LAKE CHARLES — Responding to ambulance calls, delivering babies, assisting the Calcasieu Parish Coroner’s Office in autopsies and digging graves were all in a day’s work for 16-year-old Zeb Johnson.
Something about the funeral home business kept bringing him back to it for years, and in 1976 he carved out a permanent place for himself with the opening of Johnson Funeral Home. He’s quick to say that he’s “had a front-row seat to the greatest show on Earth.”
“Being a funeral director, being able to help people in the time of a crisis and working with the coroner’s office, I would do both of those jobs even if they didn’t pay me,” said Johnson, 64. “I should be paying admission to be able to do this. The rewards are so great to me personally.”
Before going to work for a funeral home in about 1965, Johnson was digging ditches for his dad, a plumber. He said “anything sounded better than digging ditches.”
Johnson soon went from digging ditches to digging graves at a local funeral home.
“When they saw how big I was they said, ‘Well, you can do a lot of things around here,’” he said. “So, they gave me a suit, and that’s where it started. I never went back home.”
At that time, Johnson said funeral homes also ran ambulance services. “What kid doesn’t want to ride in something with the red lights and sirens on?” he said.
Johnson said he washed cars, set up tents and dug graves during the day and responded to emergency calls in the ambulance at night. Someone would take him from the funeral home to school and pick him up for work afterward.
Johnson said the “friendly competition” is one thing he remembers most about the ambulance services.
“The funeral homes would see who would get on the site first,” he said. “It was always interesting.”
At 17, Johnson delivered his first set of twins and delivered 14 babies by the time he was 21. He said he was “always scared to death” when delivering babies.
“I have people come up to me today introducing me to their grandchildren, and I actually delivered some of the older people. Now they’re showing me their grandchildren,” he said. “I can remember delivering all of them, some in the back of a car or on the bathroom floor.”
Funeral homes stopped providing ambulance services around 1971, something Johnson said he was happy about. He worked at the funeral home until he enrolled at McNeese State University to pursue an associate degree in mortuary science. He graduated in 1969.
Johnson was already a licensed funeral director, but returned to McNeese in 1970 for a degree in medicine. He worked night shifts at the Lake Charles Police Department for about 18 months, sleeping between classes and work.
“But I was married with a couple of kids, and it was a struggle on a policeman’s salary.”
Johnson’s father died and he had to help his family take care of the arrangements. He was soon drawn back into the funeral business.
“That’s kind of been the story of my life — the funeral home and the coroner’s office,” he said.
In October 1976, Johnson Funeral Home opened with a chapel and two staterooms. He said his “golden opportunity” came when an insurance company was willing to lend funeral homes money to start their own businesses.
“I felt like there was a need and there was more that I could do to help people if I were the owner, making the decisions,” he said.
It was years before he could afford to pay anyone else.
“It was difficult — seven days a week, 24 hours a day, no holidays or family vacations,” he said. “When one funeral was over, I would literally have to dig the graves, put the tents up, wash the cars, vacuum the building and then start all over again.”
Johnson said he performed 200 funerals in his first year. He now averages about 600 funerals annually.
Even after nearly four decades in the business, Johnson said he’s “never gotten over the grief” he sees every day.
“Sometimes, after a very emotional funeral, I lock myself in the bathroom and just stand there because it’s so emotional,” he said.
Personal service is the “greatest” thing about his career, he said.
“These people become family and my staff has become family,” Johnson said. “Helping people is very addictive.”
Today, Johnson Funeral Home includes two large chapels, two staterooms, two arrangement offices, two selection rooms and a large family lounge. The demand for cremation pushed Johnson to build the Lake Charles Crematory, which serves funeral homes in six parishes. He also bought Robison Funeral Home in Sulphur and Miguez Funeral Home in Jennings.
“I have the greatest staff in the world,” he said. “Several of my staff have been with me almost 30 years. I believe that is the secret to our success.”
Johnson, who “grew up in a poor family,” said his childhood has influenced some of his policies at the funeral home. One is that children’s funerals are free.
“I know that the biggest percentage of families who lose a child, those marriages end in divorce,” he said. “It’s a very difficult time for families. I feel, by not charging them I can help ease some of their burden.”
One of his brothers was born with a serious heart condition. His parents didn’t know if he’d survive.
“I remember my mother crying and saying, ‘I don’t know how we are going to pay for this,’” Johnson said. When his father went to get a bank loan, “The president of the bank got up, shook his hand and told him to go to the teller and they’ll give him the money. He never signed any paperwork or anything.”
Johnson never forgot.
“When I got into this business, I said, ‘If I can be that person to help someone, then I am going to do that,’” he said.
Johnson and a team of six from his funeral home helped recover, identify, and bury or rebury hundreds of bodies after hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Ike. The three weeks in New Orleans were a nightmare, he said.
Less than a month later, he spent nine months recovering, identifying and reburying bodies unearthed by Rita.
“There were 320 bodies counted missing from 44 cemeteries across Cameron Parish,” he said. “Not a day went by that I wasn’t in Cameron from 3 a.m. to 9 or 10 p.m. Some of these bodies floated 20-something miles away from where they were buried.”
His most vivid memory is of a woman who drove up in an “old beat-up pickup truck” with a few pots and pans and clothes in the back. Her son’s body was no longer in the cemetery. After he identified the body a week later, “She hugged me and told me that was the only thing she had left.”
Johnson said 310 of the 320 bodies were recovered. The last was reburied May 14, 2006.
“It was dark when I was driving away from that cemetery on the last day,” he said. “I looked back and I said, ‘I don’t think I could do that again.’”
He did, though, after Hurricane Ike in 2008.
Johnson’s ambulance work led him to the coroner’s office.
“We would bring a body to the coroner where it needed to have an autopsy done,” he said. “We would wait for the pathologist and stay and help with the autopsy.”
He started helping with autopsies when he was 16 and continued for nearly four years in the 1960s.
In 1977, Johnson said, the coroner’s office asked him to help while a staffer was ill. The staffer never returned. Johnson continued to perform autopsies for about six years.
In 1983, then-Coroner Dr. Charles Smith asked Johnson to help with death investigations. Johnson returned to school to learn about death investigations, mass fatalities and different types of death.
“That’s when I really got started in the coroner’s office — doing death investigations,” he said. “That’s been a great thing because I have had the chance over my life span to see a lot of changes in technology and in the way we do things, and I have been a part of those changes.”
In his three decades with the coroner’s office, Johnson said he has seen changes in how crime scenes are recorded — the transition from flashbulb cameras to digital pictures — the advances in DNA and the use of computers to gather and share information.
As a death investigator, Johnson said he is responsible for looking at a body and determining what happened and how it happened. He said he has to prepare himself mentally each time.
“If I were driving down the street and I witnessed an accident where people were killed or seriously injured, I would be a basket case,” he said. “But when someone calls and says we’ve had a fatality or a vehicle crash with fatalities, in the little distance that I travel to the scene, I am preparing myself mentally to what I might see and what I have to do when I get there.”
Parish Coroner Dr. Terry Welke has worked with Johnson at the Coroner’s Office since 1987. He said Johnson is “more like a brother than a co-worker.”
“I probably can’t add any adjectives that haven’t already been said about him — kind, generous, dependable. I could just go on and on,” he said.
“I’ve been able to do all of the things I have wanted to do, and when I leave here I would like for people to say, ‘He was a decent guy. He never took advantage of anyone. He’s a guy that’s going to be missed,’” Johnson said.