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Mortuary science’s a discipline of caring and technique

The death industry is an extremely stressful undertaking. At Mount Ida College, mortuary school instructor Sarah Stopyra said that she can teach her students about pathology, embalming, casketing, regulatory compliance and more. But it’s difficult to convey to hopeful morticians about how all-consuming the funeral profession is.

“Being a funeral director is all consuming and can take all your energy. It’s not just the long and often erratic hours. The deep sorrow of others takes an emotional toll as well,” said Stopyra, 34, who instructs standard courses often required for licensure as a funeral director and embalmer. Stopyra, one of the first licensed female funeral directors in the area without family ties to funeral service, talked to Globe correspondent Cindy Atoji Keene about the ‘calling’ to be a mortician.

“I don’t look like the typical undertaker stereotype – I’m young and female. When I first started in this industry 14 years ago, people were a little taken aback when they saw me. One even asked, ‘Do you actually move the bodies?’ Yes, I am more than able to do all that a man can do. Today it’s not as unusual to see a woman funeral director, as the traditional roles have progressed. We see not just those from multi-generational family businesses but also career changers and others.”

“For me, I had little experience on a personal level with death care – I had only attended one or two funerals in my life – but I felt very strongly this was something I had to do. Part of this job is very technical, needing to know how to deal with human remains in a kind and respectful manner. Other aspects require strong interpersonal skills, such as dealing with not just the bereaved but also clergymen, medical professionals, and attorneys.”

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“I am not currently practicing but passing on my passion and skills to mortuary science students. The curriculum is essentially broken down into classes characterized as either arts or sciences. Their first contact with the deceased is during an embalming clinical course, which either takes place at an off-campus funeral home or on our campus embalming facility. If it’s their first exposure to death, some are very nervous but we teach them that it’s an honor to do death care. Other courses include a restorative arts class, which shows how to recreate a face with mortuary wax, using the correct proportions for eyes, nose and mouth. Some students are more artistic and make the faces of famous people, while others just trying to learn the basics.”

“But ultimately the most important aspect of the funeral business is being on your ‘A’ game all the time. This means having the proper composure and walking and talking in such a way that adds dignity to this profession. I may not always be in a black suit but I am always cognizant of what I represent at a higher level, whether I’m in the funeral parlor or out in the community. Being a funeral director is not a career but a lifestyle.”

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