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A noble undertaking

November 13, 2008


Mortuary science instructor and alum Jody LaCourt teaches students in her Restorative Arts class.

Mortuary science instructor and alum Jody LaCourt teaches students in her Restorative Arts class.

Photo: Mark Luinenburg

The 100-year-old-mortuary science program is alive and thriving

By John Rosengren

On a sunny Monday morning, a reporter talks into a TV camera on the campus of the University of Minnesota where a high-profile patient is being treated, making national headlines. But the news crew is oblivious to the fact that they're overlooking an even bigger story of national note, right over their shoulders. The University's mortuary science program—the first of its kind in the United States and one of the top in the nation—turns 100 this month.

While the reporter does another take outside instructor Jody LaCourt's classroom window, the students in her Restorative Arts class quietly go about their work on life-size rubber heads, repairing simulated injuries to the flesh. They use tools and their fingers to restore the misshapen features with sculpting clay.

It's serious work, but that doesn't mean it has to be grim. LaCourt, a licensed funeral director, uses humor to lighten the mood and instruct. "If you're serious all the time, it takes the fun out of learning," LaCourt says, while also impressing upon her students the need to be tactful. "I encourage humor, because in the death business you have to have a little humor-otherwise it would be a very drab and uncomfortable profession."

Preparing the dead is the core of funeral service; caring for the living—often by carrying out the deceased's wishes—is at the heart of the funeral director's job. "The funeral is for the living, not the deceased," says Robin Butter, 23, a senior from St. Cloud. "It's going to be an everlasting memory for the family, part of the mourning process that will help them move on."

Funereal ephemera
In honor of the mortuary science program's 100th anniversary, an exhibit of historical items will be on display in the University's Owen H. Wangensteen Historical Library of Biology and Medicine. Objects include pallbearers' ribbons, trade books, embalming equipment, and other funeral industry artifacts and rare books. Many of the items were donated to the University by alumni, including Terry Lamon and William McReavy, or are on loan from funeral homes in Minnesota. The exhibition—"Respecting the Dead, Comforting the Living: A Perspective on the Funeral Profession and Mourning in America"—runs through December 15 at the Wangensteen library, Fifth Floor, Diehl Hall, 505 Essex St. SE, on the East Bank of the Minneapolis campus; 612-626-6881.

In the early 1900s, the U.S. funeral business was loosely run. The undertaker was likely the furniture maker who built coffins and had a side chapel for funerals attached to his store. He learned embalming methods from traveling salesmen peddling the chemicals, first arsenic and later formaldehyde.

But from the introduction of contemporary embalming, which allowed the bodies of fallen Civil War soldiers to be preserved and returned home, there were no rules or regulations until the end of the 19th century. Undertakers labored under the stereotype Mark Twain describes in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, that of the silent man "who slid around in black gloves and his softly soothering ways... the softest, glidingest, stealthiest man I ever see; and there warn't no more smile to him than there is to a ham."

In the fall of 1908, Frank Wesbrook, dean of the College of Medicine and Surgery, approved the School of Embalming in the medical college, making the University of Minnesota the first state university in the country to organize a mortuary science program. Today, it's the only mortuary science program in the Big Ten and the only college program in the state. In fact, 86 percent of the funeral directors in Minnesota are University alumni.

One hundred years after its inception, the program has flourished into one of the nation's best. And being part of the U's Academic Health Center allows for unique collaborations. At the moment, the mortuary science program is working with the School of Dentistry to find a way to remove dental fillings from the deceased before cremation to prevent mercury contamination of groundwater. "The care of human bodies doesn't end with death," says Michael LuBrant, director of the program of mortuary science.

Alumni credit the program for their success. Leo Hodroff, the program's 2008 Alumnus of the Year, thought so highly of the program that he recently made the nation's largest donation to a mortuary science program. His $200,000 gift will be used to set up a scholarship that—with the help of funding from the President's Scholarship Match—will be the country's first to provide a full ride to a new mortuary science student every two years. And this past May, William McReavy, owner of Washburn-McReavy Funeral Chapels, and his family made a major gift in the spring of 2008 to create the William L. McReavy Teaching Center, an innovative space for teaching the skills necessary for making effective and meaningful funeral arrangements.

As a woman, Butter represents a major shift in programs across the country. When the U established its program in 1908, mortuary science was a man's domain. Today, about 55 percent of the mortuary science students at the U and nationwide are women. That's in line with the percentage of women enrolled in college. Mike Mathews, an instructor in the U's program, remembers people telling the lone woman in his own 1969 graduating class that she would not be able to find a job in funeral service. Now, he says funeral homes ask him to recommend women.

Industrial evolution

The changing demographics of Minnesota over the past few decades have transformed the local funeral industry. In the Hmong culture, for instance, wakes last three days with burials on a Monday morning. For Muslims, burial is preferred on the same day as death, without embalming the body. The U has adapted its program to prepare students for the changing field.

"It's a collaboration and a partnership," says the Reverend Gloria Roach Thomas, senior pastor at Camphor Memorial United Methodist Church in St. Paul, who teaches Death and Dying Across Cultures and Religions at the U Thomas says. "That in itself is a new way of working and thinking."

Cremation is rapidly gaining popularity in the United States and has presented the biggest change in funeral service in the past 50 years. In 2008, 42 percent of Minnesotans who died were cremated, up from less than 2 percent in 1961. LuBrant points to scientists in Sweden working on a process that removes fluid from the body and to the Mayo Clinic experimenting with "resomation," an accelerated decomposition process that reduces the body to ash. He's also seeing a trend toward eco-friendly burials—where bodies are interred in biodegradable caskets, shrouds, or blankets without embalming or concrete vaults. Several green cemeteries have already been established in the United States.

No matter what the future holds for the funeral industry, people may continue to look to others to guide them in the way they honor the dead. "Anything that has been around 100 years endures that long because it has meaning," LuBrant says of the U's program. "That speaks to the fact that there is a need for what we do."

John Rosengren is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer. This article appeared in its original form in the November-December issue of MINNESOTA, the magazine of the University of Minnesota Alumni Association.