Parlor Games

Death sounds simple enough–or at least, simple enough for those remaining in this world. A person dies, they are buried or cremated, there might be a service, and that’s it–their body has reached its earthly end. Touring the Martinez Funeral Home in Little Village, however, visitors became aware of just how much goes on before bodies start pushing up daisies.

This weekend, for the Chicago Architecture Foundation’s Open House Chicago, the Martinez Funeral Home opened its doors for the first time to more than its usual coffins and mourners, showcasing its mid-20th century architecture and, the main attraction, its embalming room.

Originally built in 1945 as the Frank Marik and Sons Funeral Home, the building continued in its funerary tradition when Manuel Martinez bought it in 2009. The original ornately carved wooden doors open into a lobby with high-beamed pastel ceilings, and calming wall décor. A painting titled “Quiet Getaway” hangs over the mantle of the stone fireplace, stained glass windows softly filter sunlight, and a drawing depicts a bald eagle silently soaring through a forest of pine trees, presumably a metaphor for escaping the confines of mortal life.

This soothing atmosphere and even the architectural history of the building belied  what the visitors really came to see: a glimpse at the secrets of the mortician’s trade. When asked his reasons for joining the funeral industry more than two decades ago, Martinez reflected for a bit and stated simply, “I was a paramedic for a long time, and I wanted to do something different.” They seem like opposite fields–helping keep people stay out of the ground versus putting them there–but Martinez says he still uses many of the skills he acquired from emergency response.

Gazing upon the embalming table, it did appear as if one had walked into an operating room, albeit one with a wide selection of makeup, nail polish, and hair products. Scattered around the room were complicated pumps and hoses, forceps, clamps and knives, a vague smell of formaldehyde, bottles of preserving solutions, a two-body refrigerator, and even a solution of Botox-for-the-dead. With Martinez’s help, his customers look as good in death as they ever did in life. For the amount of dead he sees on the table,  Martinez said he doesn’t feel that there are any ghosts lurking. No angry ones, anyway.

Martinez Funeral Home, 2534 S. Pulaski Rd., Chicago, IL 60623. 773-521-3972.