Memories of the Ambulance Service

Todd Van Beck's picture

In 1992 I published an article in one of the professional journals entitled “The History of the Funeral home Ambulance Service.”  Actually it was one of the few attempts I have done at writing that caught some attention, well attention from veteran funeral directors anyway.

Over my years of writing and doing seminars I have often asked funeral director groups how many of the attendees worked on the funeral home ambulance service.  Thirty years ago many hands went up, and those who raised their hands were also shaking their heads, and rolling their eyes.  The baby funeral directors in the group had no clue as to the veteran’s reaction when the subject of the ambulance service came up.  The baby funeral directors would just look bewildered, and some even confessed to me later that they were totally unaware that funeral homes even operated ambulance services.  Such is the case of generational disconnect.

However today when I ask the question of funeral director groups about operating the ambulance service the number of hands that get raised has clearly dwindled, but still the ones that do raise their hands (they all look a lot like me - you know, white hair, etc.) still shake their heads, and roll their eyes, and still the baby funeral directors just sit seemingly baffled by what this old grumpy undertaker (meaning me) is talking about.

For some this blog item will be going down memory lane.  For others it will probably sound like total science fiction – a story or stories that Todd just pulled out of thin air – but trust me, my friends, what I am about to recollect is NOT science fiction, in fact the ambulance service was for many years as an entrenched a part of the typical American funeral home as were embalming, caskets, funeral vehicles, and funerals!

From the mid 1960s to the mid 1980s I was involved with ambulance service, and our ambulance service WAS NOT simply invalid transportation (as it used to be called).  Our ambulance service was heavy duty, emergency, day and night ambulance service, and as strange as this sounds in 2010 with paramedics and basically moving emergency rooms, in the period of time I am talking about our ambulances were state of the art.

In fact when I decided to become a funeral director I just took it as a matter of course, without even thinking about it, that the ambulance service was a part of the scene, it was part of the career, and I found out quickly that it was a big part of the career.

I need to explain something quickly concerning my use of the term “state of the art” in reference to the funeral home ambulance service.  The funeral home ambulance service was indeed “state of the art” in say 1966, but not by today’s standards.  The basic qualifications to operate the ambulance were nothing.  Some, like me, had advanced first aid – but folks that was it.  The emergency medical technician program was still a decade away when I started on the ambulance.

State of the art in funeral home ambulance service was basically simple.  The impact of the idea of state of the art was actually connected with the appearance of the ambulance itself, and the appearance and the type of vehicles used as funeral home ambulances were literally all over the map.  There were no minimum standards, those were entirely up to the owner of the funeral home and ambulance.

The first ambulance I drove and worked on was a great 1959 Miller-Meteor, and it was a tank.  The second was simply a converted station wagon.  Then I worked on a 1960 Oldsmobile combination (which served as both a funeral coach and ambulance) and then in Boston I drove some really nifty Cadillacs.  

I drove ambulances out in western Nebraska, in the city of Omaha, in rural Iowa, and in the city of Boston.  I worked for the last funeral home in the metro area of Boston to operate an ambulance service when I was a student at the New England Institute, and what an experience that was – driving a ambulance through the streets of Beantown.  WOW!!!!!

In reality our ambulance care for the patients was a kind of “load and go” approach.  We would often times advertize quite boldly “FULLY EQUIPMENT EMERGENCY AMBULANCE SERVICE – 24 HOURS DAY OR NIGHT – OXYGEN EQUIPPED – TWO-WAY RADIO.”  The advertisements read well and sounded great.  We indeed looked grand and great going down the street, because no matter the type of ambulance we had, we had most every emergency light and siren that had ever been invented on those vehicles.  Funeral home ambulances were often times flashy, fast, impressive and above all loud, really loud.

For a young man it was a dream job come true.

However the truth is that our “Fully Equipped Emergency Ambulance” was really not that fully equipped.  Here is what I remember about being fully equipped; we usually had a couple of towels, some ace bandages and 4 x 4 gauze pads, a stretcher, some old Timmons splints (which needed to be seen to be believed – I always felt sorry for people with broken bones), and a tank of oxygen – sometimes full, sometimes half full, sometimes . . . . . . . . . .  Oh, yes, and we had a little plastic bowl called an “emesis basin,” which we were supposed to use when people were vomiting.  The emesis basins, anyway the ones we had, were very small and my patients when I was sitting in the back of the ambulance usually missed the basin totally and threw up on me.

As I mentioned, in the mid 1960s we knew no different, and while by today’s standards people laugh at the idea of a funeral home running the ambulance service let alone at our equipment and how we responded and took care of call, I believe that laughter is really out of ignorance on their part. They really don’t know what they are talking about, and trust me, WE TOOK THE AMBULANCE SERVICE VERY SERIOUSLY.

There were no pagers, no beepers, no answering services, no voice mail, no nothing except for the land line funeral home phone which had to be attended to in person twenty four hours a day, seven days a week, and 365 days a year.

I believe the Federal Wage and Hour Act had been passed and was law of the land in the mid 1960s, but you would never have had inkling that there was even a concept like Wage and Hour in the funeral home world.  We were on call constantly.  Days off?  What are days off??? Who ever heard of such a ridiculous idea – days off?

Add to this that in every funeral home I worked in or even the ones I owned, the ambulance calls always were higher in number than the funeral calls.  Always.  Too often people that were just as ill at 2:00 in the afternoon waited to call the ambulance until 2:00 in the morning.  There is something about the sun going down and the increase in ambulance calls.  Night work was where the action was – most always.

When you operate an ambulance you see the heights of the human spirit, but you also see the utter bottom of human depravity.  Time and space do not allow me to even touch on some of the rawest of the raw calls, and in today’s cultural sensitivities some of my case memories would be offensive – I can’t even tell my family about the real rough ones, but on this tender subject any veteran funeral director who operated the ambulance service will know precisely what I am talking about.  We were in the thick of some of the most distasteful and stressful of human events in our community.

However the flip side of this was some of the most hilarious things happened to me on the ambulance.  A funny story here is appropriate.  When I was a student in Boston we transported an old lady from Don Orione Nursing Home in East Boston to Massachusetts General Hospital.  We hauled her back and forth, back and forth, back and forth.  This lady was so small and meek and she sounded like a faint little mouse when she would talk – she was just a sweetheart, we liked her very much.  Every time we picked her up she would say over and over again “Don’t hurt me, don’t hurt me.”  I always assured her that we would not hurt her and off we would go to the Mass General.  Her name was May.

One afternoon we were called to haul her back to Don Orione, so into Boston we went and put her on the cot.  As we were leaving the ambulance entrance area, before we made it out into the parking lot it started to rain and rain hard, just a down pour, raining cats and dogs, a monsoon in Boston.  Our standard operating procedure in rain like that was to take the blanket and cover the patients head and make a run for the ambulance.

I learned over to her and said “May, I am going to cover your head with this blanket, so you won’t get wet – it’s raining really badly.”  May replied “What did you say?”  So I go through the plan one more time.  I take the blanket and cover May’s head, but honestly it was raining so hard that my associate and I did not want to get soaked so we decided to wait “just a little bit” till it lightened up.  Not a good idea, and there good old May lay her head covered with the blanket and not saying one word.

In a short time a little crowd of people had gathered who also were leaving the hospital, but they too decided to wait a little bit for the rain to let up.  As I looked around at this little crowd it was evident that everybody thought we had a corpse under the blanket, because no one was saying a word, everyone was somber and reverent and all this time the rain just got worse and worse.

It might have been ten minutes that our little group of people afraid to go out into the rain were all standing there, and I remember one woman who was holding a vase of flowers looked over at me and gave me that real sympathetic smile which is always a nonverbal communication that she wanted us to know that she knew we were removing a dead person.  

Out of nowhere, I mean out of nowhere, we all hear this little meek voice said from under the blanket “I think I am going to suffocate.”  It was May talking under the blanket.

It scared the b’jesus out of the entire group waiting for the rain to lighten up, and the nice lady who had sympathetically smiled the moment before at me actually was startled so much that she dropped the vase of flowers and broken glass scattered all over the ambulance entrance.  I looked at my associate and gave the nod saying “let’s get the hell out of here” and rain storm or not off we went to the ambulance.  It must have been a bumpy ride for May.

I was laughing so hard that tears were running down my cheeks.

So friends, there you have a brief memory of the highs and lows of the funeral home ambulance service – I could and probably will write more on the subject.  It was the experience of a lifetime, and while we eventually had to get out of the service, which was the right thing to do, I look back today and would not change a thing about my experience.  The ambulance was a headache, a tension producer, and at times a literal nightmare, but it also was an opportunity for a young man to see the raw data of life, and realities of the human condition, and the ambulance stories make marvelous cocktail party chatter – people love the ambulance stories.  The ambulance service forced me to continue to grow up.

Maybe some of the readers can share their own memories of this significant chapter in funeral service history.  TVB


Loved this article Todd. I have never worked for a funeral home with ambulance service even though I go way back---but I have heard other fond remembrances from others.

You should really write a book and include all these great stories and articles of yours!!

I worked for a North Texas funeral home on the ambulance service crew when I was going to high school, early 1970's and for a year after I graduated. I can really relate to this great article and I really enjoyed reading it. I was on top of the world in that job at only 17 years old. The history of this article is 100% accurate. I really would not trade the experience that I had for anything in the world. We would race the competing funeral home ambulance service down the street and try to be the first to arrive at an accident. Although, I am really glad that the ambulance service has evolved to what it is today - State of the Art!

I was raised in a (then) small SW Virginia community of about 7,000 (with surrounding service area of another 10,000 and 11 sq.mi.) We lived in a 5 room apartment over the funeral home in which my Dad was part owner. The first ambulance I recall PLAYING IN was a 1941 Packard straight ambulance, along with a 1948 Packard combination (always used as an ambulance) and a '49 Packard 3-way hearse. In the early 50's, the funeral home purchased their first Cadillac's, 1951 and a '52 Superior ambulances. The '52 is the one that I made my first emergency run with, as an 8 year old "ride along." As the fifties moved along, I saw more coaches come and go - a '55 Cadillac 3-way, 58 Cadillac combination, 57 Ford and 58 Pontiac 'ambulwagons.' Enter the sixties: the first vehicle I actually drove on an emergency call was a 1962 Cadillac combination (we always used our combinations 98% of the time as ambulances.) College! I helped a funeral director near the college with ambulance work. He ran a 1964 Pontiac ambulance and a '64 Cadillac combination. HOME again! With my funeral director's license in hand, I worked out the remaining 4+ years of our ambulance service, although both my Dad (now the only owner) and I were members of the local Rescue Squad (Dad was a Charter Member, 1947 and it's Captain.) We wound out our years of ambulance work with a 1965 Pontiac ambulance, a '66 Cadillac combination and a 1968 Superior 'Consort' Pontiac Combination (which would run in excess of 140 mph - I know, I was driving! Gosh, could not do that today!!) We were, as were most funeral homes, the victims of the Federal Government and their new Emergency Transport ruling. We 'ran' right up until, literally, the last minute. All our area funeral homes had agreed to discontinue ambulance service at midnight, 31 January, 1969. At 12:08 a.m. (February 1) I pulled into the ER of our local hospital. I returned to the funeral home a little after 1 a.m., took the red lights off the vehicles and went to bed! Restful (mostly) nights followed!