The embalming lab at the University of Minnesota is not for the faint of heart or the queasy. During a recent class, one student was shaving a cadaver. While two other students used scalpels to search for his femoral and brachial arteries.
It sounds gory. But the 94-year-old man who donated his body to the U of M actually looked quite peaceful. The students who worked on him barely spoke above a whisper as they gently cleaned his body and prepared it for embalming.
"I don't consider it a morbid or a very fearful thing," says second year student Emily Brost. "It's just part of life."
But Brost admits a lot people have a tough time reconciling her personality with her profession.
“I don't consider it a morbid or a very fearful thing. It's just part of life.”Second year mortuary science student Emily Brost
"The reaction I get most of the time is, 'Why would a young, happy girl like yourself want to go into something so sad?' And I always tell them it's the caring for the people who are sad," she says. "You don't have to lead a sad life to do this. You can lead a very happy life because you're helping people."
In fact it was an experience with another mortician that led Brost to this career. When she was in 5th grade her grandfather died suddenly. Even at that young age, she was able to appreciate how good her family's funeral director was at his job.
"That's when I thought I could do this. I see how meaningful it is to the family and I see how much of a difference the ceremony made. Without it," says Brost, "I don't know where my grandma would have been, where our family would have been."
Brost's decision to become a mortician is one that's increasingly popular among women.
There has been a big gender shift in the program just in the last generation, according to Michael LuBrant, who directs the mortuary science program at the U of M.
"Around 1970 or thereabouts, it was about 95 percent men," says LuBrant. "This year we had 62 percent of our incoming class as female."
It's not clear why more women are going into the profession. Some people in his industry have speculated that women are drawn to the job because they tend to be more sensitive and caring. But LuBrant doesn't think it's a good idea to make such generalizations about people. The trend probably has more to do with the fact that women now make up the majority of the workforce in all sorts of health care-related jobs, he says.
None of this is to suggest that mortuary science has become the most popular course of study at the U of M. LuBrant has endured some pretty humbling high school recruiting sessions.
"Everyone has a table that they sit at and they have the program name on it. And one is doctors, physicians and nurses and this and that. And there I am with mortuary science. And I'm the last person to have anyone come sit at my table," says LuBrant. "And the only reason at the last meeting that anyone sat at my table was there were no other seats left at other tables. One person even wanted to take a chair to another table."
The U of M graduates about 30 students a year from its mortuary science program. Minnesota is one of only two states that require a four-year college degree to practice. Most states require just two years.
The average starting salary for new morticians is a little less than $30,000 a year. Most will decide to set up their own small funeral home where they will be on call 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.