by Sherry Posnick-Goodwin
Dave McCament and students
When Jennifer Tarvis tells people what she is studying, they ask if she wears black every day. Or if she is a Goth. Or if she enjoys looking at blood and guts.
Those who ask this kind of question are anxious about death, she explains. For years she was anxious, too. But now that she’s surrounded by death her anxiety has vanished.
Tarvis is preparing to enter the quiet, clinical and grief-stricken realm of the funeral business as a student in Cypress College’s Mortuary Science Department. The three-semester program, taught by Community College Association members, offers classes in funeral service management and directing; thanatology (grief); ceremonies; anatomy, pathology and microbiology; embalming and restorative art.
Helping family members make final arrangements for loved ones is important work, says Tarvis. So is making the dead look lifelike and peaceful, which she accomplishes through embalming and “restorative art” with makeup and hair color.
“I want to make them look as good as possible. After all, it’s the last time people will see them.”
Classmates share similar stories of friends and family expressing revulsion and say it’s a conversation ender at parties. Martha Rosales says her future mother-in-law leaves the room when she talks about school.
Their teachers warned them to expect this type of reaction, which is centuries old. During an embalming class, student Alisha Gratz points out that those who dissected bodies for mummification had stones thrown at them in ancient Egypt.
“The embalmers became a symbol for the survivors’ grief,” she tells classmates, who nod with understanding that not much has changed.
Students’ support system is each other
“I was scared to death my first day of embalming, but the teachers mentally prepared us to see a dead body. They helped us feel confident,” says Rosales. “It’s a great program. Where else could you get a full-blown career in three semesters?”
The mortuary school looks and feels like the real thing. The reception area is modeled after a funeral home. Students and teachers dress the part, speaking in hushed, reassuring tones. The school even has a store stocked with coffins, grave markers and urns. In labs, students practice embalming and restorative arts on unclaimed bodies of indigents provided by the Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office, which occasionally receive a real funeral service from students.
“We take care of their remains and show them respect, providing them with a dignity they may not have had when they were alive,” comments Dave McCament, teacher and mortician. “They may be the unclaimed dead, but at one time they led very real lives and had a family.”
McCament specializes in teaching restorative arts, which he believes help families accept the “reality of death” and be assured their loved one is finally at peace. He teaches students to make death masks out of plaster, as a means for teaching facial reconstruction if there has been disfigurement. The masks are beautiful and pale as they lie drying in the art room.
McCament entered the business for three reasons. The first was to make a lot of money. But he found morticians earn low salaries, starting at about $35,000 a year. The second was to impress people. People were impressed, but not in the way he imagined. The third was to help people. That has turned out to be true.
“People don’t always understand the greater good that you do until they have a loss in their family. Then, they get it. It’s an emotional job. For me, it’s important to recognize what families are going through — but not become so involved that you enter into grief with them. There’s a difference between empathy and sympathy. This is what I teach my students.”
Jolena Grande, who teaches the business classes and works in a mortuary, says the profession is intrinsically rewarding.
“You can help others in their worst time of need. But it’s stressful. You may be dealing with families that are fractured, and death only exacerbates fractures in a family; members who haven’t communicated in years are now required to talk to each other. As a result, we do a tremendous amount of counseling. The altruism and commitment that every single one of our students and faculty has for serving others is something I am proud of.”
Morbid curiosity or coping
Grande tells students people enter the profession out of morbid curiosity or to cope with an unresolved death.
For student Brittany Gatewood, it’s the latter. In 2004 she was in a car accident that killed her brother and sister. While she was recuperating in the hospital, nobody told her they had died, fearing it would hinder her recovery. Learning the truth was devastating.
“They had closed caskets at the service, and it took me a long time to get over the fact that I wouldn’t see them again. I felt like they might pop out and yell ‘Surprise!’ at any moment. It was surreal.”
Gatewood believes she would have dealt better with the tragedy had she been able to see her siblings looking peaceful and ready for their eternal rest. She says mortuary school has helped with the healing process and coping with anxiety about death, and she anticipates helping others in similar situations when she graduates.
The classes at the Orange County community college are extremely challenging, and there are hours and hours of study, she says.
“It’s definitely the most challenging thing I have ever done. It has pushed me beyond my limits.”
Students must have a general education community college degree before enrolling in the rigorous program, which requires that students take 15 to 18 units at a time, says Glenn Bower, teacher and program director. Many are second-career students who lost jobs in a bad economy and are looking for a fresh start.
Students earn an associate degree in mortuary science and are ready to take state and national licensing exams upon graduation.
Many already work part time as apprentices in local mortuaries. Glenn is proud that close to 70 percent of his students are employed in the funeral industry when they finish the program. How many colleges, he asks, can make that claim?
Cesar Teran works in a funeral home after graduating in June. He’s happy caring for the dead and comforting the living.
“I enjoy helping families. Sometimes, months later, they will come back and say thank you. For me, it is an extremely rewarding career.”
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