Teaching The Living How To Work With The Dead

Photo courtesy: iStock Photos
Words: Mia Zarrella

Standing at the front of a lab room at Mount Ida College, professor Sarah Stopyra asks her students, “Does everybody have their head?”

Each student sitting at their lab tables has a big brown cardboard box with a handle. They open the front flap and slide out their heads: plastic busts covered and sculpted in flesh-colored wax to resemble a human face.

This is Mount Ida’s reconstructive art class: one of Mount Ida’s funeral service and mortuary science courses. Stopyra is instructing students how to recreate facial features for the deceased. One student in the class decided to practice her skills by recreating the face of Youtube personality Gavin Free.

Mount Ida, located in Newton, Massachusetts, is one of fewer than 65 colleges in the nation that offers mortuary programs to educate and prepare today’s living for tomorrow’s deaths.

The college holds courses in reconstructive art, anatomy, physiology, embalming, and funeral home management.

The funeral service department is located in the basement of Mount Ida. There is a merchandising room with caskets and urns, a lab room of anatomical models, a preparation room for embalmings, and an office space where Stopyra and her coworkers can be found.

On Stopyra’s office door, under her nameplate, is a thin piece of paper with the words “Angel on Earth”- a note a colleague left her a while ago.

Stopyra, 35, graduated from Framingham State University in Massachusetts with the intent of being a teacher, yet she didn’t know what she wanted to teach. One night in her Framingham dorm room, she watched a documentary about morticians that inspired her to pursue funeral direction.

Traditionally, funeral direction has been a male-dominated, family business, but Stopyra says that’s  changing.

“There are far more individuals looking to enter the business out of pure interest and passion,” said Stopyra, a tall woman, with short dark hair wearing a black pantsuit. “That’s when you know you’re getting into it for the right reasons–not because it’s an easy path, because it’s not an easy path.”

Stopyra received her associate’s degree at the Funeral Institute of the Northeast, passed the national board exam to get her Massachusetts license, and became a funeral director in the Merrimack Valley. After 10 years there, she left to pursue a teaching position at Mount Ida, where she’s been for five years.

“It is my dream job,” said Stopyra. “I love what I do and never in a million years would I have imagined.”

Beside her, hanging on her office wall, is a framed poster of a Henry David Thoreau quote: “Go confidently in the direction of your dreams, live the life you have imagined.”

“I hope my passion for the industry comes through in my teaching,” says Stopyra. “If they leave here with a sense of how wonderful this industry is and all the great things you can do as a funeral professional then I have done my job in a small part.”

In the front of the reconstructive art classroom, a student adds clumps of wax under the closed eyes of his recreated face and softly smoothes it with his thumb, as though caressing the cheek of a loved one.

Stopyra then distributes a 30-question multiple choice quiz. When do you remove dirt or external stains from a body? To remove nicotine stains, do you use lemon juice or lemon juice along with household bleach? How do you attach a decapitated head to a body with a dowel?

Stopyra teaches six mortuary science and funeral service courses. Today in Funeral Directing II, there is a mock memorial service that counts as the students’ final project.

Groups of five or six students, playing different roles, memorialize a fictitious person. The deceased are based on people Stopyra knows, and students are supplied pictures and a couple of facts about them, such as marital status and names of family members. Then, Stopyra invites those being memorialized to attend class.

Today, 30 year-old Michael Weignand, a funeral director and 2008 alumnus of Mount Ida, is sitting in on his own memorial service. Yet, on the memorial packet above a picture of his smiling face, is the name “Clyde Wilson.” Clyde died of a heroin overdose.

As the memorial starts, Stopyra and Weigand sit in the back of the class and students, some who are 19 years-old, some who are late into adulthood, and others who are  working professionals, enter the classroom.

Every desk has a pamphlet, a prayer card, and a bottle cap (Clyde loved craft beer). The Grateful Dead’s “Fire on the Mountain” plays in the background– music that Clyde Wilson liked–until it’s abruptly stopped for class attendance, which Stopyra declares as “a mood killer.”

A student in a black suit stands at the front of class beside a large brown urn surrounded with various items of the “deceased.”

“Good morning and welcome to the memorial service of Clyde Wilson,” he said.

This is followed by scripture readings, eulogies, prayers, and a slideshow of Weigand’s photos.

Sitting in the back of the class, seeing his faux death mourned in front of him, Weigand says, “It’s surreal. It brings to light that inevitably we are all going to cross that point, at some point.”

When the memorial service is over, Stopyra claps.

“We wouldn’t normally clap,” Stopyra jokingly said to the class. She then introduces Weigand AKA Clyde Wilson.

“This was not an easy subject to try and deal with,” she said about drug-related deaths. “You will inevitably run into this, unfortunately, in your careers.”

Funeral services and mortuary sciences require empathy- a trait Stopyra believes should be moderated so as the professional does not become the mourner.

“The only way I can really teach is through example and just reiterating all the time just how important it is to understand where families are coming from- from all circumstances and backgrounds,” said Stopyra.

Sally Moscat, 19, from Providence, Rhode Island is studying funeral service at Mount Ida. Having experienced loss at a young age, Moscat knew by the time she was in middle school that she wanted to pursue this career.

“Whenever I would bring it up, people would react so crazy to it and it really made me question my career path,” said Moscat, a petite girl with dark hair. On the inside of her left arm, she has a tattoo of Anubis, an Egyptian god associated with the afterlife and embalming.

Moscat is in Mount Ida’s two-year, associate’s program. Her goal is to attend graduate school for a masters in pathology and become a mortician.

At Mount Ida, Moscat is learning about the different types of care: physical and emotional.

“Embalming, that’s the most emotional aspect,” said Moscat. “Just getting past the fact that that is somebody, that could be your dad or your mom.”

Massachusetts families, often those who are low-income or don’t want a formal funeral service, can donate their relative’s body to Mount Ida. The college receives such donations about twice a semester, sometimes more.

“You never know when it’s going to be busy,” said Stopyra.

Mount Ida students then perform the embalming under the supervision of a licensed funeral director. In the preparation  room, there are three wall cabinets with chemicals for the embalming fluids, two embalming tables, and two portable stations with trays holding stainless steel utensils, scissors, scalpels.

Each student performs 10 embalmings as part of their graduation requirement. The bodies are under the use and care of Mount Ida for a few weeks before being cremated for the family at no charge- a service normally costing over a thousand dollars.

“I think we teach [embalming] because we have to, but the real focus is teaching the students the service component,” said Stopyra. “People say they want to work with the dead, but they are really working with the living.”

Janae Tooley, 20, studies funeral services at Mount Ida and is also an apprentice at a Dorchester funeral home. She’s dressed professionally, is wearing dark lipstick, and has a silver cross around her neck.

“I basically shadow underneath a funeral director learning their roles and how they do the tricks of their trades,” said Tooley. “If they’re up at 2 in the morning, I am up at 2 in the morning.”

And those hours are normal for funeral directors, as deaths must be attended to in a timely matter. They often have to perform embalmings at late hours, answer phone calls from distressed loved ones in the middle of the night, and work on holidays..

Tooley and her mother, a nurse in Wellesley, were caretakers for her ill grandmother. Overtime, Tooley recognized the importance in caring for those who cannot care for of themselves and talking about uncomfortable, but important matters, like life insurance, legacy, and death.

“I really feel like I was meant for something greater, something that would touch people,” says Tooley.

The Mount Ida students are learning how to honor a lost life and create one last memory of that person for his or her loved ones. Yet, in the minds of some, there is still a dismal, morbid stigma associated with the profession.

“I feel like we really help lift people up from their sorrows, open their eyes up, and say ‘Hey you have your whole lives to live still,’” said Moscat. “I wish people would see us like that instead of seeing us as grim reapers.”

Many of these students and professionals don’t see it as a morbid job, they see it as a lesson about life and living.

“A lot of people live their lives like they have the next day to fix things,” said Tooley, who reminds herself often that tomorrow is not promised.

“I’m learning a lot from working with death,” said Tooley.


1 Comment

  1. Sarah Stopyra says:

    Thank you Mia for a nicely written article about our Institution and program. I shared this to our FB page! You are welcome back anytime- Sarah Stopyra

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s