Thoughts at Midterm

I’ve been at school for nearly two months now, and in some ways, it’s everything I ever thought it would be. In others, it’s completely different.

In Geisha, Mineko Iwasaki talks about how she deliberately chose the hardest course for herself in order to challenge her shortcomings. I think that deciding to go into mortuary science was something similar for me. I’ve never been stellar at math and science, and MOS programs are full of science. Which is the first thing someone totally unprepared for the course will realize. There is a lot of science. There are lots of labs. There’s a lot of dissecting (which I learned the hard way will make you throw up if you go into lab and start hacking away at formaldehyde preserved animal bits on an empty stomach). Which leads me to my second shock of the program: there are a lot of business courses. Accounting and management and merchandising. Plus two law classes, added in to make the world seem a cruel joke come exam time. I digress. There are so many things that go into being a mortician (or funeral director; I will use the terms interchangeably from here on in). It’s a little like being a death-day wedding planner who has to provide grief counseling to the family and facial reconstruction to the bride, all while trying to be a used car salesman and try to provide the best of the best, top of the line casket for your loved one to ride into eternity with.

This job is not easy. This program is not easy.

The first thing I noticed about my peers is that the vast majority of them are coming from other fields, abandoning old hated jobs or schools and trying to join the ranks of the National Funeral Board Certified, much like myself. The second thing I noticed is that a lot of them don’t seem to know what the job entails. With only two opportunities to pass any needed course with a 77 or higher, two allowed missed classes in a row, a 50% drop/kick out rate and a program that graduated only eight students last year, this is not the time to dive into things lightly. I had a bit of an idea what I was getting into; I get the sense that many others did not.

What a lot of people don’t realize is that there’s not a lot of hacking bodies apart. Coroners and pathologists and medical examiners? They’re the ones that slice into a fresh cadaver to determine cause of death. Morticians? They’re the ones that sew the bodies up, make them look acceptable for the family at the funeral. We have the strangest job of being both forefront and behind the scenes: we are grief counselors and mediators and it is our job to make the funeral run smoothly, while at the same time blending into the background, making sure the flower arrangements are perfect and the priest reads the correct passages. There isn’t a lot of contact with the dead. It’s mostly with the living.

Which brings me to another widely held misconception about the field: it is not, notNOT all about dead people. So many people have cited their reasons for starting the program, simply as, “I hate the living, and the dead don’t talk back.” Usually this will elicit a few laughs and everyone will move on with their day, but after hearing the same thing so many times and talking to students further along in the program, and the department head, don’t go into this field if you don’t want to deal with the living. Go into pathology. Because being a funeral director is not for people who don’t want their clients to talk back. Funerals aren’t for the dead, and honestly haven’t been since the first official funeral some many-odd years ago. People hold funerals for loved ones to reassure themselves that their deceased family member is going off into another world peacefully. It gives them time to mourn and grieve. Seeing the casket with their dearly departed is part of getting closure and beginning the road to acceptance. When their loved ones die, everyone in a family has something to say. You will get ten thousand million gazillion calls a day about people changing their mind, changing it back, then changing it again, on everything from what their loved one will wear in the casket to who will read a eulogy to any number of minute details. And they will rely on you for sound advice. This is where that “part counselor” comes in. You will have to help these people move on from what could be a devastating death for them, a tragic one. The death of a newborn child, or a close friend or a mother or a sister or an aunt. They won’t want to speak to someone who went into the field simply to embalm and has no social grace or tact, and honestly a good funeral home wouldn’t hire you if you didn’t have a well-rounded personality anyway.

I’ll touch briefly on the next two things that people don’t seem to grasp about the field, because they’re connected. Yes. There is good money in the death industry. There’s really good money in owning a funeral home, and not so great money for an apprentice embalmer, which (at least in Connecticut) you will be for one year after you are board certified, during which time you have to embalm a certain number of corpses and then take a state certification test. But there’s good money, enough to support yourself. However: when you take into consideration the extreme hours of a mortician and spread that money out over all the 3AM calls to go collect the decedent, all the time spent talking to the family.. That money starts looking less and less good. The hours a funeral director keep are unholy. The head of the department at my school will gladly regale us with tales of beginning a trip to Vermont at 6AM, only to turn around and head back to Connecticut two hours later because of a pick up call. The co-head will tell us how she taught until 11PM, worked on a body until 6AM and came to school by 9 to start teaching all over again. It is not for the faint of heart.

With all this being said, I don’t say any of these things to discourage you, you potential death convert. I say these things because when they were told to me, instead of discouraging me, they lit a fire. When I learned about the tough courses, the terrible hours, the hard horrible tough work I would have to put in, instead of getting scared or deciding I wanted to do something different.. it only made me bare my teeth, beat my chest, and soldier through, undeterred. This is what I want to do, and I want it so bad I can taste it. (For the record, it tastes like formaldehyde and the tears of my enemies.)

The semester so far has already been fraught with roommate troubles (which were resolved, swiftly and without bloodshed), classmate troubles (which will probably never die, as any combination of personalities is bound to have its volatile moments), and panic-induced wallowing parties that take place on the floor of the room I share with a lovely medical assisting major who inevitably lets me have my fits before offering me mini muffins (God bless her heart, she deserves a medal and a cash prize for living with me). As of the midterm, I have all As. This is a feat for me, as I spent most of the time I was working on my human services degree taking nonsense courses and doing middling to poor in them, and as I’ve mentioned, these are not easy courses. Spring and Summer registration begin in a week and I’ve already met with my academic adviser (who is also my anatomy lab instructor, and is truly a lily among the thorns, as far as advisers that I’ve had go) about what classes to take next semester.

Tentative schedule for next semester include Humans and Disease, Microbiology (which includes a lab), Medical Terminology, Restorative Art (also includes a lab, but it also includes recreating a head/face on a plastic skull), and Psychosocial and Ethical Issues of Death, which I’m told is extremely similar to a counseling class, of which I’ve taken many. I’ll post next week as to my schedule and include a little bit about the dissections last week (hopefully with pictures!).

I hope everyone has a happy and safe Halloween! (What are you dressing up as? I briefly considered going as the Grim Reaper or perhaps a 14th century plague doctor, but I settled on a shark.)



~ by mementomorissa on October 27, 2012.

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