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Merrill Womach, a renowned singer who survived fiery crash, celebrated at funeral

Merrill Womach’s face was roughhewn and imperfect, as if its maker had little patience for particulars. People stared, and Womach didn’t blame them. He was a sight to behold. His voice, however, was a true thing of wonder. Where his face was uneven and seemingly made from clay with thumbs, his voice was pure and strong, a beautiful tenor that spanned four octaves. He was called the man with 42 voices. This world of contrast would elicit comment for any normal person, but Womach was far from normal. It’s difficult to say what Womach’s most famous for, or how the trying events in his life fed into each other. Regardless, they created the Merrill Womach so many people have admired and read about for more than 50 years. He helped transform the modern funeral with his Spokane-based National Music Service, which at one point supplied music for three-quarters of the funeral services held in the United States and Canada. Most of those services, not coincidentally, were graced with his voice, singing songs that “seem so much a part of our deepest souls and which bring peace and hope during times of personal loss,” a 1980 profile in the Saturday Evening Post said about Womach. Outside of the funeral industry, Womach is best known for surviving a fiery plane crash in southern Oregon in 1961, a crash that by all accounts should have taken his life but left him forever scarred and changed. When Womach died Dec. 28, he had been singing through his rebuilt lips longer than the ones he was born with. The face reconstructed from flesh on his belly was looked upon for many more years than the one melted in the flames when he was 34. As he lay in his casket Saturday, before the 150 people who gathered at the Fourth Memorial Church near Gonzaga University to celebrate his life, Womach couldn’t hear the testimony to his good nature or how he changed how funerals are conducted. He couldn’t hear the gasps – once again – when images of his scabbed face days after the crash appeared on the screens above. He couldn’t hear himself sing at his own funeral, as he had done for countless funerals, both in person and on recordings. “He coined the phrase, ‘Celebrate Life,’” said Kim Predisik, who began working for Womach in 1993 and remained close to him until his death. “After the fiery plane crash, he died and lived many times.”

Rising star

Womach was born in Spokane in 1927, and graduated from North Central High School in 1944. He received his first taste of fame after graduating from Northwest Bible College as he sang on a daily radio program in Seattle for three years. As his star rose, he was invited to sing at various places of worship on the West Coast – including Spokane’s Westminster Congregational and Temple Emanu-El, and the Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles. Spokane always called him back, as did his young bride and children. In 1954, Womach was named musical director for Spokane’s Fourth Presbyterian Church, where his funeral would be held more than 60 years later. As his family grew to two daughters and a son, his meager salary of $375 a month didn’t suffice and Womach’s ambition wouldn’t let him wait for fortune to come to him. In 1959, Womach launched what would become the National Music Service. He had sung at funerals since high school, up to three a day, and his new venture would build on that experience by leasing stereo systems and recorded music to funeral homes. “That way they could use me when they wanted and I would always sing perfectly,” he said. The first funeral home to use his idea was Spokane’s Riplinger Funeral Home. “Our system was the first system he put in and we still use it today,” said Dean Egger, who owns the business with Kim Berg. “He started it all.” In the summer of 1959, Womach left his job at the church and began marketing his company up and down the West Coast. “We’d buy a barbecued chicken for $1.95 and that would be our food for a few days,” he said of the company’s first, thin days and how it affected his family. Breakfast for the five of them would sometimes consist of a single cantaloupe.

The last night

Now a salesman and a singer, Womach knew the best way to convince funeral directors of his product was to meet them. He took out a loan and bought a blue, four-seat Piper Apache airplane to ferry him to his potential customers. In 1961, his efforts began to pay off. He was exhausted, but his tenacity led to more sales. A trip to Los Angeles during the week of Thanksgiving reaped six orders for his funeral music. It’s easy to imagine Womach’s exuberance that holiday. New orders in hand, he aimed his plane for home, where his large, extended family’s annual holiday reunion awaited. The day before Thanksgiving, as he flew north, the weather turned and he was forced to land in Klamath Falls, Oregon. Undaunted, he waited for it to clear and took to the air again. He was forced down again just 65 miles north in Beaver Marsh, a highway town with an A-frame motel, a gas station and a coffee shop. Realizing he was there for the night, Womach got a room and a meal, and struck up a conversation with the motel’s owner. Soon enough, Womach was playing an impromptu concert for the people of Beaver Marsh. Womach was dead tired, but kept the songs coming as long as the requests were. “It was one of those incredible moments when the unexpected draws people together,” Womach wrote in his book, “Tested by Fire.” “They came in out of the storm, sat side by side, drank coffee, talked, touched, made jokes, sang … and disappeared back into the storm again.” Finally, after midnight, Womach was able to get some sleep. In the morning, there was no hot water and Womach shaved using his double-edged razor with cold water. He muttered complaints to himself, not realizing it was the last time he would ever shave.

Tested by fire

The weather had improved, and Womach was heartened. The clouds were high and visibility was increasing. Weather reports indicated things were even better further north, so Womach went through his preflight checklist and taxied to the runway, which was covered in a few inches of snow. He raced down the tarmac and took off toward the south. He climbed about 300 feet above the trees when, without warning, the engines died. Snow and slush had clogged their intakes and starved them of much-needed oxygen. Womach quickly realized he had three choices: head toward the heavy timber ahead, land on Highway 97 and “lock horns with a semi-truck and several cars,” or turn around and head for the landing strip he had just left. He headed for the runway, but his plane was falling fast. Shy of his target, Womach was knocked out when he hit the first tree at 85 miles per hour. The plane volleyed between trees, came to a rest and the 108 gallons of gasoline in its fuel tanks exploded. When Womach awoke, he was surrounded by flames, but escaped the wreckage and stumbled toward the highway. His entire body was burned, except for the flesh below his jacket, which had melted in the heat and cooled in the snow to a hard protective coating “like asbestos,” Womach said. Doctors would later use that untouched flesh to rebuild his face and hands. Two men he had coffee with that morning raced to the wreck, put Womach in the back seat of their car and carried him south to Klamath Falls and the nearest hospital. Womach didn’t cry or moan. Instead, he sang all the way there. He even sang while the doctor wrapped his hands. I found the sweet savior and now I’m made whole, I’m pardoned and have my release. From darkness to light, There’s wonderful, wonderful peace.

Lonesomest time

Womach spent the next few weeks in an “old green apartment-house-turned-hospital” that shocked his wife, Virginia. “There was a smell of death about the place,” she said. But her biggest shock came when she first saw her husband. “His head was swollen larger than a basketball,” she wrote later. “Flesh hung in dark black folds. … There were no eyes, no nose, no ears, no hair, no mouth, nothing except for this black charcoal mess sitting on my husband’s shoulders.” In the film, “He Restoreth My Soul,” Virginia said she whispered to herself, “Dear God, don’t let that creature be my husband.” It was, and Virginia soon learned not just to accept her husband, but tend to his wounds when nurses refused. In December, Womach was transferred to Spokane’s Deaconess Hospital under the care of Dr. Edward Hamacher, who would eventually perform 50 skin grafts to remake Womach’s face and hands. On Feb. 7, 1962, Womach turned 35 and was released from the hospital to go home. He had survived a crash he shouldn’t have, but it was far from easy. Early on, he had a vision of deep and brilliant colors. He was standing on the top of a hill. At the bottom of the hill, there was a river. On the river, in a boat, stood a man. “Virginia, the man is Jesus,” he told his wife. “And he is motioning for me.” Later, when the pain was too unbearable, he contemplated throwing himself off the Monroe Street Bridge. Around this time, he came close to losing his faith – a belief that had propelled him from his earliest days. He had trouble understanding the suffering he was going through, and found no comfort in the Bible, or in the multiple “well meaning Christian friends, good friends” who told him to trust God. “It just drove me deeper into depression when this was said. And the strangest thing, too, even the Scriptures that before that time had buoyed our spirit and made us feel better, made me feel worse,” Womach said. Late one evening a friend inexplicably stopped by without notice and the men simply reminisced. “Before that man left that night, the depression was gone and we were alive again. He didn’t try to preach to us,” Womach said. “He just came to share. … That was probably lonesomest time. The worst time.”

‘Rather burn out than rust out’

As Womach’s face was rebuilt by Hamacher, Womach kept building his company. Even before he was released from the hospital, he was on the phone, rustling up sales. In 1963, he branched out into recording secular music and touring, singing only secular songs. Between shows, he would head back to Deaconess for another series of skin grafts. By 1964, the company had contracts in 12 states, and Womach incorporated his company, which had $50,000 in capital. Within 10 years, Womach’s company was in all of the 48 continental states. In 1976, he wrote his book about the crash and his recovery and had a film made about him. Spokane Mayor David Rodgers named him “Spokane’s Outstanding Citizen of the Year.” In the 1970s, Womach became very well-known and launched a nationwide concert tour. He bought a jet and hired a pilot, Steve Ball, to transport him. “He had a huge following,” said Ball, who contacted Womach after reading his book. “It was like traveling with a rock star.” In 1981, Womach’s National Music Service was leasing 5,700 sound systems to American funeral homes. He performed 125 concerts a year. But the good times wouldn’t last. In 1980, he and Virginia divorced. “We’re still good friends, but we’re human, with frailties and the rest,” he told People magazine the next year. His company continued to prosper, but it, too, would fall on hard times. In 1989, when Womach’s business had $5 million in annual sales and 6,000 clients nationwide, he launched a new service: creating videos of newly deceased. The six-minute videos were created using still photographs, slides, 8-millimeter film or videotape. The first video he did was of his mother, who died in 1986. His first client from the beginning, Riplinger Funeral Home, was the first to use Womach’s video services. Womach, who was in his 60s at the time, told the paper that he was driven to innovate. “I’d rather burn out than rust out,” he said. Oct. 27, 1989, a fire above the National Music Service building destroyed Womach’s apartment. He wasn’t home. “I’m feeling great,” he said. “I’m alive. My possessions? So what, they can be replaced. Bodies cannot be and no one was hurt.” Three years later, in 1992, Womach’s company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, due to $9.4 million in debt to a Japanese lending firm, though the firm had reported $9 million in revenues. It survived the proceedings, and by the end of the century, his company provided music to 10,000 funeral homes around the country. Womach folded the company in 2006, but the heir to his work lives on in his daughter’s company, the Global Distribution Network. Still, to the end, Womach was working on new ideas. Kim Berg, who co-owns Riplinger, said the last time he saw Womach, he heard about an idea for an immersive funeral experience, where people would walk into a room and be virtually surrounded by whatever the deceased wanted: oceans or forests. Kim Predisik, who worked with Womach for more than 20 years, said he saw Womach trying to build a jacket with a speaker system built into it, so someone’s voice could be amplified graveside without lugging a bunch of gear around. “He was welding the jacket while he was wearing it,” Predisik said, shaking his head. Clearly, Womach never slowed down. Not even long enough, in fact, to think about his own funeral, like he had done for countless other people. His daughter, Judie Sowards, had to do that, and played five of Womach’s songs at Saturday’s service, including “Happy Again.” “I had two fears today. One was getting up in front of all of you, and composing myself,” Sowards said. “The other fear was that at any given moment … I might expect him to sit up in his casket and say the music was too loud, or not be a song that he liked, because he was a perfectionist.” As Sowards suggests, Womach’s thoughts on his own funeral remain a mystery. “We were just getting to that, and never did,” said Predisik, adding that he did have one conversation with Womach on the subject. “He wanted to fly a plane until it ran out of gas. That’s how he wanted to go,” Predisik said. “I said, ‘But you’ve already survived one plane crash. Who’s to say you won’t survive another?’ He just laughed and said, ‘If it’s God’s will…’”