WOODLAWN CEMETERY — There’s an old childhood picture of Virgil County sitting happily in his grandfather’s hearse, donning an event-appropriate attire of a bowtie and knickerbockers.
It’s a photo that captures an atypical scene that was anything but for County, the grandson of a local New Orleans funeral director who held the title during a time when it carried the same level of reverence as a priest or minister.
So it came as no surprise when after a 15-year-career with the Los Angeles Police Department, County, who is a veteran of the U.S. Marines, decided to follow his calling and enter a life working around death.
“Most people don’t grow up to say they want to be a funeral director,” County, who is the administrator for Woodlawn Cemetery, said. “Most funeral directors do it because of a family tie.”
County, who today will organize the 71st annual Memorial Day Observance ceremony at Woodlawn Cemetery, literally grew up in the world of funerals, living on the second floor of his grandfather’s funeral home in New Orleans.
It was a childhood environment that many might find strange, but for County, it was a normal upbringing, though he admits to being teased once or twice by classmates.
“It was second nature to me,” he said.
When he attained a driver’s license, County began helping with the operations of the family business, delivering flowers to the church, retrieving signed death certificates from doctors, and assisting with the transferring of remains from places of death.
But while those skills and understanding of the funeral industry proved key decades later, there was another family tradition that County wanted to honor first.
Shortly after graduating from high school, County entered the U.S. Marine Corps, following in the footsteps of his father and brothers. He also had a cousin who was killed in the Vietnam War.
“My dad had a career in the Marine Corps,” he said. “It was the sort of thing that we always did, serving your country and that is what we all aspired to do.”
County spent about four years in the Marines and never saw combat. He was discharged in 1981 as a sergeant and enrolled in the University of California at Santa Barbara soon after, working part-time at the local funeral home.
In 1985, he joined the Los Angeles Police Department, feeling it was a natural progression from the military.
He spent the next 15 years in various divisions, including the San Fernando Valley and the Southwest Community Police Station near the USC campus, working at times as a detective, administrative sergeant and in internal affairs.
His career was filled with memories good and bad, the event standing out most being the L.A. riots in 1992.
County was away on vacation at the time, enjoying a family barbecue in Long Beach when he received a call from one of his supervisors, ordering him to come in.
“Things are falling apart,” the supervisor said over the phone.
He immediately suited up and began patrolling the streets, amazed at how the riots could quickly make one section of the city change dramatically in the span of a few minutes.
“You would pass an area and it would be fully quiet,” he said. “Then five minutes later, you would drive by and the area would be fully engulfed in flames.”
The night after the riots broke out, County and three other officers caravanned with a series of patrol cars, sitting “four-deep” in one vehicle, meaning there were two officers in the front and two in the backseat.
“We were going past one area in southwest L.A. and a sniper shot out the emergency light parts of our police car,” he said. “We were very lucky that no officers were injured.”
Riot patrolling continued for about two weeks, working 12 hours on and 12 hours off.
County said that his time in the military helped prepare him for the LAPD, teaching him discipline and keeping him in physical shape to face the job.
“It gave me the ability to focus and not panic,” he said. “I think that is why a lot of people think it’s a natural progression.”
The second half of the career<P>
It was an injury in 2000 that caused County to leave the department and look for another job, seriously hurting his back when he fell down a flight of stairs during a domestic call.
“While I was on the LAPD, I was always looking at eventually … setting up my own business in mortuary,” he said. “It was always on the back of my mind, but it was accelerated when I had my injury.”
He soon landed a position as a funeral director at All Souls Mortuary in Long Beach. He later moved on to become the manager of Fairhaven Memorial Park in Santa Ana, staying a few years before being hired to oversee the Pierce Brothers Valley Oaks-Griffin Memorial Park, Mortuary and Crematory in Westlake Village.
County briefly left the industry when his mother became ill with cancer, taking care of her while working as a background investigator for the LAPD, which allowed flexible hours. When she died in 2006, County saw the advertisement for a cemetery administrator position at Woodlawn Cemetery.
In nearly three years, County has made a number of big changes at the cemetery, including expanding community outreach through programs like Toys for Tots and the holiday Tree of Life on which residents can hang an ornament in honor of a loved one who has passed away. He has big plans for the future of the cemetery, including having it declared as an arboretum. The cemetery has trees that attract a number of different birds species from the Santa Monica Mountains, he said.
“I want it to be more than a burial ground,” he said. “I want it to be a community resource.”
He has also grown the Memorial Day ceremony program, securing more sponsorship. Today he is expecting the largest turnout — about 1,500 people — in recent years.
The ceremony will honor the memory of former L.A. County Sheriff Eugene W. Biscailuz, a late Santa Monica resident who helped organize the California Highway Patrol. He died 40 years ago.
L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca will be the keynote speaker. The ceremony will also feature a flyover of Black Hawk helicopters.
“There is never a dull minute at the cemetery,” County said.