Two hundred years ago, families, tribes and communities took care of their own dead. Women prepared relatives for burial. People followed traditions and rituals handed down for centuries, some originating on this continent, some in Europe.
It was not until the Civil War that the preservation and disinfection of human remains was integrated into the fabric of society. At that time, many men died whose families and homelands were far from the battlefield. Although soldiers were often interred where they fell, many wanted their sons returned home.
“Death is hard. It’s supposed to be hard,” said Barry Brekhus, Billings funeral director. “It’s human nature to try to make things easy.”
But death, even when expected, is shocking, and shock is not easy for humans to bear.
Ritual and care once provided by family, community and tribe, are now, more often than not, in the hands of people who help us get through, and, as Christen LeBlanc, a funeral director at Michelotti-Sawyers Mortuary, says, “to make the worst day of a family better.”
In the Billings area, there are 22 licensed funeral directors, also called morticians, who by the nature of their work become an intimate part of families at the time of death.
Every funeral director and funeral home in Montana is licensed by the state and inspected annually. Every director has passed a standardized exam and obtains six continuing education units per year. Speakers hired by the Regional Funeral Directors Association teach in Billings or classes are obtained out of state. Some directors have specialized training that exceeds state requirements.
Recently, several Billings funeral directors offered to discuss how they came to this unique profession and to explain facets of the mortuary and funeral business. Although the subject of death is of great importance to adults, in our culture it is not often talked about publicly. The following people and other directors not mentioned directly are available to answer questions concerning death, burial, cremation and costs not covered in this story.
Barry Brekhus has been in Billings for more than 30 years. He and John Michelotti are partners in Michelotti-Sawyers Mortuary and Crematory. In 2009, when my mother died, it was Mr. Brekhus who supported my family in those first difficult days.
He is a detail-oriented guy. I have never seen him without a bow tie. He exudes calm and proficiency, has a wicked sense of humor and delightful laugh.
My own Scotch-Irish family often employs dark humor. Having Mr. Brekhus respond to our puns and off-the-wall comments put us at ease. At the same time, he was direct, simple, kind and calm, his manner detached, and caring enough that we felt ourselves in good and knowledgeable hands.
This, as far as I can tell, is not only the job, but in some part the nature of all men and women who stay in this profession. Personalities may differ, but not steadiness, unique and gentle caring, and a capacity to remain reliable and calm in the presence of trying emotion and physical trauma.
Born in North Dakota, Mr. Brekhus does not remember exactly why he pursued his first job in a mortuary the summer after his junior year in college at the University of North Dakota. It could have been, in part, the free housing he received as a maintenance man at a funeral home in Dickinson.
Gradually, he helped out more and more, and a year later decided to go to Mt. Hood Community College in Portland, Ore., a school that offers a funeral service education degree. Many funeral directors in town graduated from Mt. Hood, which waives out-of-state tuition fees for Montana residents. The program includes classes in psychology, sociology, chemistry, business practices, embalming and restoration.
What qualities would a person want to have to enter this profession? One of them is some ability to detach from difficult situations. Mr. Brekhus said most funereal professionals have a natural propensity toward detachment and get better at it as they go along.
Anger, a normal part of grief, is sometimes directed at mortuary staff and at times can be difficult not to take personally. The ability to separate from another’s anger, to see it as grief, is unusual for most of us.
But folks like Shannon Rausch, office manager at Smith Funeral Chapels for 17 years, feel particularly sensitive to the difficult burden of anger at the time of death and work to help families walk out the door feeling better. At times of great stress this ability is a blessing.
The best part of the work, Mr. Brekhus said, is “being able to help people with something that in the moment they can’t do for themselves.”
Jeff Robertson is a warm man who likes to talk, loves to meet and work with people, learn about their different faiths and ideas. Over at Smith Funeral Chapel, after a thorough tour of the building, I learned that he, like Mr. Brekhus, has been a funeral director for 30 years.
Mr. Robertson comes from Wyoming where he still lives and commutes daily to Billings, except for the one week a month he is on call and stays with his cousin here.
Mr. Robertson was in the brick business before becoming a mortician. In fact, he helped do the brick work at Michelotti’s. While attending college in Powell, Wyo., and then Brigham Young University, he was unsure about what to do after graduation.
On summer break, he discussed this with a friend, a funeral director who asked if he might be interested in the mortuary business. He talked the possibility over with his wife and they agreed it was worth a try — a steady business. Soon he was in Los Angeles attending The College of Mortuary Science, where staff did not think a Wyoming country boy would make it. Little did they know about Wyoming country boys.
Every family is special to Mr. Robertson. In this business, he said, “You really have to care about people. You can’t fake it.” Years later, when he sees familiar faces in town he remembers the planning and the service for each family. It may seem odd, but humor often lightens the load at death and Mr. Robertson and Mr. Brekhus both look for opportunities where humor is present.
Shawnee French and Christen LeBlanc at Michelotti-Sawyers, Jennifer Aksamit at Dahl Funeral Chapel and Tanya Ballensky, owner of Cremation and Funeral Gallery, are the four women funeral directors in Billings.
Ms. Ballensky purchased the Funeral Gallery from Jerry Nordquist in 2008. A pleasant, soft-spoken woman, a single mom with three boys, 6, 11 and 15, she came into this field from a direction similar to Ms. LeBlanc and Ms. French. Those women were certified nurse assistants before they decided to change careers.
Ms. Aksamit, on the other hand, with licenses from both Wyoming, her home state, and Montana was well on her way to becoming an elementary school teacher when she took a part-time job in a mortuary and “fell” into the profession.
Raised at Yellowtail Dam, Ms. Ballensky, 38, went to cosmetology school and worked as a CNA at the same time. In her job as a CNA, she found the transitions from life to death difficult to witness and felt the absence of suffering when they were gone.
At times, she was called on by her salon clients to help prepare hair and makeup for a deceased relative. It was while doing this service she became interested in the possibility of becoming a full-time mortician.
Early on, one funeral director told her he would only hire a licensed male to work for him. This spurred her determination to obtain a license. In Colorado, there is no licensing for morticians. And so, while attending mortuary school in Littleton, Colo., she worked at The Embalming Center in Denver. This experience prepared her for the required year internship in Montana.
As a young woman working in rural towns where traditional burials were the preferred choice of families, Ms. Ballensky often experienced shock or surprise from the public upon revealing that she was a mortician, something Ms. LeBlanc and Ms. Aksamit experience today.
Ms. French, a mortician for almost 10 years now, says at first she was often greeted with something like, “What’s a pretty young girl like you doing in a business like this?”
According to the American Board of Funeral Service Education, in 2011, the average mortuary school student was a woman between the ages of 21 and 25 whose family is not in the funeral service industry. Women are reclaiming and reinventing this traditional role.
The first and most important focus of funeral directors is the family. “It is such a difficult time for them,” Ms. Ballensky says. “We want everything to be perfect, and yet we know, because of their loss, it can’t be.” Ms. Ballensky, like Ms. Rausch, feels comfortable working with angry families. “Maybe having three rambunctious boys helps.”
Unlike others interviewed, John Dahl grew up in a large Catholic family already in the funeral service. His grandfather, who moved here from North Dakota in 1939, started Dahl Funeral Chapel. His father, Bernard, 87, still works part-time.
After high school, John Dahl worked in construction elsewhere in the state. When he got laid off one winter he began to attend what was then called Eastern Montana College of Education and helped out at the mortuary driving families. Three years later he decided to go to Mt. Hood.
In Portland, Mr. Dahl held two apprenticeships, played rugby and in 1990 took the National and the Montana State Mortician Test, after which he worked under his dad for 10 years. His father trained him to understand the importance of feelings.
But with families, he said, “I put my own feelings on hold and focus on what we can do to help.” With a very active lifestyle, Mr. Dahl has time to decompress later. A person of strong faith, he considers this work “sacred ground” and in difficult situations, uses prayer.
“You automatically learn to be a good listener, ask the right questions and become an assurance advocate offering to take care of as much as you can for the family,” he said, and added that listening to other life stories helps his own life.
Some funeral directors are affiliated with a particular church and religion; others are not. They have in common however, what could be called a conscious and spiritual reverence for life and the belief in an afterlife.
All those I spoke with have had personal experiences that support these beliefs, and have been present for circumstances that seem uncanny to say the least, like the time immediately following the interment prayer for an Air Force veteran, the Blue Angels, who happened to be in town, flew over his gravesite.
Feeling the close presence of someone who has died is an experience many of us have had. Funeral directors are no exception.