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News / Northwest

Mortuary students cultivate morbid senses of humor

The Columbian
Published: January 3, 2015, 4:00pm
3 Photos
Student Katey Houston, at the Lake Washington Institute of Technology in Kirkland, checks out a cardboard box that can be decorated for someone who will be cremated.
Student Katey Houston, at the Lake Washington Institute of Technology in Kirkland, checks out a cardboard box that can be decorated for someone who will be cremated. At left is student Denton Thorbeck. Photo Gallery

KIRKLAND — Here’s a question for Samantha Foster, 21, of Mukilteo, future mortician:


She says, “There have been a lot of deaths in my family, but that only added to my intrigue. You’d think it’d be offsetting to see family members pass away, but I just got curious about how they got into that casket.”

As more and more of our aging population heads to that final frontier, someone like Foster will deal with the details.

It’s a new generation of funeral professionals, as much of the current crop is reaching retirement age.

Foster is an earnest, modern young woman, tattoos on her right arm, black hair piled high, nose pierced.

On this morning at the funeral-service class at Lake Washington Institute of Technology in Kirkland, Foster is molding soft mortician’s wax on a plastic-skull head.

She is doing a wax rendition of actor Bill Moseley, star of a number of cult-classic horror films. “I thought it’d be appropriate, given the subject matter.” she says.

The two-year program — the only one in this state and one of the few on the West Coast — this school year will graduate 22 students, and Foster is one of them.

Craig Emmick, the instructor of the class, says there still will be plenty of job opportunities because licensed funeral directors are needed in each of the 300 or so funeral homes in this state, and some 20,000 nationwide.

Foster explains about embalming: “Ever since I was a kid, I wanted to work in a medical field, but I didn’t want to deal with the possibility of someone dying under my care. This was something I could do, rebuild different features in the case of trauma.”

She’s originally from the Chicago area and plans to move back to the Midwest, where they do many more traditional funerals.

In Illinois, the cremation rate is in the 30 percent range, according to the Cremation Association of North America. Washington has the second-highest cremation rate in the country at nearly 73 percent.

Nevada is highest — “transient town” and “lack of tradition,” explained a Las Vegas Sun story.

On this day, work includes not just the wax work, but finishing up papers on bacteria that cause tissue gas on decomposing bodies. Things happen fast in a corpse.

Rachel Risbell, 33, of Everett has written her essay as if the bacteria are talking in the first person. It’s quite a paper:

“Hey, guys! It’s me, everyone’s favorite bacteria. Clostridium perfringens … Just last week I was living peacefully in the intestinal tract of a lovely 57-year-old lady … She had some sort of stomach problems … poor Jane bit the dust.”

The paper goes on about poor Jane: “… As soon as she died I was free! Decomposition started to set in … she was a mess! … The smell alone could knock your socks off.”

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Talk to anyone in a profession in which they regularly deal with anguishing events, and they’ll relate to using a bit of humor. Otherwise, it’d be a pretty dour plod for students dealing with a 728-page, 3.9-pound textbook on embalming.

“I can’t imagine holding all that in,” says Risbell. “You need some kind of outlet.”

She remembers one time in class when she was embalming a body that was badly decomposed.

Says Risbell, “I could smell the decomposition in my hair and clothes. I had to buy another shirt in between classes.”

She says it was past lunchtime. And despite being in all that smell, “I thought, ‘It’s weird, but I’m superhungry.’ “

Of the 22 students in the class, 14 are women. It used to be male-dominated.

Those days are gone.

Risbell had worked in restaurants for 18 years.

“I wanted to do something in the service industry, but that had a deeper meaning than bartending and serving,” she says.

Risbell was a fan of the TV series “Six Feet Under,” about a California family that runs a funeral home.

“I thought, ‘Wow, that’s something I’d like to do,’ ” she says.

One of the men, and one of the oldest students, in the class is Charlie Turner, 55. He moved here from Coeur d’Alene specifically to take the funeral classes, then plans to go back to Idaho. He says no such classes are offered in that state.

He used to be a house painter, until two failed knee surgeries. Of all the new career possibilities out there, he decided on embalming.

“I saw my first dead body when I was 5,” he says. “My grandmother used to have a nursing home, and one day, we found an old resident hanging from the rafters.”

And did that traumatize him?

“Not at all. In fact, every funeral I’ve been to, I’ve been amazed at how well prepared the body is,” says Turner.

He also points out a plus he has in studying embalming.

“I grew up in an upholstery shop, and started sewing when I was young. I always thought I’d do real good in sewing people up, and there is a lot of sewing involved in being an embalmer,” he says.

In this state, embalmers can expect to make $42,000 to $61,000 a year, and funeral directors $43,000 to $80,000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

On this day, some of the students will do actual embalming, but visitors can’t watch, out of respect for the deceased. But the students show some of the material used, like little oval plastic things with spikes. You put them on the eyeball and then close the eyelids on the spikes, as eyelids tend to sag back in dead people.

Emmick says that since the funeral-director program began four years ago, 100 bodies have been donated for embalming. Two-thirds are indigents from various medical examiners; the others are private donations. After that, another facility does the cremation.

Sometimes the students hold a memorial service for those they embalmed and cremated, in a room with a lectern and a display of caskets with price tags just like found in a funeral home. It is a business that they’re going into, after all.

Recently, Katey Houston, 24, of Puyallup said a few words in that room about an indigent veteran whom they had embalmed. Eight of the students then took his remains to Tahoma National Cemetery in Kent.

“I said, ‘I don’t claim to know anything of his life.’ I know it was likely hard,” says Houston. “I am thankful he gave to us twice, once in the military and once in death.”

A fellow student, Denton Thorbeck, 22, of Renton, then booted up a rendition of “Amazing Grace” on his laptop.

The two have thought about how they’d like to go.

Thorbeck says that if it becomes legal in this state, as it has in some others, he’d like an alkaline hydrolysis cremation, in which the body is dissolved by lye. It’s supposed to be more “green.”

Houston says she wants to be cremated the old-fashioned way, in a furnace that can reach 1,800 degrees.

“It’s the only way I’m going to get a smokin’ hot body,” she says.

You gotta keep this death stuff in the right perspective.