Dearly Departed

Hired after a successful career as a funeral home director, Brian McKinney is determined to bring gross anatomy at Tufts into the 21st century
Brian McKinney at a funeral home
Brian McKinney, the program director for anatomical gifts at the School of Medicine, at the O’Connor & Son Funeral Home in Dorchester, Mass., where he earned his stripes as director and still lends a hand from time to time. Photo: John Soares
October 23, 2013

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When the kid was 10 years old, the road that ran past his house in St. Albans, Vt., was just too steep to leave alone. Whistling downhill on his bike one day, he lost control and crashed into the side of a neighbor’s parked car, denting it some. The adults put their heads together to determine how to fix things. The next he knew, the boy was volunteering to do chores across the street at the enterprise owned by the neighbor. Eventually the quiet men who ran the place let him help inside. This is how Brian McKinney tumbled into the funeral home business and found his destiny.

There were two funeral homes in the small town north of Burlington on Lake Champlain, one Catholic and one Protestant. McKinney worked at Heald Funeral Home, which served Protestants. He cut grass; he washed cars; he cleaned and vacuumed the sedate interior rooms; he went along on slow drives to the cemetery and generally tried to make himself useful. Because the funeral business has unpredictable demands—who can say how many people will die tomorrow, or the next day, in a given locale?—a knack for pitching in on the spur of the moment was highly valued. “When it was quiet,” says McKinney, “you grabbed a paint brush, as a rule.”

The bonds forged at the funeral home went beyond any assigned duties the boy might have been given. McKinney was observing the men around him, absorbing their substance and manner, learning something from how they carried themselves, how and when they spoke, what they said. Funeral home directors take pride in being part of their community. If the people around them drive Ford trucks and they can afford a Mercedes, they drive a Ford truck, all the better to fit in, McKinney says. There is intimacy and purpose in what they do.

Even as a teenager, McKinney would accompany the older men to their coffee chats, held in town at the start of every day. “I was always the only 16-year-old who’d go with the old guys for coffee,” he laughs. “And of course that’s the best way to find out everything that’s going on around town.” He still hangs out with the old guys, sipping morning coffee and sharing quips, whenever he returns home to St. Albans.

Going to the funeral home is the oldest story in the world. We go there first for the remembrance of friends and family and then, finally, for our own farewell. Mortality is the word for it. Thomas Lynch, an American poet and funeral home director in Milford, Mich., marvels in his 1997 book The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade—after years spent burying friends and neighbors—at “how easily we slip from is to isn’t.” The funeral director runs the show, easing the family’s pain with a sprinkling of grace. Flowers, music and solemnity are just the starting point. The director’s deportment must be crisp and professional; the look and tone of the proceedings pitch-perfect if the service, or the healing, is to succeed.

McKinney’s apprenticeship in Vermont ultimately led him south. After training as an embalmer at Mt. Ida College and the New England Institute of Science, both in Massachusetts, he settled down to work at the Robert J. Lawler & Crosby Funeral Home in West Roxbury, in 1995. By sheer coincidence, his first funeral was for Paul McLaughlin, an anti-gang federal prosecutor who had been gunned down in a West Roxbury transit parking lot as he was about to get into his car. The political and media glare surrounding the funeral was intense, unlike anything he had ever seen, but McKinney came through the ordeal without missing a beat. “I did everything as I was taught in St. Albans,” he says simply.

A decade later, he became funeral director at the John J. O’Connor & Son Funeral Home in Dorchester, responsible for everyday operations. Year by year, he was becoming a true Boston guy. “Oh, I’ve been in the trenches on Adams Street in Dorchester, dealing with ‘Sully’ and ‘Fitzy’ and ‘Walshy’ and all the rest,” he laughs, eyes alight, when asked about his work history. (McKinney pronounces it “Dorchest-ah,” like a native, but more relaxed and drawn out, a lingering residue of Vermont.) He’s totally hooked into his tight-knit, working-class, largely Irish Catholic neighborhood, a member of the Elks Club and the Knights of Columbus and a past instructor of religious education at St. Ann’s Parish.

It was not that church, but another nearby, Holy Name in West Roxbury, where McKinney went in tears in 2001 after he’d been diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukemia, or AML, at age 26. He begged Father Tony Luongo to tell him why he was so sick and what the future held. McKinney, then single, struggled through six months of aggressive chemotherapy to emerge cancer-free, but that brush with death changed him. More than a decade later, he says, flu symptoms “can still mentally put me in a bad place.” He continues to do public speaking around Boston several times a year on behalf of leukemia patients and survivors.

McKinney brings a million-dollar personality to any occasion. He is by turns earnest as a deacon and brightly funny, capable of flash-charming you either way. Rett Heald, owner of Heald Funeral Home in St. Albans (and the grandson of the man whose car McKinney smashed into), who still holds out a wistful hope of luring McKinney back to work for him someday, has known McKinney since he was six years old. “Brian has a way with people,” Heald says. “He likes everybody, and everybody likes him.”

Nor has a change of latitude made any difference. Paul O’Connor, who owns the funeral home bearing his family name (and where McKinney still lends a hand on weekends) tells about a Dorchester family stopping in recently to ask, with full accent, “Is Brian he-ah?” “That’s unusual in the funeral business,” says O’Connor.

And so, with nearly 20 years of sober professional experience behind him, married with a family—wife, Kerrin, an administrator at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, and three young boys, Aidan, 9, Colin, 6, and Devin, six months, all craving more regular hours with their husband and dad—and bursting with charisma and fresh ideas, McKinney has come to Tufts School of Medicine at age 38 to retool and reinvent the gross anatomy lab—to bring it out of the basement, in effect.

In the Underground

As any Tufts Medical School graduate of the past 50 years well knows, it’s not a pretty picture down at the bottom of the stairs in the old M&V Building. The cinder-block walls are bare, and the corridors jog tightly this way and that according to some baffling, claustrophobic scheme.

McKinney gives me a quick tour from one dim room to the next. “Welcome to 1930,” he exclaims, opening two doors that give onto a small space with a pair of examination tables inside. “We hope to push that wall back and open up this whole area,” he says, waving his hand toward the rear of the room. “Then we’ve got to get some better ventilation in here.” McKinney and I continue pushing through one deserted space after another as he outlines broad renovation plans that are still in the tentative stages, pending approval and funding.

Brian McKinney takes his new job seriously and wants to instill that same attitude in anyone who ventures into the lab. Photo: John Soares“We desperately need a new facility,” confirms James Schwob, professor and chair of anatomy, who hired McKinney as program director for anatomical gifts last October. “What we’ve got now was constructed in the 1960s and hasn’t been changed at all since then, apart from some Band-Aid updates. Meanwhile, we used to have 120 medical students in a class, and now we’ve got 200. It becomes a problem of crowd control, if nothing else.”

McKinney’s deference to human remains comes straight from his history in the funeral business and all that he has learned during his years of receiving, embalming and burying the dead. “We want to maintain the morals and ethics that are appropriate to the place,” he says, striking an old-fashioned note with his word choices.

A comparable high seriousness of purpose shines through the five-page “Gross Anatomy Laboratory Policy & Procedure” statement that McKinney has written and now distributes to anyone intending to use the lab.

“The use of human cadaveric material for medical education and research is a privilege, not a right,” he begins. “The bodies available for dissection here at Tufts University were donated by individuals who cared so much about education and research that they have made this very important decision. The following policies and procedures are based on PATIENT PRIVACY, SECURITY, SAFETY and MAINTENANCE so that both the student and faculty alike maintain the highest standards of DIGNITY & RESPECT that our donors and their families so rightly deserve.” Next comes a set of detailed rules for maintaining the new, more professional atmosphere McKinney hopes to instill.

A top-to-bottom housecleaning is imperative, he believes. “The overall facility,” he says, “has been neglected for the past 40 years.” (McKinney’s blunt speaking style sets him apart from the usual, ever-politic university staffer, and it’s a fair measure of his outsider status. He tells me that his wife has expressed alarm at his directness, telling him more than once, “You can’t talk that way to people at that level!”)

His goals go far beyond establishing the proper internal protocols. McKinney aims to engage the outside world in a new way by increasing the number of bodies available to the gross anatomy program by 50 percent, from its current total of 80 cadavers to around 120. Toward that end he is putting the finishing touches on a series of more empathic and appealing brochures that will be used to connect with potential donors. The brochures will be circulated among clergy, social workers and palliative care personnel in an effort to raise the visibility of the medical school as an end-of-life option.

“In all the time I was a funeral director in Boston, I never sent one body to Tufts,” says McKinney, suggesting that the program has been too little known locally among potential donors. He’s determined to change that if he can.

Getting more usage out of the gross anatomy space, and generating some income in the process, is another preeminent goal. However dated it may be, the M&V basement area with its 35 dissecting tables represents something like gold in Boston. “Right now, surgical teams around the city are traveling to out-of-state facilities for lack of cadaveric space,” McKinney points out. “When I first showed up here, I said, ‘Why don’t we use this space to make some money?’ ”

“There is an opportunity there,” Schwob agrees. “Other institutions don’t have space, and we could provide it.” Residents and surgeons around Boston could visit Tufts either to refresh or improve their skills. “Surgeons need to learn new approaches on cadaveric materials,” Schwob notes, citing the recent rise of arthroscopic procedures as one area where an established surgeon might want to practice and refine technique.

Carefully controlled commercial use of the Tufts real estate offers another promising avenue. McKinney recently visited the University of Toronto, where corporate access to the medical school’s gross anatomy lab had generated more than $1 million in fees in one year. “We could do something like that,” he suggests.

McKinney has a raft of big ideas and the passion to bring them off. He’s something of an unusual mix of traits, or instincts, which may have prepared him ideally for his new curatorial role, half entrepreneur, half priest. He’s liberal, even brash in his energy and vision, but unflinchingly conservative in his thinking about the reverence we owe the deceased, reflecting a core attitude as strict and timeless as a black suit and a bowed head at a funeral. The kid speeding downhill on his bike so many years ago may have found his perfect home.

This article first appeared in the Summer 2013 issue of Tufts Medicine magazine.

Bruce Morgan can be reached at bruce.morgan@tufts.edu.

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