Advanced Embalming begins Monday morning at 8. A small group of 20- and 21-year-olds, all of them dressed in too-big black and dark gray suits, shuffle tiredly into the classroom. Professor Barry Walch stands behind the podium, holding a stack of the students’ exams from last week. They did not do as well as he’d hoped.
“You guys ruined my whole weekend,” he says. “I graded these on Friday and spent the whole weekend crying.”
“Walshie,” says Kayce, who brought in a bagel and orange juice from one of the campus cafeterias, “we need extra credit.”
“There isn’t enough extra credit in America,” he replies.
Walch — sixtysomething, trim, white hair and glasses — is setting up the PowerPoint for today’s lecture. The introductory slide reads “SEVERE EDEMA REMOVAL.”
“Oh ho ho ho,” he laughs. “Wait till you see what we’ve got today. This one even makes me puke.”
“Are there pictures?” asks one student.
“Oh, there’s pictures.”
The small, windowless, off-white room we’re sitting in is located on the basement level of French Hall, where most of SUNY (State University of New York) Canton’s mortuary science classes are held. Across the hallway is the Mortuary Science Association lounge, which is decorated with fake cobwebs and caution tape for Halloween. Between classes, students gather around its circular table to complain about tests and play cards. (Right now, they are very into euchre.) When I meet them, they are in the process of designing their wing of the school’s annual haunted house. Kayce, who is one half of a president–vice-president MSA power couple with her boyfriend Nick, tells me: “Ours is always the scariest.”
A little more than 50 students (35 of them freshmen) are enrolled in the school’s four-year program, one of just a handful across the country; everywhere else, mortuary science is a two-year associate’s degree. Enrollment is small, but growing: The 2015 American Board of Funeral Service Education (ABFSE) directory of mortuary science programs, groups, and professional associations puts the number of accredited institutions of funeral service education in the United States at 58, comprising 5,000 enrolled students, two-thirds of whom are between ages 17 and 30 — and over 57% of them are women. At SUNY Canton, the students are almost exclusively between the ages of 18 and 22; 80% of them are women.
In their choice of academic pursuit, these are young people who, whether they realize it or not, are pushing back against a lot: the derision of peers, and sometimes family; an aging curriculum increasingly at odds with the needs and wants of the contemporary American; and, according to many I spoke with, high dropout rates and, if they make it that far, high industry turnover. They are signing up to spend years talking about something nobody else wants to talk about. From the moment they show up at orientation, mortuary students are told they are — they must be — different than the rest of us. We need their help.
But a growing, increasingly vocal cohort of alternative death activists argue that the insularity mortuary science programs foster only serves to keep us beholden to a stagnant, stubbornly reclusive industry — to maintain a false binary between death’s proactive managers and the rest of us, its passive recipients.
On Sunday afternoon, the mortuary science upperclassmen are watching football. David Penepent, program director and professor, invites his juniors and seniors — and he does think of them as his, calling the girls “honey” — over for beer and spaghetti. He calls it “supervised socializing.”
Marielle, a 21-year-old with long, flat-ironed maroon hair and razor-precise eyeliner, is from Staten Island, which is obvious as soon as she tells me she joined the program because she wanted to work with the “'uman” body. As a freshman she was one of 15 students; she excitedly tells me the current freshman class is more than twice that.
At some point the group becomes divided: The girls leave the silent boys on the couch and migrate to the dinner table. I sit next to Katie, who is wearing a navy hoodie and a purple bandana over her tight brown curls. I ask her if she’s always been interested in death and she says yes, since the first time she studied Egyptian history in high school. Her uncle is a funeral director, and when she told him she was interested in becoming one too, he told her, “Run while you can.” But she was undeterred.
I ask the other girls what type of reactions they get when other people learn their course of study. “People look at you like…” says JoAnna, followed by an expression that seems equal parts shock and disgust. Kayce says that a guy once sat down at her table in the cafeteria, asked her major, and, when she told him, promptly stood up again.
She came from culinary school, which she didn’t finish. When looking for a new path, her dad, who used to dig graves, suggested she consider mortuary school. It appealed to her immediately. “This is funny now,” she says, “but I didn’t want to work long weeks and crazy hours.” Everyone, including Penepent, who sticks his head in from the kitchen, laughs uproariously — dying does not have off-hours, or a slow season.
Theirs is the smallest program on campus, and likely the most marginalized too. It’s evident that the students are very close, unusually so. Marielle tells Katie, “We probably wouldn’t be friends if it weren’t for this program,” and I believe her. I ask them if they spend much time hanging out with students from other programs. “We don’t hang out with other kids,” says Marielle.
They even have their own slang: YODO. Like YOLO, but, you know.
At the mention of an upcoming embalming lab, Katie recalls a session in which she and and another student got blood spatter all over their faces after accidentally shredding a corpse's jugular vein. It’s protocol for students to wear protective shields in lab, but they were leaning over the body at just the right (or, wrong) angle, so blood still got on their chins and, I’m sorry to say, in their mouths. As a result, they had to go to the hospital for HIV testing — standard procedure for exposure to bodily fluids, even if the body in question has screened negative for HIV. “I laughed,” she says, with a shrug.
I ask her if there’s anything that does make her uncomfortable. “We all have our things we don’t like to do,” she says, quietly. “For me it’s closing the mouths.” A year ago her grandfather died, she tells me. Her family prepared the body, but when it came time to close his mouth, she had to leave the room.
After spaghetti and garlic bread, we eat a very sweet but allegedly sugar-free dessert that Kayce made special for Penepent, who was recently diagnosed with diabetes. Little sugar gravestones adorn the chocolate frosting.
Penepent then sets up the movie he wants the students to watch: 700 Sundays, Billy Crystal’s one-man show about his father, who died when Crystal was 15. In the show, Crystal describes his grief as a boulder, which he mimes pushing around the stage. Penepent uses this as an entry point to a lesson: What boulders are the students carrying? In what way will various individuals’ boulders play a role in their future funeral homes? When JoAnna answers, she punctuates her thoughts with punches into her palm and liberal use of the word “fuck”: “When I talk about death, I get angry,” she says. It’s not clear at whom. God, maybe.
Mid-answer, she notices that Katie has started to cry. At 27, JoAnna is significantly older than her peers, and it shows: She crouches at Katie’s feet, taking her hands in her own, kissing her on the cheek. “I know you’ve been suffering,” she says. Katie’s grandfather’s death is something they’ve already talked about. The group’s ease with one another is startling. Nobody is embarrassed for anyone; this is what they are here for.
“Does school make your boulder heavier?” Penepent asks.
“No,” says Katie, who has stopped crying.
“Does it make it lighter?”
Penepent then asks Katie if she’d like a blessing, and she says, “OK.” It is only then, when she stands up, that JoAnna lets go of her hands.
Penepent leaves the room, coming back moments later with what looks like a palm-size wooden log. “This is NOT a big joint,” he says. It’s sage, which he lights with a match. He tells Katie to hold out her arms, and he shakes the stick around in an imaginary perimeter around her body, a wispy trail of smoke flowing from its end. “May you be blessed with your grandfather’s spirit,” he says. There is some light giggling; they are very serious young people, but they are not unshakable.
Like many students who end up in mortuary school, Caitlin Doughty grew up with an above-average interest in what she calls “morbidly related things.” In college she majored in medieval history. At 23, she got a job as a crematory operator. Now 30, she has a favorite funeral rite: Tibetan sky burial. A tradition of Vajrayana Buddhism, practiced in several Chinese provinces as well as Mongolia — places where high altitude limits tree growth and therefore pyre building, and where the often-frozen ground makes traditional burial difficult — sky burial is the name given to the rite in which a dead body is placed atop a mountain and left there to be carried away and eaten, piece by piece, by birds of prey.
“I think it’s just beautiful,” she says in the third episode of her popular series, Ask a Mortician. (Some episodes have racked up close to 200,000 views.) “The idea of your body being taken apart and flown into the air in a million different directions is really, really powerful, and if it were available in the U.S., I would be cultivating a flock of vultures,” she adds.
Though I knew what Doughty looked like thanks to YouTube, when I meet her for breakfast in New York, I’m surprised by her height: 6-foot-1 before the heels on her boots. Her glossy black hair is cut into blunt Bettie Page bangs. Her sonorous voice is lower in person than it sounds in her videos. She strikes me as unignorable, though she assures me the targets of her critiques do their best.
“Traditional industry people won’t comment on me,” she says, seeming surprised in spite of herself. “I get anonymous comments sometimes, but when I say, like, ‘Would you be willing to do a back-and-forth debate on the blog or in a video?’ there’s no response. They’re not willing to do it. And I'm ready to go.”
Ask a Mortician is especially, delightfully goofy given the subject matter: The series finds Doughty, a licensed mortician, answering a variety of dark and sometimes unsavory questions like “Do you have to grind the bones after a cremation?” and “How prevalent is necrophilia in the funeral industry?” Her answers (short version: yes; not very) are patient, nuanced, and not condescending. If “funeral director” has an archetype — graying, potbellied white man in an outdated brown suit — Caitlin Doughty is the perfect foil.
In the seven years she's been working in the funeral industry, Doughty has created a full-time career as an alternative death activist. She is the founder of The Order of the Good Death, a group of funeral industry professionals, academics, and artists dedicated to changing the cultural conversation about death, and is also in the process of opening a DIY funeral service called Undertaking L.A.
Her first book, a New York Times best-selling memoir called Smoke Gets in Your Eyes (& Other Lessons From the Crematory), devotes substantial space to her experiences in cremation, though one gets the impression that the relatively few lurid details she provides are proffered as bait. The first line of her book is “A girl always remembers the first corpse she shaves,” but if she has any intent to titillate, it’s only a means to an end — a way to grab hold of our darkest curiosities, pull us closer, and make us grapple with the fact that (to borrow a lyric) everyone we know, someday, will die.
At its core, the book is a clarion call directed primarily at the death industry, and, secondarily, its customers — which is to say, everyone. In Doughty’s view, the system currently in place has too long relied on an unhealthy symbiosis: clients who are too petrified to think about death long enough to wonder if they might want things done differently, and funeral directors who are all too happy to keep everything the same.
Doughty calls this “death denialism” — the uniquely American belief that death can be overcome, or at least ignored, for a very, very long time. Here extension of life is the ultimate imperative, and illness, an opportunity: to persevere, to marathon, to win. If we must die, then we will do so privately and tidily, ushered quickly out of the hospital or home, out of the hands of our families and into those of sanitized professionals. If we are to see a dead body it must be made up to look living, puffed up and painted, hands folded peacefully across the chest.
As a result, our perspective is blinkered. We don’t treat our time as finite; we gulp down our resources and our days because we don’t really believe they’ll run out. To quote just one of a number of gorgeously stern passages in her book: “Corpses keep the living tethered to reality.” In other words, our inability to deal with death is ruining our lives.
So, after a year at the crematory — during which time she grew increasingly wary of establishment morticians, whom she frequently felt were misinforming and up-selling the bereaved — Doughty enrolled in mortuary school as something of a Trojan horse. (She also refers to mortuary school as “Deth Skool” and sometimes “The Formaldehyde Tower.”) Going to mortuary school was the only way to be sure mortuary school was being done wrong.
The way Doughty describes her 18-month program verges on Pleasantville-esque dystopia: self-serious faculty; soaring, preachy platitudes; and an unswerving, unnerving attention paid to the very aesthetic, very particular details of the embalming process. Doughty describes coming across an article, found in the stack of trade magazines outside the lab, called “Cosmetic Considerations for the Infant Death,” which, she writes, is fancy mortuary-speak for “Makeup for Dead Babies.”
Of her former classmates, Doughty is equally unsparing. She describes hoping to find “fellow death revolutionaries,” meeting instead a group of doe-eyed drones. At a meet-and-greet with upperclassmen, the newcomers are asked to share why they enrolled in mortuary school. Doughty writes, “Surely they would boldly refuse to give the same cheesy, party-line answer, ‘I just really want to help people.’ No such luck.”
The line struck me as a bit harsh — who among us can answer an icebreaker question without succumbing to cliché? — but it is true that mortuary science students repeat this mantra a lot. Among students I talked to, it was the first and most given response to the same question. It’s an admirable motive, if a simplified one. There are lots of ways to help people. Why this one? But Doughty does see reasons to be encouraged by recent cultural changes, like the gender breakdown in programs like SUNY Canton.
“The main thrust of the interest in death right now really does come from young women,” Doughty tells me. “If you go to events around death or death awareness, that's majority women.” There is also a surging and parallel set of majority-female interests working in her favor: New Age-y spiritual endeavors like astrology, witchcraft, and tarot. Doughty ascribes these pursuits to an increasingly secular population eager to reclaim ritual; though she describes them as “not [her] bent,” she’s happy to welcome their adherents.
When you ask people in the funeral industry why they think women are flocking to the field, they almost always answer in gender-essentialist terms: They’re “naturally” caring, “naturally” sensitive. Women have “natural motherly empathy,” Penepent tells me. Even the young female students answer this way. At the spaghetti dinner, Marielle told me, “Women are good at talking to people, and caring.” Put this way, it sounds like biological destiny.
The “natural empathy” line smacks of compensatory rationale a bit — if women are and have always been more sensitive than men, why haven’t they always been here? Rhetoric like this seems like a way to make women working in the death industry more palatable to people who might otherwise bristle at the change swelling up around them — a way to calm the old, white, male guard by assuring them: It’s OK, the girls are just here to be nice. This might be how it’s possible to have an enrollment that is well over half female and an industry that still doesn’t see them at the top. Despite all this eager female presence, the funeral industry remains overwhelmingly male: A 2010 study found that just over 18% of the nation’s funeral directors were women.
“Women will get hired and end up getting sandwiches for the guys,” Walch tells me. “Women will put up with more nonsense on the job site than men will” — basically, because they have to.
Still, Doughty believes the sheer quantity of women taking interest and showing up must, eventually, necessitate a sea change: “It's not gonna work for much longer for the guys to be like, ‘What are you doing here?’”
The funeral industry likes to tie contemporary Western embalming practices to ancient Egypt, but many (including Doughty) point out that the heavily ritualized, months-long mummification process is a world apart from what is done in American funeral homes today. Modern embalming is owed to the confluence of two factors: the American Civil War and the 1867 discovery of formaldehyde by German chemist August Wilhelm von Hofmann. The war decimated tens of thousands of young men in devastatingly short bursts of time, leaving battlefields quite literally covered in rotting dead bodies. Corpses were returned to families by train, but decomposition moves more quickly than rail.
A group of enterprising young men began marketing their method of preserving the war’s casualties, using a pre-formaldehyde blend of chemicals including arsenic, zinc chloride, mercury, lead, salt, and various acids. Among them was Dr. Thomas Holmes, who would later be dubbed “the father of American embalming.” Holmes claimed to have personally embalmed more than 4,000 soldiers; he charged $100 per body.
Within a matter of decades, embalming was considered a highly specialized trade. The manual labor involved in picking up bodies and digging graves gained a medical sheen; embalmers insisted (and still insist) that their work protected the living from the dead, though scientific study has repeatedly shown that — with very few exceptions, Ebola being one of them — it is very hard to catch disease from dead bodies. (Embalmers, by contrast, come into direct contact with a known carcinogen each time they preserve a body: formaldehyde.)
No longer were bodies to be washed and displayed in the family home before burial. It was too risky, too unclean. Laypeople were encouraged to think of themselves as such; grieving and burial now required expert assistance. Undertaking became funeral direction.
The earliest mortuary schools were founded in the late 19th century by embalming chemical companies with the express purpose of teaching workers how to use their products. More than 120 years later, modern mortuary schools still exist primarily (if not exclusively) to teach students how to embalm.
But embalming is on the decline, and has been for some time. In its stead, cremation is booming: The national cremation rate in 2012 (the last year for which National Funeral Directors Association statistics are available) was 43.2%, up from 34.6% in 2007 and 26.17% in 2000. In some parts of the country, cremation rates are much higher: 74.2% in Nevada; 72.6% in Washington; figures right around 70% in Oregon, Hawaii, and Maine. Earlier this year, embalming was included in a list of disappearing middle-class jobs, with a projected 15% decline over the next 10 years.
And yet the funeral industry is slow to adjust for this. Most states have laws requiring funeral homes to have on-site embalming rooms, and many require casket showrooms as well. Cremation is hardly touched on in mortuary school, if at all. In order to become a licensed funeral director, graduating students must pass the national board exam — because the national board exam barely mentions cremation, the schools don’t either.
“You can actually get better training in the responsible and safe operation of a crematory by attending a two- or three-day seminar by the Cremation Association of North America than you get in mortuary school,” Josh Slocum tells me.
A former newspaper reporter, Slocum is the executive director of the Funeral Consumers Alliance, a ==501(c)(3)== charity that he likens to “Consumer Reports magazine for funerals and burials.” Its aim is to educate funeral consumers about their legal rights, which they do through reporting on industry trends at the national and state levels, providing funeral price comparison sheets and working with politicians to overturn or reverse industry laws they consider regressive and/or prohibitive.
“The problem with mortuary school is that it continues to propagate misinformation and outright falsehoods,” he says. "They are still teaching the bullshit that embalming is a public health measure. They're teaching a curriculum that is about 125 years old. Most of these schools spend about nine months on practical embalming and the remainder of the time with a smattering of business administration, some very poor pop psychology, and not nearly enough about the legal responsibilities and duties that funeral directors have to the consumer.”
I should note that Slocum is speaking of the vast majority of mortuary science programs that are two-year associate’s degrees; he’s less familiar with four-year bachelor’s programs like SUNY Canton’s, but he’s not optimistic they’re using that extra time to any great advantage. In Slocum’s view, the schools (and the profession at large) cling to embalming not only because embalmed funerals are the ones that make funeral directors the most money, but because it’s the only thing they can point to as a marketable skill.
“The only thing that funeral directors do that the rest of us don't is embalm. That's it. Everything else they do, the administration, the organizing, all of this stuff — all of this used to be done by American families themselves,” he says. “Taking care of a dead person is not rocket science.”
Slocum is careful to acknowledge that even if any one of us can wash, prepare, and bury our dead relatives on our own, most of us won’t want to. And while the national trend may be reversing, for now, most people still get embalmed. What’s crucial is that we know we don’t have to be — it is not required by law.
That most people don’t spend a lot of time thinking about why they might request embalming for themselves or their family members is troubling to Doughty, who believes that embalming as standard American death practice is largely arbitrary.
“When I talk about embalming not having a lot of meaning, there are some people — African-American culture especially, in the South — that have a huge amount of meaning around the embalming process,” she says. “I'm actually all for that. But for most of the rest of U.S. culture, they don't derive a lot of meaning from embalming. So what's the point of that? Why are we paying for that, why are we continuing to support it as an institution if it's not bringing us comfort and joy?”
Funeral direction need not be obsolete, Slocum says, but it does require a massive shift toward transparency, and away from the learned sanctimony. “They have it drugged into them that they are a special, almost priestly class of people who have this sacred calling. They're being taught to value themselves as the experts without whom nobody can deal with death.”
To better serve the population, mortuary schools have to change — so much so that Slocum isn’t sure it wouldn’t be easier to start over completely.
“If they all closed today, I don't think it would do any harm at all,” he says. “And it might actually do a little bit of good.”
There are a few reasons professor Barry Walch, who has been at Canton for 26 years, suspects the mortuary science program is growing. One is that a competing program, the Simmons Institute of Funeral Service in Syracuse, New York, closed last year after a number of female students accused the president, Maurice Wightman, of sexual harassment and gender discrimination. At the time of its closing, Simmons was the second-oldest mortuary science program in the country.
That Canton is now a four-year program is another draw, Walch tells me — he guesses that many high school kids now consider bachelor’s degrees the default minimum level of post-secondary education. Also — and he’s frank about this — the program isn’t especially challenging. “Anyone can get into it now,” he says. “It’s not that hard.”
Canton’s program was previously a two-year associate’s degree, but it lost accreditation a few years ago — not enough people were passing the board exams. (Schools must maintain a 60% passing rate to be accredited by the American Board of Funeral Service Education.) So they rebuilt, starting the four-year program in 2010, hoping the extra time would increase enrollment, benefit the students, and regain accreditation, which it did in 2012.
But it’s not clear the extension is helping: In 2013, according to the ABFSE, just two of four graduating students passed the board exams. When passing the board exams is what a program exists to do, that’s not good — particularly when you’re taking twice as long to do it. David Penepent offhandedly told me that he was glad to have me take class time to talk to the students because he had a whole semester to teach several weeks’ worth of material.
None of this is to say that the professors don’t hold their students in high esteem. “Anybody who gets through this program, I trust as a funeral director,” Walch tells me. “Although, three of our graduates are in jail,” he says, laughing. (He’s referring to the 2006 arrest of Michael Mastromarino and associates, who were found to be selling cadavers’ tissue on the black market.) The students enrolled now are great; Walch thinks having four years with them helps them to become more mature, more ethical.
Still, he worries that even if they are more prepared than the average mortuary science graduate, they won’t be able to find jobs. “Nobody trusts you in this business unless you have gray hair,” he tells me. I ask him what they do, then, between graduating at 22 and gray hair.
“Most of them won’t make it,” he says.
Putty-colored molds of human heads are arranged in neat rows on the tables and shelves of the Restorative Arts laboratory. Each has a name taped on the base beneath it — Tyler, Sara, Ashley. The last one wears false eyelashes; each of them was shaped, and in some cases personalized, by the student it mimics. They’re a little lumpy, but they’re realistic, save for one thing: “The students all seem to have a hard time with the ears,” Penepent tells me, and it’s true — every pair appears tacked on, unnaturally flat and ridge-less.
These are the sculpturing models upon which students learn to restore cadavers. In some cases, this part of the embalming process is relatively simple, limited to the application of makeup and other cosmetic details. In others, the students — once certified — will be closing wounds, attempting to make injured or diseased heads seem whole again.
In today’s Restorative Arts lab, though, the students are starting a special project, one they hear about from older students, who recall it with a mixture of fondness and survivor’s bravado: the preparation and decoration of plaster life masks. Life masks (also called death masks) are not particularly common among today’s funeral traditions — “It’s a dying art,” says Penepent, pun painstakingly intended — but many mortuary schools still teach them. To Penepent, life mask preparation remains a valuable skill, an accessible and secular ritual that offers families a meaningful way to remember.
Plus, it is an excuse to papier-mâché the university president’s face once a year.
To say that Zvi Szafran is enthusiastic about the process he is about to undergo would be an overstatement; he seems, appropriately, like someone who thought the idea sounded sort of funny a few months ago, but, now that the day is actually here, cannot remember why. After a few brief jokes — delaying tactics — he gamely climbs onto the large wooden lab desk at the front of the room and lies down, resting his head on a pillow. The lab’s five students briefly discuss how best to protect Szafran’s clothing, settling on laying a clear plastic bag on top of his body and holding it in place with a Kleenex box placed on his stomach. He takes off his glasses, closes his eyes, and waits.
Penepent shows the students how to mix up a blue-green goo, which he applies to the president’s face with a tool that looks like a tongue depressor. Szafran lies very still as his face is covered save for two small nostril holes. A little trail of the mixture slides down through his left sideburn and onto his shirt collar. Penepent pauses every half-minute to ask if he can still breathe, which Szafran confirms with a thumbs-up. One begins to see the advantage in doing this on cadavers.
Around 3:00, a few of the building’s other classes let out, and the hallway outside the open lab door fills up with students walking by. Many of them, catching sight of this body lying still and covered in plastic on the table, do cartoonish double takes. Several stop completely — one young woman leans in the door, pointing at Szafran, and in a tone much less alarmed than her question would suggest, asks, “Is he dead?” To a group of three friends who pause outside the door in clear hopes someone will explain to them what is happening, Penepent says, “That’s our president — he’s making a good impression.” (He will repeat this joke three more times in the course of the afternoon.)
After waiting 20 minutes to dry, Szafran is told he can finally sit up. The mask comes off easily at first, and then not very. Bits of plaster cling to his hair and face, and he yelps a few times as Penepent pulls it away. Finally it’s decided he needs to use scissors. The mask is clipped off, right along with Szafran’s right sideburn.
“Let’s talk about your tenure,” he semi-jokes to Penepent.
Once he’s freed and cleaned up (students Emily and Kelsey dab at his chin and collar with wet wipes) with glasses back on, in generally good spirits all things considered, Szafran appraises the form of his face: the squishy blue interior and the hard, white shell.
“Is this what you do all day?” he asks the students, who laugh and say yes, more or less, it is.
“I’ve got news for you,” he says. “In theater, the kids practice kissing.”
In 1999, Social Psychology Quarterly published an ethnography titled “Emotional Capital and Professional Socialization: The Case of Mortuary Science Students (and Me),” by Spencer E. Cahill, a former professor of sociology at the University of South Florida who died in 2006. For five months, Cahill studied and lived among a group of mortuary science students, primarily interested in their socialization and their emotional reactions to the course material. He writes: “Shunned by the other students and weary of their morbid curiosity, most of the students ... stick together.”
To put it plainly, other people, a lot of the time, think the mortuary students are freaks. So they hang out with one another, in school, and then — if they do join the field — for years and years afterward. They get more insulated, more defensive. “Because we're such babies when it comes to this stuff, and we're so easily terrified by it, culturally we've put them into sort of a quarantined circle,” says Slocum. Every student here has been made fun of for it and is here anyway, thinking about death, addressing it daily, head-on.
So why do they do it? Doughty believes it has a lot to do with our somewhat generational search for purpose: “Mortuary school gives you meaning right away. It forces you to address [death] in a very deep way almost immediately, and I don't know that people can ignore that,” she tells me. "That's a thrilling thing." There are practical reasons too: Mortuary school is cheaper than medical school, and shorter. Some have family in the business. Some don’t know how to explain it; they are young.
And yes, they all really want to help people. There are other ways to try, but this is one.
“I always wanted to be a counselor of some sort, and I never really knew why,” Katie tells me. “But then I saw the embalming process and the science behind it really interested me. That is so morbid to tell someone, like, ‘I find death cool.’ But it is.”
Embalming is what first drew Katie to mortuary science, and what keeps many of her peers most fascinated; almost all the students I talk to name it as their favorite class. They think it’s challenging and fun. They are told that family viewing of the embalmed body is vital to the grieving process, and they believe it. Other options are always dutifully acknowledged, but generally as secondary alternatives to the proper norm. Of cremated (or otherwise body-less) funerals, Penepent tells me, “It’s like going to a party without the birthday cake.”
I ask Katie why, if embalming is on the slow but steady decline, she thinks it’s still so central to her education and why there isn’t more said about cremation, or green burials. “I think it's because embalming is going to always be around regardless,” she says. “However you choose, cremation or embalming, there's still — you can still do whatever you want. But I mean, I don't know. I don't know why it's such a focus.”
At the beginning of Funeral Home Management I, Penepent tells the students, “Everyone looks wonderful. My compliments to the embalmers.” He pauses. “That’s a joke.” Later, while he lectures, I notice the same phrase printed on his coffee mug.
Class wraps up a little early so I can talk to the students. I ask how many of them knew they wanted to do this in high school. (More than half.) I ask what people get wrong about them. (They don’t play with dead bodies.) I ask them what’s going to be hard about being a funeral director.
A student named Autumn raises her hand. “It’ll be hard to remember not to tell people that everything’s going to be OK. It’s not true,” she says. “And it’s rude.”
Autumn explains that a friend of hers died last summer, of a heroin overdose. Knowing that she was studying to be a funeral director, the small community where she grew up looked to her for support. She is 20 years old.
“I had to take everyone else’s grief,” she says. “Seeing everyone come to me was hard.” It is clear from her face, though, that she doesn’t hold this against anyone. This is her job now.
Caitlin Doughty has been working in the funeral industry for seven years. A previous version misstated the number of years.