An inside look: Don Catchen reveals what it's like to work with the deceased

The Catchen Crematory and Hillside Chapel

At 71, Don Catchen doesn’t fear death. In fact, it’s all he’s ever known.

The self-proclaimed workaholic and country boy had dreams of owning his own funeral home, since he was 3 years old, after his father joked with friends about him becoming an undertaker.

Catchen was born in Somerset, Ky., in 1943 to the surprise of his father, also in the funeral industry. After four prior attempts that resulted in four lovely ladies, his father was “proud as a peacock” to finally have a son.

“I can remember back to when I was about 3 years old. He took me everywhere he went. He would hold my little hand and he’d say ‘This is my son and I’m going to make an undertaker out of him’ and I listened to that all of my life,” Catchen said.

At the age of 16, he went to work for an area funeral service in Kentucky. In 1962, he ventured to Cincinnati for mortuary college when a professor took him on a tour of the historic Cincinnati Crematory Company.

“When I came into this building, there was something about this place that intrigued me and I thought, I’d sure like to own that one day,” Catchen said. In the early '60s, that seemed like a far-fetched dream.

After becoming licensed, Catchen went to work embalming bodies in 1972 at a funeral home in Covington. To many, this line of work isn’t what would be labeled as "enjoyable," but someone needs to fill those shoes and it was the path Catchen chose.

In 1991, he transformed a Chevron gas station in Covington into his first funeral home. Then, to fulfill a nearly 50-year-old wish, he bought the 127-year-old Cincinnati Crematory Company and Hillside Chapel out of bankruptcy in 2010. It's now known as the Catchen Crematory.

“Who would have thought a little old country boy would own something like this,” Catchen said.

The crematory, one of the oldest, functioning crematories in the nation, has "become a national leader in cremation services" according to Barbara Kemmis, the director of the Cremation Association of North America.

Catchen said his extensive experience gives him the insight and perspective he needs for his job. Between his 21 years of work with the Hamilton County Coroner’s Office, owning two funeral homes and prior law enforcement experience in Fort Wright, Catchen has seen death in all of its forms. He’s seen unfortunate deaths – the ones that were taken too soon – and he said it’s sometimes a tough business to be in.

What it's like working with the dead

When a loved one passes away, arrangements need to be made and Catchen is the man for the job. He realizes it’s not easy, nor is it meant for everyone, but someone has to be there for the families to ensure wishes are honored.

From loading a corpse into the freezer, sifting through ashes by hand to find bones and leading prayer services for mourning families, Catchen does it all.

While it’s a necessary job, it’s also a relatively dirty one. WCPO sat down with  Catchen and asked how he copes with death in his line of work.

Q: What’s the process once you receive a call to pick up a body?

A: I have to get a death certificate, which is signed by the doctor or the coroner and then I have to hand-deliver that death certificate to the health department to obtain a permit that allows us to cremate the body.

In the state of Ohio, I have to hold the body for 24 hours before I can cremate the body but sometimes it takes longer than a day to get it signed.

I have a refrigeration system back here that we place the bodies in until I get a death certificate.

Q: How long does it take for the cremation to be finished?

A: From the time I place the body in the retort -- now it's based on weight of the deceased... Somebody my size, two and half hours. We set the controls depending on the weight of the body and the maximum is about three hours. 

If it's an obese person we have to let the thing run a lot longer... I can get a body into the retort up to about 400 lbs; 450 lbs. is a maximum situation. 

Q: After it's finished, is there anything “left” that wasn’t able to be burned?

A: All of the flesh is gone, it burns away. What’s left are the pieces of some of the larger bones of the body such as the femur, the hip joints maybe.

The machine will shut itself down at a certain level, depending on how I set the controls and those pieces (left) are pieces of bone.

You can’t rightfully hand those pieces of bones back to the family, its just wouldn't look right. That’s why it’s called cremation and processing of ashes.

We use a stainless steel drum, a processor, that has big blades in it. In your kitchen at home, you have a blender? That's it, but it's bigger and heavy duty and what we do is place those pieces of bones in there and it grinds them up and makes them into smaller, little pieces.

Q: And you do that by hand?

Does someone physically take them out?

A: Mhm, yeah, yep. 

Q: Can you tell me about the embalming process? You used to do it or still do?

A: I still do, every once in a blue moon. I've done 23,500 bodies that I have records of. 

First thing we do is place the body on a table and position the body the way we want it to look when it's in the casket. We bathe the body in a disinfectant chemical -- that's for our own protection. We always wear gloves, gowns and aprons. My preparation room is set up just like an operating room in a hospital.

If this is a normal situation, a normal body to embalm, we close the eyes and mouth and then I make a small incision about an inch long, right above the clavical bone. I have hooks and I go in and down the incision, and I've done it so much that, with the tip of my instrument, I can feel what I'm touching. I can feel the artery and I will hook it. They stretch a little bit.

Then I pull it up through the opening and I put strings on it. And then I go back in there, to the jugular vein. I put a tube in the artery and then there's a stainless steel tube that's about the size of my finger that goes into the jugular vein. That's a longer tube and goes all the way into the heart. We drain the blood that would normally get pumped back through the body.

The main purpose of embalming a body is to disinfect the body. Then the second and third are to restore and preserve the body to a life-like appearance. 

Q: When you first got into the business was it offsetting to deal with dead bodies?

A: I was taught from day one, you can't take this business home with you. 

Q: I'm assuming every body that has come in didn't have a natural death. Personally, for you in this business, does it bother you to see these bodies?

A: I don't think you could dream up a death situation that I haven't seen. 

I worked with the Hamilton County Coroner's Office for 21 years, where I did removals for them. I did 1,200 to 1,500 bodies each year. Besides, I have a contract now in Kenton County. Most of the deaths we're picking up now are overdose cases. 

I have seen burnt bodies, drowned bodies. You name it, I've seen it. Suicides of every shape, kind and description.

After a number of years dealing with it, you see all kinds of it. 

Q: After a while, I'm sure it becomes a custom to swallow it and learn to cope but how did you deal with it at first? I'm sure some cases must have bothered you.

A: Children. I don't like having to deal with children because the thing with small children is, they haven't had a chance to live. You have grieving families that have lost a child, by accident or whatever it might be, and you feel for them. 

I laid bodies out and I've had tears run down my face because now it's different. Now they're in emotions and it does rub back on you some. I'm not too proud to admit it. 

When I was embalming my brother-in-law, I didn't look at him as my brother-in-law. I looked at him as just a body. Someone else's body. You have to have that mindset going into this. You can’t dwell on it and you can’t think, "My poor brother-in-law." I didn't think about that, I just put my mind somewhere else. 

Q: Have you ever had a family who has never had anyone cremated before and they're on the fence about it? What's that process like when they come to you? 

A: I walk them through it. I usually ask someone, "Do you want to know what the process is? Are you sure you want to know the process?" And if they say yes, then I tell them exactly what we do. I have no deep dark secrets and you need to know if this is something you're considering, you have got to understand how the process works. Usually, they're comfortable with it once I explain it.

If I'm not familiar with their beliefs or their way of doing things, I'm the kind that says, "Look, you tell me what your custom is and we will honor your custom and do it to our ability to serve you and your custom." And they appreciate that.

Click here for an inside look of the Catchen Crematory.

There are more than 13,000 cremated bodies inside the crematory that sits atop Martin Luther King Drive. Some are Jane Does, left behind decades ago, and some are well-known city celebrities, such as Andrew Jergens.

When his day with the dead has concluded, how does he separate himself from the darkness? Catchen said, "Give me a good cigar and a TV and I'm a happy camper."

This is part of an on-going series that aims to showcase remarkable professions across Greater Cincinnati. These unsung workers make a living in some peculiar ways. We’ll give you an inside, eye-opening look to the often grimy and under-appreciated, but necessary, professions in the Tri-State. 


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