Step into the main entrance of McDermott Funeral Home and the first thing you spot in the foyer are the birds: a glass cage of fully grown, 4-inch Australian finches with feathers of bright oranges, greens, violets and blues.
For the McDermotts, who've run their funeral business for the last 120 years, these exotic, neon colors are acceptable within the private space of their parlor but are inappropriate in the public space outside, next to their parking lot. At least that's what must be assumed, because they have barricaded a mural painted on a building adjacent to their property.
"We don't like the colors," says Patti McDermott, owner of the funeral home. She had few other comments.
The project was commissioned by the county agency Tobacco-Free Allegheny County's Music and Arts as Prevention program, and McKees Rocks' Focus On Renewal agency, which brought kids from the community to paint along with designer Kyle Holbrook (profiled in the City Paper main feature, "Mural of the Story," Aug. 5, 2004). The mural wasn't halfway complete when the McDermotts brought their complaints to McKees Rocks borough officials; only the vibrant, Sunkist-orange background had been laid, along with sketches of children, for an anti-smoking message.
Holbrook and the neighborhood kids had been slated to finish their mural by Nov. 27. In late November, before the group could finish, the McDermotts began construction of a brick wall topped by a line of 12- to 15-foot yew trees on the edge of their parking lot, eclipsing most of the mural. All that can be seen today is the tops of the heads of the painted children.
Patti McDermott says the wall with its trees had been planned for that area before painting began, designed to match landscaping on the opposite side of their property. The decision had nothing to do with the mural, she says. However, as McDermott funeral-home manager Tim Wilt told the Post-Gazette in December, the business sped up their landscaping plans after the mural began.
Donna DiGiulio, who has run a printing business with her husband for the past five years, owns the building where the incomplete mural was painted. She donated her wall, she says, because she approved of the anti-smoking message and never had any problems with the kids. She is saddened by the funeral home's response to the project, she says.
"I'm sad for the kids," she adds. "We can't see their artwork. It's a shame [the funeral home] didn't give it a chance to be finished before they decided whether they liked it or not."
DiGiulio says she hardly ever came into contact with the McDermotts until a late October meeting between her family, the McDermotts, the mayor of McKees Rocks, Holbrook and his young assistants. Soon after that meeting, the McDermotts threatened to call the police if work continued, reports Father Regis Ryan, executive director of Focus On Renewal. At that point, parents began pulling kids from the program, he says. As police passed by without confronting the group on Nov. 8, Ryan nonetheless warned the painters: "We're not going to resist. We'll get cited, then the magistrate will tell us if we can stay or not. But when the cops say, 'Leave,' please, everybody, just leave."
"My neighbors enjoy it," says Darlene Taylor, who lives across the street from the funeral home, within sight of the mural. "I've been talking to them about it -- it's a conversation piece."
Ed McNabb, working in his garage across from the funeral home, has lived in the area for 40 years. "How's it gonna hurt their business?" he says of the mural. "[It's] not gonna stop people from coming there, obviously. People are going in to view bodies, not the wall."
But Terris Vrcek, executive director of the McKees Rocks Community Development Corporation, believes the mural did hurt funeral business.
"I saw how upset they were when I met with them," says Vrcek of the McDermotts. "They were scared. This is their livelihood."
Holbrook is working with the county and the borough to produce a new mural at another location in McKees Rocks next month.
"It still bothers me and I haven't gotten over it," he says, "but it's good we get to do something new with the kids again out there. It's more important that the kids get to start new."
The project certainly maintains the support of parents like Peggy Krobot whose children are helping Holbrook -- particularly the mural's message. When asked if she smokes, Krobot responded: "Smoke? This is McKees Rocks. There's addiction rehab houses all over this city. But kids are trying to prevent this. They're trying not to end up at that funeral home."