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It's a Living

Mortuary Science, the Career Path to Eternal Rest

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If you can handle retrieving a dead body at 3 AM, washing, stuffing, and embalming it, then plugging it to prevent leaks, you might want to consider going to school for what Money magazine recently named the 27th best job in America: funeral director, which came in just below film director and above both fashion designer and advertising executive.

As Money's survey noted, funeral directors enjoy only average prestige and job satisfaction, and they don't earn all that much money--according to the National Foundation for Funeral Service, the average annual income for funeral home owners is $44,592, and the average salary for a funeral director/ embalmer is $27,421. But in uncertain times like these job security means a great deal, and funeral directors have that in spades. Dr. Gordon Bigelow, executive director of the American Board of Funeral Service Education, says, "The death rate increases annually and will begin to increase more rapidly by the turn of the century. Unless we're able to attract and recruit more people, we'll have a labor shortage."

Enrollment in mortuary-science programs is and historically has been pretty stagnant, Bigelow adds. About 16,220 students graduated from the 40 colleges offering funeral-service programs in the United States last year. And this number is not signficantly higher than the numbers reported over the last five.

Here in Chicago, funeral directors, embalmers, and restorative artists come out of City-Wide College's school of mortuary science, which rents two classrooms in the old Cook County School of Nursing building, near the county morgue (where students learn embalming) and Rush-Presbyterian-Saint Luke's and Cook County hospitals (sources of some of the bodies to be embalmed). You can identify the classrooms by the bulletin board that hangs in the hallway outside: a newspaper headline screams "Vengeful Corpse Makes Good On 100-Year Curse, poison from dead man's grave leaks into town's water supply and kills 163 people!" Next to this are less fanciful stories on the basement miniature-golf course run out of the Ahlgrim & Sons Funeral Home in Palatine and on the cut-rate Jewish funeral facility, Lloyd Mandel Funeral Direction, located in a Skokie strip mall along with a White Hen Pantry.

Each year, 30 to 35 students stream through these portals into City-Wide's two-year mortuary-science program; 15 to 20 of them end up graduating.

"We don't lose anyone the second year," says Dr. Richard Tworek, who oversees the mortuary school as the dean of the college's health-science programs. "But students drop out the first year for a variety of reasons. Some find they're just not cut out for it. I had one student who was pushed into it by his family and he dropped out. And some find the curriculum too difficult."

The students who stick it out are slowly changing the face of an industry that has long been dominated by males taking over the family business. Now more and more minorities, women, and midlife job switchers are taking the career path to eternal rest.

"The idea of being a caretaker and helping families at a time of loss is attracting more women," says Betty Murray, educational director for the

National Foundation of Funeral Service. "It's a very aesthetic thing that happens when you embalm a person and restore their features. And people who have been laid off or are in jobs with limited futures are choosing funeral service as a second career."

Babbette Jenkins, a 30-year-old student in the City-Wide program, explains her interest this way: "For some strange reason I was always interested as a child in wanting to know how to deal with the dead, and the turning point came in 1976 when I was 13 years old. I was living with my mom and our home was broken into. My mom was stabbed 26 times and I was stabbed 16 times. I had exploratory surgery and was unconscious for three days. And I remember waking in the hospital and saying, 'If I can live through this, I want to be a funeral director.'

"No matter what, death is hard to accept," she explains. "But when people view someone who has died, it helps them accept it."

When Jenkins's grandmother died, her mother, a cosmetologist, did the grandmother's hair and makeup and allowed Jenkins to paint her fingernails, which "made me more antsy to go into funeral service," she says.

But before beginning her formal education, Jenkins worked at the A.R. Leak Funeral Home on South Cottage Grove as the night receptionist (while also holding down a secretarial job during the day) to "see if I could really handle it," she says. "I never felt squeamish. It just made me more determined to go for training."

Another student, Muhammad Sindbad, 46, was in the Navy for eight years as a hospital corpsman and witnessed hideous death scenes while stationed in Vietnam. He says, "I'm fascinated by the whole subject of death: the grieving process, altered states of consciousness. I feel at home and comfortable with the fact that mortuary science is my niche.

"The field is so open and so unexplored," he explains. "Like restorative art. It takes hours to restore limbs or jaws. But with computers, hypothetically speaking, a laser can scan a body, feed that information into a computer giving it a 360-degree view, and solve the X factor for you.

"Restorative art is going to be a specialty with me. You can liken it to plastic surgery."

(City-Wide instructor Edward Johnson and his wife, Gail, have compiled a scrapbook from free-lance restorative jobs they've done, a collection of grisly before-and-after snapshots that show students what a talented restorative artist can accomplish for family members who insist on open-casket funerals. One before shot shows a man lying on a steel embalming table with the top of his head shot clear off. Jagged pieces of flesh and skull point up to where his cranium had been. A later photo shows the same man on the embalming table, but with a complete head created from cotton and plaster of paris.)

Peter Talso, 39, developed his funereal ambitions in high school, as an act of rebellion against his physician father.

"It was like my father and his colleagues were trying to get me into medical school at verbal gunpoint," he says. "So I started hanging out with the black suits."

He went to work at the now-defunct Lakor Nichols Lane Chapel in Morgan Park, but was talked out of going into the business by his now-deceased mentor, funeral director Dewitt "Dewey" Lane, who told Talso rebellion was a poor reason to enter the field.

So Talso began playing piano in nightclubs and working various day jobs, one being a ten-year stint as morgue attendant at Little Company of Mary Hospital in Evergreen Park. His nightclub career went through many peaks and valleys, and the latest valley pushed him toward mortuary school.

Louis R. Zefran, who is director of the mortuary-science program (and also owns and operates Zefran Funeral Home on West Cermak), drills it into his students that "Funeral service works on a 24-hour-a-day, seven-days-a-week basis. When someone calls at 3 AM, you can't tell them to take two aspirin and go to bed. And if you get crank phone calls, which you can get two or three of a night, you can't answer the next call 'Go to hell.'"

No matter what time of day or night, Zefran warns students, the person calling a funeral home envisions a calm, sympathetic professional sitting at a desk with a phone. "You'll be surprised how you get addicted to phones and pagers," he says. "And when you're contacted, a lot of people haven't rationalized or thought through what's just happened. Some lady may have just gone to wake up her husband and found him dead and wants you to come right away. Yours may be the first voice she hears after finding him dead, and you have to calm her down."

After finishing City-Wide's two-year program, which concludes with an internship in a hospital pathology morgue, students obtain an apprenticeship license from the state. To qualify for a full license they must pass "the Conference," a six-hour national exam, and complete an apprenticeship, working in a funeral home for one year and performing at least 24 embalmings.

Is it worth it? Three years of training to arrange funerals and work around the clock primping dead people for maybe $45,000 a year? Ken Kuratko, 21, a second-year City-Wide student whose father owns the Kuratko Funeral Home in Riverside, isn't sure.

"Every funeral director wants everything done perfectly," he says. "The funeral director is the assurance part for the family. The family knows he has everything taken care of and that they don't have to worry about anything." It's stressful, he says, because the situation is so delicate and the customers so fragile. He remembers walking into an auto repair shop where a sign reading "Payment due in full before car is released" hung on the wall. "We can't do that," he says. "We deal with a different set of rules."

What seems to concern young Kuratko the most is that a funeral director's schedule is not his own. He envisions himself answering a death call two minutes before he is set to go out. Instead of going to a friend's wedding he has to go pick up a body.

"I've taken phone calls all hours of the night, worked wake duty. On wake duty you're at the funeral home at noon, the wake starts at 2 PM, you make sure everything is right with the flowers and the casket, greet the guests. The wake is over at 9 PM and you clean up after....

"We have a small, family-run business and whatever work goes on we do ourselves," he says. "I'm not sure if I'm going to take over the business. It's there for me, but I don't know."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Paul L. Meredith.

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