wheel.
On May 19, 1977, with all preparations completed, a flatbed truck with the concrete box containing the Ferrari and Mrs. West pulled up to the gravesite. Without any ceremony, the crane lifted the box and placed it into the grave. Immediately, the construction company began pouring concrete partially filling the grave. They placed earth on top of the concrete completing the grave.
Texas State Law requires a licensed Funeral Director to be present for the burial of human remains. Weisman Funeral Home sent one man to follow the law. Otherwise, no other members of the funeral home staff were present at the cemetery. To my knowledge, none of the West family or their friends attended. However, the San Antonio Express wrote that there were three hundred spectators and members of the media present.
Sandra West had her final wishes fulfilled. Sol West received the remainder of Ike West’s estate. Mr. Weisman instructed his staff to keep the details of this burial confidential. Confidentiality was the tradition then, and as it is now of Weisman Funeral Home. I have only shared with my readers those details that I recall and you can verify on the Internet. Consequently, I feel comfortable that I have not broken the confidentiality entrusted to me.
I hope you have enjoyed this story and will leave me your comments. If you and others have enjoyed this story of my experience in the funeral business, I will share more.