My Summer Selling Death

by Ray Aguilera

I skipped town once.

It was the mid-90’s, and I was halfway through an English degree in Berkeley. That summer I had a cheap room in a basement, a pair of boring part-time jobs, and the burning embers of an exploded relationship. My friends had an apartment in Northwest Portland, a new couch from Ikea, and an open door. I bought a one-way ticket, packed a bag, and left.

My first few weeks in Portland were great. There were celebratory beers, dinners with my friends, a concert, some more beers, summer barbecues. But the reverie was fleeting, and as my bank account dwindled, things started to get desperate. More than once, I had to dig through the couch cushions for change. It soon hit me: “I need to get a job. This is stupid.” Being constantly broke was one thing, but for the first time in my life, I literally did not know where my next meal would be coming from. I was forced to rely on the kindness of friends. And credit cards.

I started looking for work.

One day, next to the sleazy personals in the back of the Portland Mercury, I saw an ad for telemarketers. No experience necessary, plus it was on the bus line that went by the apartment. I was a little suspicious of the ad, which offered no details about the actual job. But I was also hungry and broke.

The job was selling cemetery plots over the phone. Essentially, the worst telemarketing job you could possibly imagine. I took it.

“Hi, Mrs. Sanderson? My name is Ray, and I’m calling you on behalf of Sunset Manor Cemetery. Have you given any thought to your pre-death needs?”

Seriously. I cold-called perfect strangers, and reminded them that they are going to die. I was that broke.

I was one of a dozen telemarketers crammed into a drab one-room office in the back of a mall. We worked out of giant binders full of scripts with tabs along the side. Call someone who’s hesitant to discuss their impending death with a perfect stranger (i.e., pretty much everyone)? There’s a tab for that, with suggested scripts to relax them. Someone wants to be buried at a competing cemetery, because that’s where their family is? There’s a tab for that too.

To this day, I wish I had stolen a copy of those scripts. They were so weird, and deftly written to redirect people, and make them forget that 1) I was a complete stranger, and 2) we were talking about their inevitable untimely demise.

I worked for a large corporation that was masked by comforting-sounding names that had probably been local businesses at one time — kind of like Kroehner International from Six Feet Under. They owned mortuaries and cemeteries in 12 states, and we had single-page info sheets on all of the cities and small towns. We weren’t supposed to lie about where we were calling from, but most people didn’t ask‚ especially when we could name-drop the diner down the street, or the local high-school football team.

My first few shifts were almost unbearable. Imagine the rudest you’ve ever been to a particularly annoying telemarketer. Now multiply that by “talking about your impending death.” Once, I had barely sputtered through my introduction, and the man on the other end said simply, “You. Are. A. Sick! Fuck.” and slammed the phone down in my ear. I thought about going back home.

I wasn’t actually selling anything, at least not directly. I set appointments for a “Pre-Need Consultant.” I offered potential customers a discount for $500 or $750 off, and they’d set an appointment with the salesman, The Pre-Need Consultant, who would then give them an in-person hard sell on prepaid funeral packages.

As you might imagine, the success rate was low. People hate talking about this stuff, especially with a telemarketer who just interrupted dinner. But with packages ranging from a few grand to well over $10,000, I only needed a few hits to make up for all the misses. 3.5 percent of whatever sales resulted from my appointments made it’s way into my pocket. But those few percent were hard-earned.

Mostly, the job consisted of getting hung up on, or yelled at (usually both). As it turns out, even seemingly nice old ladies will start cursing like a sailor when a random guy on the phone asks them if they are prepared for the end.

We worked out of these reverse phone directories. It listed the names, addresses, and telephone numbers of the residents, how many years they’d been at that address, and a numerical rating of their disposable income. Established neighborhoods with high levels of disposable income were goldmines.

Every now and then, I’d hit on a retirement community. Those were big-money days, but it was hard not to feel like the Angel of Death. One of my coworkers took frequent breaks to go smoke joints on the roof of the mall, and most of the rest of them were drinking whiskey from their coffee cups.

Since I wasn’t paying rent (and at the time still believed minimum payments were a workable solution to my credit card problem), my needs were modest. One or two sales a week was all it took to keep me flush enough to enjoy carousing with my friends‚ or so I thought.

I lasted through the summer. By then, I was ready to head back home. I’d learned a few lessons. One, that I’m not really cut out to be a telemarketer. Two, that making minimum payments on my credit cards (while simultaneously using them to survive) isn’t a valid financial plan. Three, you really do have to spend less than you earn.

When all was said and done, what seemed like a cheap summer in Portland cost me thousands of dollars. The cash flow I was generating by selling burial plots over the phone was just enough to trick me into thinking I had money to spend, and spend I did. It took me years to pay off the restaurant bills, bar tabs, and mounds of expensive import singles from Music Millennium that I charged in those few months. But that summer was also one of the best times in my life. Plus, every now and then, I get to break out a story from the time I sold cemetery plots over the phone.

Ray Aguilera is a writer & editor in San Francisco. He recently took an even stranger gig than this one, the kind of thing you wouldn’t want to tell your mom about‚ just for the material.

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