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INDIANAPOLIS — The COVID-19 pandemic is changing the way many Hoosiers do their jobs, including one field that is in demand.
People working in the mortuary sciences field become funeral directors and embalmers. Part of their job is to ensure the deceased are cared for appropriately and the loved ones are treated with compassion as they beginning the grieving process.
It's oftentimes a thankless job because in a way these workers are what people call last responders. They may not be saving lives on the front lines of the pandemic, but now and always, they take care of a critical need in society.
"We go out and we take care of the deceased so we serve that public need," said Brian Miller, the Program Chair for Mortuary Sciences at Ivy Tech. "Without that, it becomes even more of a health issue for the public. Our professional network is on the front lines of this."
Miller is an embalmer and is also teaching the next generation of workers in this field.
At Ivy Tech, it is a two-year program ending with an associate's degree in mortuary sciences.
Students complete several hours of rigorous classwork in areas like science and psychology. They also must complete 320 hours of hands-on work in the field.
Workers in mortuary sciences are not grief counselors, but they do play an important role in the grieving process and must serve their community with compassion.
"Anyone who has the compassion to serve and a sensitive heart and a servant's heart can be successful in our business," Miller said.
Student James Swartout is in his final semester in the program.
"I've never been happier doing any work so far," said Swartout, who started his career in logistics and then moved to a role as a phlebotomist before deciding to join toe Mortuary Sciences program through Ivy Tech.
"Beforehand I felt like I was just going through the motions, ya know, I was just working to live," Swartout said. "And now doing this, I feel like I'm actively engaging with people and I'm helping them and giving them something that they need in a time that they need it."
Funerals are an important part of our culture and Swartout says many different cultures celebrate the remember their loved ones in different ways which makes every funeral unique.
"It's a wedding but done in three days instead of six months," Swartout said. "That's the best way to put it. So it's everything from clothing, flowers, set up, there's a lot of artistic direction in it because when you are setting up the actual chapel for the funeral you are trying to take into account how everything looks."
And for Swartout, it is personal. Taking classes and working hands-on at a funeral homes has helped him deal with the loss of his own father in a more healthy way.
"When my father died and I was very young, and I did not deal with it well, it kind of haunted me for quite a while," Swartout said. "It wasn't until I started getting into this program that I really figured out psychological reasons why. Funerals help people when they lose someone start that healing process."
Swartout says funerals reinforce to the ones left behind that the death has occurred.
The loved ones have an opportunity at a funeral to celebrate that person's life in different ceremonial and ritualistic ways. It is a time when the community can offer support.
Then after the funeral, the reality changes and often someone's identity changes with that person no longer in their life on earth.
But with COVID-19, and the social distancing measures, Swartout says many funerals have been held with just immediate family.
There have been more cremations. Funeral directors are meeting more with the family virtually to make arrangements.
While it isn't the same as an in-person gathering, the students doing this hands-on work are getting a unique opportunity to watch and see how creativity is needed to still serve these families with compassion as they start the grieving process.
"And that's something that we are able to do is we can go through and allow them to develop that proper memory picture," Swartout said. "They can take the closure of the funeral and start to move on with their life."
With the threat of COVID-19, workers in this field must be extra careful. However, embalming is considered less risky to your health then working as the funeral director.
Miller explains that if prepared properly, the body during embalming is very safe to the worker because the body is not breathing and they can take precautions against spreading the disease. However, funeral directing and meeting people face to face who may have been exposed to someone suffering from COVID-19 is higher risk, which is why many meetings are now done virtually.
Miller says students in this field should come prepared not only with a solid science foundation, but also they should personally be prepared for the demands of this job.
"I think you have to understand the nature of the business so that you don't come out of it thinking we're crime scene investigators, forensic pathologists, or that you are going to work 8 to 5. Those things are unrealistic," Miller said.
He says there is a demand for professionals in this field during this pandemic, but also at any time. Students should be mobile because there are only so many people working in this field in each community.
"Currently over the last few years, we've had more jobs available than there are students to fill those," Miller said. "And that's not just here in the state, that's across the country."
Miller and Swartout both say they get mixed reactions from people when they tell them what they do, due to the nature of the business and the stigma of dying.
Miller says the job is not morbid to him, rather an act of great service.
"Really the goal of it is to prepare a person to give them some dignity back," Miller said. "I think that's missing, you know people who have been going through the phases of dying for a period of weeks may not have even been out of their pajamas during that time. So let's put them in their clothing, let's shave them and clean them and give them some dignity, so that the family then can see them and have a healthy grief reaction."
If you are interested in learning more about a career in Mortuary Sciences and want to apply to Ivy Tech, you can click here.
Classes at Ivy Tech are virtual through at least August 1 due to the pandemic.
On that website you can learn more about requirements for the field, median salary, classes and more.