He started off refusing to turn down AIDS patients; 25 years later, McKenzie Mortuary is still going strong

When he started McKenzie Mortuary Services 25 years ago, Kenneth McKenzie broke into an industry dominated by family legacies and a few large companies. It was a task many people told him was impossible.

“People said it couldn’t be done,” he said about starting an independent funeral home. “When someone tells me I cannot do something, that motivates me even more to prove them wrong.”

Not only did he start his own company, McKenzie started doing business differently than his competitors: He refused to charge extra fees or turn away clients whose loved ones died from AIDS, even though that was the industry standard of the time.

“I went to all the hospices and told them I would take those cases and that there wouldn’t be a biohazard fee,” McKenzie, now 53, said. “I wanted to open a place where prices were upfront and consistent, no matter the manner of death.”

That first year of business, the mortician said he laid to rest an average of 20 people a month who died from AIDS. In 1994 alone, the CDC estimates AIDS claimed the lives of 49,600 people in the United States. “I was in my 20s and those guys were my age, people I knew in the community,” McKenzie said.

As heartbreaking as that was, the undertaker said he felt pride in treating those people with the respect they deserved. He said the fees charged by other funeral homes were bogus anyway because workers were using the same gloves and other equipment they’d use for anyone else. “They were charging more if the person worked as a hair stylist than if they were a mechanic,” he said. “We didn’t know the cause of death until after the burial, when the death certificate would come in.”

Times have changed in terms of how funeral homes treat AIDS cases, but not much has changed at McKenzie Mortuary Services over the past quarter century — McKenzie will tell you, his life’s calling continues to be helping the living as they say a final farewell. Today, the 7,000-square-foot funeral home on Anaheim Street near Termino Avenue handles about 125 cases a month.

Becoming an undertaker was something a 12-year-old McKenzie felt compelled to pursue after his father committed suicide. He said it never felt right to him that he and his younger siblings weren’t asked to help plan a more personalized service or help spread the ashes. He said he wanted to give other families a better sense of closure.

Ken McKenzie and his assistant Sande Rice at McKenzie Mortuary in Long Beach Thursday, Dec 12, 2019. Photo by Thomas R. Cordova.

Longtime McKenzie Mortuary employee Sande Rice, who was a friend before she started helping out as McKenzie’s assistant 15 years ago, said the undertaker has done exactly what he set out to do and much more.

“People just warm up to Ken, and we’re always laughing about something,” the Long Beach native said. “He’s just a good and giving person.”

Rice also noted that McKenzie Mortuary is committed to helping the community in other ways, hosting fundraisers, and donating the proceeds to women with breast cancer. McKenzie’s sister had breast cancer, and he has appeared in a “Men of Mortuaries” calendar and penned books, donating proceeds to the cause.

The past California Outstanding Funeral Director of the Year said he believes he’s helped change the macabre perception of morticians who work in a profession that’s often underappreciated and misunderstood. “Humor is one of the best ways to deal with pain,” he said.

McKenzie said he hopes he’s remembered as a mortician with a sense of humor. One of his favorite jokes is that he looks so good because he’s been exposed to formaldehyde for the past three decades. More than anything, McKenzie said he’s grateful to the community that has trusted him to care for their loved ones for the past 25 years.

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