Matters of Life and Death

It's a Tuesday evening in the D Building of the Community College of Baltimore County's Catonsville campus and Brian Burke is greeting a crop of prospective students. He is wearing his usual short-sleeved dress shirt, accompanied today by suspenders, and he stands in front of a blackboard that reads welcome mortuary science.

In the second row, Samuel Snyder has a question. Snyder has accompanied his 20-year-old daughter Jennifer down from York, Pa. Casual in flip-flops, Jennifer has been taking notes with a purple pen as Burke describes the embalming process, goes over the pros and cons of a career in the funeral industry, and shows the prospective students a short film about a company specializing in turning human remains into concrete artificial reefs to illustrate the wide variety of options for those who have passed on. Jennifer cringes just a bit as her father begins.

"I'm just a parent here," he says to Burke and the seven prospective morticians sitting at school desks. "I have no idea where she's coming up with this career. As far as I'm concerned, this is just creepy.

"Knowing her, because she's my daughter, I know what she's scared of--like bugs and stuff like that," he continues. "When you get into these embalming and stuff, do you get into the details? Because I still don't see her doing this professionally. . . .

"Would you actually work on a body that's been pulled out of a pond after a month," he asks. "Will you actually get to see this thing, and will you have to reconstruct it? Will she be able to say `Yes, this job is for me?'"

Burke, the director of CCBC's mortuary science program, wasn't expecting this question--usually by the time students have gotten this far, they have overcome any squeamishness. "In the rare example that you gave me," he begins, "and it is rare, that type of advanced decomposition, we would probably not be able to have a public viewing for the funeral, so your exposure to an advanced decomposition case is minimal.

"That goes back to--it's not gory to work in a funeral home, for the most part," Burke continues, starting to rally. "When you get a case that's unique--we're talking about replacing part of a nose or something, or advanced decomposition in this case--we look at it as a challenge. How can we fix this situation and make this person presentable, so the family can say goodbye? In some instances you can't, but I'm telling you that 99 percent of people can grow used to this unusual interaction with the deceased. It does take some acclimation, but most people don't have a problem with it, and if they do, it's small and we'll work with you."

The mortuary science program at CCBC has been taking in new students each fall since 1973, when it was founded by one William C. Gonce, who grew up working summers at his uncle's funeral home in South Baltimore's Brooklyn neighborhood and went on to a career as a funeral director before coming to CCBC. When Gonce retired in 2004, Burke, who had been teaching computer and embalming classes at the school since 2001, became the program's second full-time director.

The students, 20 to 30 of them each year, will have taken speech, psychology, and accounting courses, as well as biology, health, and an introduction to computers as prerequisites. The mortuary science program itself consists of 16 courses in anatomy, microbiology, and chemistry, progressing on to the principles of funeral service, the practice of embalming (students will be required to embalm 24 corpses), and the restorative arts. In that last subject, students begin the class with a blank Styrofoam head and gradually sculpt the various facial features that might need to be replaced, should the deceased have lost one of them through misadventure. Business classes in mortuary management and legal classes in the intricacies of funeral law round out the course of study. The latter can become particularly tricky, as the funeral director must gain the permission of the legal next of kin before doing anything at all .(Burke gives an example where the next of kin was the deceased's husband, who was then in jail, accused of killing her.) For its mix of science, art, and practicality, being a mortician is a calling for Burke, and one he never thought he'd hear.

He grew up just outside Highlandtown, and, as a boy, delivered the newspaper to the local funeral home. It creeped him out, he says. When he got older, he owned a sandwich shop in Lexington Market, then worked in commercial refrigeration for a while. In 1995, when he was trying to figure out what his next step would be, a friend suggested that he would make a good funeral director.

"I said, `Weirdos work in funeral homes,'" he recalls. "I was insulted--`Why are you telling me I should work in a funeral home, are you saying I'm weird?' I was offended. Every day for about a week I thought about it, because it was so absurd, at least to my thinking. But after about a week I started thinking, What goes on in a funeral home? And you know, most people don't have any idea. There's a tremendous amount of things that most people don't even think about. Before you knew it, I was on my way to going to mortuary science school and working in a funeral home."

Sitting in his cluttered office, Burke is surrounded by the trappings of death. On one shelf he keeps a small set of Egyptian canopic jars. His are empty, but vessels like these were used by ancient Egyptians to hold the internal organs after a body had been mummified. On the other side of the room, a shelf holds a display of contemporary remembrance necklaces--bereaved families can choose a gold thumbprint for an adult, or tiny golden footprints for a dead infant. A glass vessel next to a file cabinet turns out to be part of a primitive embalming machine, and stuffed in the corner above it is a suitcase that opens to reveal an operatic backdrop of red crushed-velvet curtains used by morticians making house calls 100 years ago. Burke hopes someday to display the things he has collected in a museum, maybe when the mortuary science program moves into its new building, sometime in the next five years. But for now, he shares his work space with urns, a small copper-lined casket, and a 19th-century cooling table--a foldout wicker apparatus designed to display a body, while allowing ice underneath to keep the smell of death away.

Burke is a friendly and self-effacing man. He occasionally vouches for his remarks by offering to bet his lunch, then rubs his belly and says, "I'm not a man who likes to miss his lunches." Talking to a reporter about mortuary science makes him nervous, though, and he watches his words carefully. He still recalls a magazine article on the mortuary science program that misquoted him by using the word "box" rather than "casket." Nor is a casket a coffin. A casket is rectangular, whereas a coffin takes the six-sided oblong form familiar to fans of low-budget horror movies. Customers of the funeral industry are never that, but "families," and a body is a deceased person or, more often, "the loved one."

Burke believes much about his profession should be kept secret, for the protection of the public at large. There are things, he says, that no one should have to know, unless they are employed in the business. For that reason, and many others, legal and ethical, he is reluctant to allow a reporter or a photographer to record the day-to-day course-work of the mortuary science program. As he takes pains to stress, though, the trade he teaches his students is about much more than the care and handling of dead bodies. The irony of the mortuary science program, is that in dealing with the dead, one must become a very good student of the living. A good funeral director is, above all, a people person.

"If I can touch your heart, I've got you," Burke says. "I hope [funeral directors] are trying to touch your heart to make you feel good, and then you're going to come back. Some people look at it as a business, well, it is a business. But if that's all it is, shame on you. It should be more than a business."

 

That, as much as anything else, is what he tries to impart to his prospective students--that they are entering a profession that is as much a sacred trust as a job.

"If you think about it," he tells the handful of people gathered at the open house, "we are taking peoples' most valuable possession--their loved one--and leaving them with a business card. To me, that doesn't seem like a fair trade.

"Don't get me wrong," he continues. "Most of us get out of bed in the morning so we can go to work and make a decent living for ourselves. But there's more to it than just that. Because at 2 o'clock in the morning, when the phone rings and you have to get out of your nice snug bed in the middle of February . . . you then have to realize that there's a family out there that needs us, that would not appreciate having their loved one kept there until morning, when it would be more convenient for us. Being on call nights and on some weekends and some holidays--it's got to be a calling. If you're looking just for money, there's other things you can do."

Diane Donaldson, 47, who is nearing graduation from CCBC's mortuary science program, sits for an interview in her Fulton house, her 6-year-old son on her lap. Her straight hair is tied back, and her T-shirt reads i use my powers for good. Despite growing up in a family funeral home, she avoided the business, pursuing a career in Unix systems administration. After her son was born with autism, though, it became difficult to hold down a full-time job. The family funeral home, now run by her brother, became an attractive option.

"It's very interesting work," Donaldson says. "I swore up and down I'd never go into that business, but you know, there's a lot to learn, and I am doing it for people."

Despite her upbringing, Donaldson had never seen the embalming room before entering the mortuary science program. It isn't the sort of place you want kids running around, she says, and besides, it's disrespectful to the deceased.

Donaldson is in the middle of the embalming class now, and last week they worked on bodies that had undergone an autopsy. "That was rough," she says. "That was a rough week.

"You're looking at somebody who's basically had all of their insides taken out, and there are big flaps of skin. It looks like . . . it's almost as if you're dressing a chicken or something like that. It takes a lot of time, for one thing, because you have to sew everything back up, and--you have gloves on and everything--you're inside a person." It's not like the regular embalming process, she says, where "you're injecting something into a vein, and you're sort of outside of it. It's--OK, now I'm digging around in his rib cage and there's no heart here, because the heart is over there in a bag that I'm then going to have to treat, and then I'm going to put this bag of internal organs back into his chest cavity and sew it up. And it's . . . it's unnerving.

"I think the thing that unnerved me the most was because the skullcap is off, you have to pull the skin down on the face. As you do that, the person will start to look like they're frowning--it's like a rubber mask. You feel like, `This shouldn't happen to a person.' I understand why autopsies are necessary, but it's a very shocking thing the first time you see it."

People have been stepping up to take on the sometimes difficult task of dealing with the dead for centuries. The funeral industry is an ancient one, with traditions stretching as far back as recorded history. The Greek historian Herodotus describes an early Egyptian embalmer presenting a bereaved family with three wooden models of corpses, illustrating choices ranging from full mummification to soaking the body in a soda solution. The Greeks introduced the practice of flowers at a funeral, to cover up the smell. In The History of American Funeral Directing, by Robert Habenstein and William Lamers, which is used as a text for CCBC's thanatology (aka death studies) class, the pair claim the Roman libitanarius as the direct forebear of the modern funeral director. "In addition to providing anointing or embalming," they write, "he supplied hired mourners, mourning costumes and other accessories for funeral pomp, and arranged services designed to ease the grief of the bereaved." Early Christians and Jews buried their dead, while the Vikings chose cremation. (In the cases of particularly prominent Vikings, the cremation was done on board a ship loaded with possessions, animals, and a dead slave girl--the fabled "Viking funeral.")

Even today, some people bury and some burn, and the choice between cremation and burial has caused more and more debate in the funeral industry in recent years. According to the Cremation Association of North America, an industry group based in Chicago, 6 percent of deceased Americans were cremated in 1975, while 32 percent were in 2005. This presents a problem for funeral directors--cremations are cheaper than traditional burials, meaning fewer profits. Burke takes the long view, likening the cremation/burial debate to a pendulum, currently swinging to the cremation side, which will eventually reverse course. And either way, people will continue to pass away every day, and the loved ones left behind will need someone to help honor and bury their dead.

In 2005, according to the U.S. Census, some 2.5 million Americans ceased to be. The same year, the funeral industry took in more than $15.5 billion. The average cost of disposing of a former American in 2005 was around $6,400, a total that doesn't include flowers. For the funeral directors themselves, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics puts median yearly earnings at $45,960, with top earners making closer to $90,000. The outlook for the profession is good, with aging baby boomers swelling the ranks of the dying in the coming years.

One of the biggest changes in funeral services in the last 50 years, Burke says, is what the industry calls "personalization." One can, it seems, do almost anything at a funeral. "Personalizing it is my main objective," he says. "We can't do these cookie-cutter funerals."

For starters, there are the candles, necklaces, and teddy bears, along with a host of other items to help the family remember the loved one. "There are all kinds of neat little gadgets," Burke says, then stops. "That's probably wasn't a good word, `neat little gadgets.' I'm not the most articulate." If the deceased is a golfer, though, Burke suggests a putter leaned against the casket. And then there are motorcyclists.

"I know motorcycle bikers have a bad rap, but every motorcycle funeral I've participated in has been absolutely a pleasure to do," he says. "One of the things is, why not have the motorcycles lead us in procession to the cemetery? Or better yet, why not rent a motorcycle hearse? They have two different kinds--one where the hearse is a trailer behind the motorcycle, and one where the sidecar is the hearse. If the person is going to be cremated, they have motorcycle gas tanks that can be used as the urn--they're all painted up with different colors. They even have the little engine block on the motorcycle and they can put the cremated remains in there.

"There's so much we can do," Burke continues. "Why take somebody with the motorcycle stigma, put them in a three-piece suit, and put the great big pretty pink flowers on top of his casket if that's not what he wants? My personal opinion--and it depends on each family and their wishes--but why not just put him in a nice shirt and pants and drape his leather motorcycle jacket that says harley-davidson or whatever it says over the top of the casket. There's so many things we can personalize, it's really endless."

In her 1963 best-seller The American Way of Death, the author and investigative journalist Jessica Mitford took funeral directors to task for overselling to grieving families (and did so again in a revised edition in 1998). She found many directors willing to exploit families' ignorance of the law to make a buck. Mitford's view of the profession persists among many, helped along by the occasional headline news of abuses in the profession--a crematory in Georgia, for example, whose owner dumped more than 300 bodies on his property while presenting families with cement dust instead of ashes, or closer to home, the case of a Forest Hill man who last week pleaded guilty to fraud in connection with what the U.S. Attorney's Office says was a plan to take $900,000 from customers who had prepaid for funeral services.

Burke goes out of his way to avoid the image of overselling. Embalming, for instance, is not required by law, and is expensive, but most funeral homes require it if there is to be a public viewing of the body. Funeral merchandise costs extra, but he says he believes it is often worth it to the family, if one can suggest different products while avoiding sounding, as he says, "like a used-car salesman." The viewing, which adds greatly to the cost of a funeral, fulfills a psychological need, Burke says. It provides, in a word, closure.

 

Jennifer Snyder, the prospective student with the concerned father, isn't too worried about embalming. Reached by phone a few days after the open house, she says her application is in and that she is waiting to hear from the school. Her father? "He still doesn't believe I'm going."

In fact, Snyder has been interested in the funeral business since she was in ninth grade. That was when she took a test at school designed to match students with careers that would suit them.

"You fill out a bunch of questions on the computer," she recounts. "And at the end of it, it gives you a list of job descriptions to match those questions--it gives you the top five. I think [funeral director] was the first one on there. I just started researching it, and I became interested in it that way.

When it comes to moving from an abstract career goal into handling a corpse, she says, "right now I don't feel too nervous about it. But I think when I'm actually put in that position where the body's laying there in front of me, then I'm going to be, like, `Okaaay.' It's going to be different than just seeing someone at a funeral--and that's what I've been exposed to. I might be scared at first, but they help you and everything. I think I'll be able to overcome that."

Durand Williams, a 28-year-old sitting ramrod straight in the front of the class at the open house, has been to hundreds of funerals as a member of the honor guard for the Maryland National Guard. While others watched him in uniform, folding the flag for veterans' final ceremonies, Williams became interested in what was happening behind the scenes.

"A lot of people say it's good to be able to deal with death," Williams says, "but the way I look at it, if I can be strong, when somebody else can't be strong, and I can help somebody else--like they say in the military, everything's for the good of the cause. I'm just trying to help people out, just make it an easier time for them at a hard time."

Williams says he has been working as an assistant at a funeral home in Severna Park for about three years now, and is interested in the CCBC program so he can get his license to be a director. Unlike Donaldson, he has no family connection to the funeral industry. He says his family and friends were a bit surprised at his career choice.

"I wouldn't say they were shocked," he says. "But you still get a reaction from people. My family and everybody, when you tell them what you do, they're like, `Well, why would you do that?' I feel like it's something that I'm . . . not good at, but it's something that I can deal with. And it's something that I like doing. I like helping people, and this is the way I've chosen to help people. The job is totally self-rewarding. To me, I just like to go home every day knowing that I've helped somebody in some sort of way."

Burke says after the open house that he was surprised how many people there had said they weren't sure about dealing with the clinical aspects of the job. More often, it's the emotional part that troubles prospective morticians. Being a funeral director can be emotionally draining, and Burke wants his future students to have no illusions about that. When another student at the open house has a question about the emotional difficulty involved in caring for the dead, Burke has an answer.

"If you're 80 years old," he says, "God don't owe you a refund. I don't want to sound like a mortician, but death is part of life. When a child dies, though, it's just, really hard. Most of the time, babies die in the hospital, or sometimes at home. When you go to pick that baby up, where do you think the baby is, most of the time?"

"In the mother's arms," comes the answer.

"I'm not talking physically, now, I'm talking mentally--try to take that baby out of the mother's arms," Burke says. "That is a mental problem, and it's going to shake the toughest of us."

Susan Burleson, who speaks by telephone from her Eastern Shore home while playing with her grandchildren, will graduate from CCBC's mortuary science program in December 2008. She has seen the profession from the other side. Burleson wanted to pursue a career in surgical technology and took courses for it. She wanted to be in the operating room, but she had to run her family restaurant on the Eastern Shore, which she did for 30 years.

Everything changed for Burleson when her 27-year-old son committed suicide almost three years ago. She was crushed. The funeral director who handled her son's service and burial helped her--counseling her, checking up on her, even going outside to the parking lot when she was unable to bring herself in for the funeral.

"He made such a horrible situation for me easier," she says. "He was such a good funeral director. He just made my life a little bit better, because it was such a tragedy for me, but yet, what he did during that funeral just made such a difference to me. I just thought, Wow. It just wouldn't get off my heart--just thinking, I want to make a difference in someone else's life, like he did for me."

The death of her son made Burleson reflect on what she was doing. She had never liked running a restaurant, but she did it for her family. "You know," she says she remembers thinking, "life is too short to be doing something you don't want to do." She planned to try for a hospital job, but the funeral business pulled at her. "It was so profound," she says. "It was just, this is what you need to do. I feel very certain that this is what I need to be doing."

Burleson still thinks about her son, and she hopes she never stops.

"We were very close," she says. "It's still unbelievable. I still think, How could that have happened, how could I not have known? But those questions will never be answered. But I feel that it has really given me the compassion for people who have loss. I know that you never get over it. You never get over it. You learn to live with it and you learn to deal with it, but you never get over it. And I hope I never lose that edge. I hope I never forget that they will never get over it. I think that helps you. Sometimes people are very needy at that time, and a funeral director might feel that, well, it's just a job. I don't ever want to feel that it's just a job. I'm here to help this person through a terrible time in their life."

 

Back in his office, Burke is asked what he would like for his own eventual funeral service.

"This is a difficult subject," he begins. "I am 100 percent certain that the best way to do a funeral is to have a visitation, some type of church service, and then a cemetery. Think about this--you could be sitting with your loved one at a restaurant having dinner, and they could keel over from a heart attack, and they're dead. You come home in a trance, like, `They're not really dead,' and then you realize that their toothbrush is still wet from when they brushed their teeth before you went to dinner. Sometimes it's a hard thing to connect, that this person really is dead. But when you come into the funeral home and you see your loved one there in the casket--don't get me wrong, it's an emotional setting--your subconscious can no longer deny it. You see your loved one taken really good care of--they're washed, their hair has been taken care of, their clothes, everything is nice and neat.

"And the flowers--a lot of people say, `Those flowers are such a waste,' and sometimes you can look around the room and you can see six, seven, eight, $10,000 dollars in flowers. But those flowers say something. Those flowers say that all these people cared enough to go spend $200 for an arrangement. That speaks loudly. . . .

"During the visitation, you're building a support network and you're remembering the good times. Then a lot of people do some type of ceremony with religious connotations in the funeral home, so now you're saying, somebody has lived, somebody has died, we have taken care of them to the best of our ability. We now have this next hope that this isn't the end, that this is only the beginning. That we will be reunited at one point. . . . Then you go to the cemetery and you have some type of committal service, which emphasizes, again, some type of afterlife and this is only the beginning. What do most people do when they leave the cemetery? They go to a gathering someplace, usually at their house or at a restaurant.

"The benefits of a traditional funeral are huge psychological benefits--somebody has died, we've remembered them, we've taken good care of them, we've done everything we can from a physical standpoint as well as the spiritual. Now, when we walk away from that grave, it's saying, `There's nothing else we can do for them--life goes on.'

"The other thing is, then you can come back to the cemetery, and when you come back, you can picture them the way they were. . . . I've dealt with people who, the last thing they said to the person was `I hope you die.' The cemetery is a place you can go and address any issues that weren't addressed during their life. The problem with cremation is it's kind of hard to look at that white urn and think that's your spouse. You know, there's a little container of Mom or Dad or whoever they may be, [but] that's not the same thing.

"However . . . do I have to tell you what my preference is?

"My preference is to be cremated and scattered."

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