Ally Ross stood silently outside of a building on a recent Wednesday morning, dressed in black. Ross and a small group watched as 88-year-old Oscar Davis of Battle Ground was given military honors before his cremains, kept in a golden urn, would be placed in a granite vault.
Arms behind her back, Ross gazed on, only moving slightly when a bee zipped around her during the ceremony.
People can only hope to endure attending a funeral a few times in their life. But for Ross, death is the reason for a job as a funeral-director-in-training at Northwood Park Funeral Home in Ridgefield.
Ross, 31, has been at the funeral home since April 2017, with the title of intern. But she performs many of the same responsibilities as Northwood Park Funeral Director Michael Dahl. For Davis’ funeral, she was filling in for Dahl, who had been working with the family but was out of town for the day.
At this point, she said, she can do just about everything Dahl can do; she just hasn’t yet taken the two-part funeral director exam, required through the state Department of Licensing and administered through the International Conference of Funeral Service Examining Boards.
Davis wanted to be cremated, so the ceremony took place in a narrow pathway on the south side of Northwood Park Funeral Home, rather than at a graveside in a cemetery.
Taps played over speakers and then two Joint Base Lewis-McChord soldiers dressed in their military uniforms presented Ruth Davis, Oscar’s widow, with a folded flag. The mood at the funeral was more happy or celebratory than sad, as the small group of about 15 family members gathered for the brief ceremony. Then they spent time talking with one another.
Ross said each funeral or family is different and she works to put herself in their shoes, no matter the situation.
“How old were they? Was it a sudden death or were they 104?” Ross said. “You have to have sympathy and empathy for them, but at the same time, you have to be kind of the rock and let them do their grieving. A lot of times, you’re their punching bag.”
Some might avoid such an emotionally daunting profession, but Ross always knew she was interested in working closely with families.
“I’ve always had — I don’t want to say ‘fascination,’ because it’s not fascination, but an interest in working with the deceased,” Ross said. “I never thought of it as being a funeral director or doing this, I was always thinking like a medical examiner or something like that.”
She attended Washington State University in Pullman for six semesters and Washington State University Vancouver for one semester, where she completed her bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, she said. Then she attended Clark College, where she received an associate’s degree in paralegal studies.
Previous to the funeral director path, she was working as a legal assistant at Jordan Ramis, a law firm in Vancouver, where she learned a lot about the legal system — useful knowledge in the funeral world, too. Funeral directors are required to know a variety of laws dealing with cremation, burial, embalming and handling of bodies.
A new path
She wasn’t able to work closely with people at the law office. So she sought a career change.
She found a job posting to be a family service counselor for Pierce Group Inc., which manages eight funeral homes and four cemeteries, mostly in Cowlitz County. Northwood Park Funeral Home is its only Clark County location. Ross’ first job with it was at Steele Chapel Funeral Home at Longview Memorial Park Cemetery. She still lives in Longview and commutes to the Ridgefield funeral home.
The funeral home, which competes with Vancouver funeral homes, attracts all types of families, including bilingual Spanish and Russian families, veterans and more.
But there are also the cases involving unexpected tragedies, Ross said, such as the death of a baby.
Due to have a baby boy next month, Ross won’t take on baby funerals. It’s too much, she said. Her first case was a baby.
“After that, I was like, ‘I’m done.’ Unfortunately, it does come up more often than it ever should. I can do the paperwork aspect of it, but I can’t do anything if there’s a picture or anything like that. I don’t do it. I don’t attend a funeral,” Ross said, adding that she has a 21-month-old child at home.
She’s been working on having a memorial installed at the cemetery for babies, so people have a place to go if they desire. Pierce Group Inc. has approved the plan for the memorial. Ross said she’s working with Legacy Salmon Creek Medical Center to let families know about the service. Northwood Park already offers services for babies at greatly reduced costs.
While those plans are in motion, Ross will be taking off work soon for a few months for maternity leave. Once she returns, she’ll take the funeral director exam — and finally have her dream job.
“I truly think this is kind of my calling, which is interesting, because everything I went to school for, I decided it didn’t suit me,” Ross said. “It’s kind of cliche? — that if you enjoy your job, you never work a day in your life. But that’s kind of how it is.”