Mortician to the Masses

Local followers of the macabre will appreciate the recent resurfacing of Richard Luciano, the original King of Caskets, who has been kind enough to keep the Press posted on the gangrenous fruits of his imagination.

You probably remember Luciano as Richard J. Herrin Jr., the pinched-face mortician accused in 1990 of dumping cadavers from Texas Chiropractic College into a field in Brazoria County. That came two years after the Texas Funeral Service Commission, the industry's regulatory agency, revoked Herrin/Luciano's funeral director's license for operating a cremation business in violation of state mortuary law.

His pyres doused, Luciano went into the business of cut-rate caskets, operating alternately from a Bellfort storefront and the living room of his apartment -- which, allegedly, Luciano also employed as a holding area back in 1987, when he was a fetus-disposal man.

And then there are the bad checks, the wiretapping charges, the assault conviction and a number of other petty crimes dating back to the 1960s. But even if you're just now becoming acquainted with the name Richard Luciano, you catch the drift of this 47-year-old Galveston native who, in addition to grossing out all of Harris County on more than one occasion, did seven months of a five-year sentence after copping a plea on the body-dumping charges.

Good form would insist that we drop this whole sordid business. But we, like you, can't help rolling around in such a lurid gutter. Besides, Luciano himself won't allow it. Once again he has crawled out from under a rock to share with us his major-league-caliber chutzpah and an assortment of epithets and accusations directed at the Texas Funeral Service Commission.

"I'm from a big Italian family," explained the enigmatic embalmer. (He said his grandfather reluctantly took the name Herrin because the egg farmer he worked for during the Depression couldn't pronounce Luciano. Moved by family pride, Richard Jr. said, he officially changed his name back to the original before the cadaver-casting scandal came to light.)

"I know what organized crime is, mister. They told me I was going to have to do business their way or they were going to pull my license. They said anything dealing with death has to be by a licensed funeral director. I think that's kinda wrong. That's organized crime."

Luciano's low opinion of the TFSC is hardly news. The two have sparred regularly since 1966, when Luciano lied on his application to take the funeral director's exam. Larry Farrow, director of the commission, actually chuckled when he heard that Luciano was on the move again. He called the de-spaded undertaker an "albatross," as well as "one of the most colorful people connected to the industry -- or to the fringes of the industry, I should say."

"Colorful" would be one way to describe The Funeral Store -- a reincarnation of the original Continental Casket Store, which fizzled when Luciano was jailed for two and a half months last year after his attorney claimed that Luciano had threatened his life. (The case was tossed out. Luciano is suing the attorney, Jack Kennedy, who has since been disbarred.)

The Funeral Store is Luciano's plan to upgrade to a kind of one-stop shopping for the aggrieved -- or the merely foresighted. If it flies, Luciano will present a storefront challenge to what he calls the exploitation of consumers by the funeral industry. He plans to undercut by hundreds of dollars the merchandise end of the business by shaving the price of a casket, headstone and concrete burial vault to about a third of that charged by a full-service mortuary.

That would make Luciano a combination Mattress Mac and Claude "You plug 'em, I plant 'em" Clay, the dirt-cheap undertaker of Grimy Gulch in the Tumbleweeds cartoon.

"We have nothing but quality," said Luciano, who has virtually no lips, a nose as sharp and thin as a razor and dark eyes covered by tinted horn-rims patched up with adhesive tape. (He might consider hiring someone else to sell The Funeral Store on those late-night television commercials that are sure to follow.)

"If you walk into any funeral home right now and ask them what is the most cheapest casket that money can buy, they're going to tell you it's a 20-gauge steel and you can only get it in two colors, an ugly-looking brown or a dull gray. They know you're not going to like them colors and you're going to move up to another color.

"So you're paying hundreds of dollars more for the same-quality casket that cost the funeral home the same amount of money wholesale. The only thing you're paying for is $1,100 to $1,200 more for a few pints of paint."

Smart shoppers will be able to go to The Funeral Store and get a fiberglass casket, headstone and concrete vault for $1,375. Luciano will also pick up the Yellow Pages and arrange limousine service, which is usually handled by your kindly funeral director for nearly twice the going rate. And because, according to Luciano, funeral homes have a financial interest in flower shops, he can cut out those "kickbacks" as well.

"It's going to be the same thing [as the Continental Casket Store], but we're going to have more variety," he said. "It's going to be like a grocery store, excuse the expression. You walk in, you have caskets, monuments, flowers, clothing, rosary beads, veils, register books, whatever you need.

"If a family will use my services, I can save them hundreds to thousands of dollars."

To prove it, Luciano picked up the speaker phone in the office of his attorney, Perry Bass, and did a little comparison shopping. The first call, to one of Houston's largest funeral homes, went something like this:

"Yes, I need to speak to one of your funeral directors... Yes sir, my brother is over in Park Plaza Hospital and the doctors don't think he's going to have long to live."

"Well, I'm certainly sorry to hear that."
"Yes sir, we are too," Luciano replied, the well-executed crack in his voice lending an appropriate pathos to the moment. "We're kind of limited on funds. What is the cheapest casket that money can buy at your place?"

"In our facility, the casket minimum would be $1,842."
"Does that include embalming and everything?"
"No sir, that's just the casket. It wouldn't include any service charges or any transportation charges, anything of that nature."

"Okay... My god... Would we be able to get that casket in, say, a blue?"
"No sir, I only have that casket in one color and that's a charcoal gray."
"Let's say if we used that casket and just, you know, had my brother embalmed and taken to the cemetery to be buried, how much would all of that be?"

"To have a graveyard service?"
"Okay, the service charges for a graveyard service, just the service charges only, is $3,242."

"And that takes care of everything?"
"No sir."
"That's $3,200 plus the casket?!"
"$3,242 is our service charge for a graveyard service, yes sir."

A price guide obtained from the same funeral home lists a "full traditional service" at $3,597. That doesn't include the casket ($1,842 to $8,846, or, if you prefer, a container made of unfinished particle board for $275); limousine for the family ($225); opening and closing of the grave (about $600); flowers ($5 to $2,500); or coordination of church and graveside ceremony ($1,200 for both).

It does, however, include more than $1,800 in "professional services" performed by the funeral director and staff. Those services include 24-hour availability, "coordination" of burial or cremation, clerical assistance, securing and recording of death certificate and "coordination and direction" of a ceremony in the mortuary's chapel.

Luciano said the only thing more shameful than the outrageous cost of putting your loved ones to rest is the funeral industry's reluctance to admit that there are alternatives.

"What [the funeral homes] don't tell the people, number one, is that you don't need to be embalmed and you don't need a casket. A family can put the body in the back of a station wagon, wrap it in a bed sheet and take it to the cemetery and bury their own dead."

Farrow, the TFSC director, said that in a rural state like Texas, people often plant their own. All they have to do is build a casket and create a cemetery -- which, as long as you're at least five miles from the corporate limits of any city, is as simple as digging a hole.

"The problem," Farrow added, "is when someone goes into business to do that. The law says you have to be a licensed funeral director.

"His casket store is perfectly legal in this state. The trouble with Richard is he always tries to provide services along with that."

Before revoking his license, the TFSC said, it had evidence that Luciano signed death certificates and provided a full range of funerary services while on probation. In the course of its investigation, the commission found a number of those people who had come to Luciano in their hour of need.

"He offered to throw in his services as a friend of the family for free," Farrow said. "There was one family, we asked them, "Well, how long have you been friends with him?" They said, 'Oh, about a day and a half. We just met him when we went to look at his caskets.'"

It's likely that Farrow and the commission haven't heard the last of Richard Luciano. The rogue mortician said he'd like his license back. That's his right, Farrow said.

But it won't be easy. Luciano would have to take the funeral director's exam again -- the same exam he has already failed five times in the course of his career. It took him four tries to get his first license, and he failed the test again in 1989.

Should Luciano somehow make the grade, he would then have to pass muster with the TFSC, whose nine members have heard Luciano call them everything from Gestapo agents to extortionists.

"With his background, getting it reinstated might be a little difficult," Farrow said with a straight face.

At the moment, Luciano is too busy trying to launch The Funeral Store to worry about the Texas Funeral Service Commission. He hopes soon to move his inventory, which now sits in a suite on Richmond, into a mini-warehouse across the street. Eventually, he'd like fancier digs. Some prime office space on Fountainview, near Westheimer, is one possibility, Luciano said, though building owners in general haven't warmed to his particular line of work.

But Richard Luciano, who claims to have embalmed his first corpse at age 11, can afford to be patient. He knows that the field of final dispositions is -- and always will be -- fertile ground for the savvy entrepreneur.

"Right now, we're looking for investors, because I want to put in some more stores -- San Antonio, Dallas and another one here in Houston.


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