Death Becomes Her

Martha Thayer grooms a new generation of morticians.

Martha Thayer's brown curls bounce as she nods admiringly at the Primrose, an elegant-looking coffin sitting against the south wall of her classroom.

"This is the same kind of casket that Karen Carpenter was buried in," she says. "That's sort of its claim to fame. But when I tell my students that, some of them look at me like, 'Who's Karen Carpenter?' That's when I feel like I'm starting to get a little old."

The Primrose has the look of a white marble Italian statue, with the added embellishments of wood carvings and floral appliqué. Inside are pink pleated pillows and a satin lining that's embroidered with red carnations. It is one of 1,600 casket models available in the United States, a collection that also includes dry-erase coffins -- which are popular with high school students, who sign them like yearbooks -- and shrink-wraps that can be used to cover the entire box with photos of, say, the deceased's favorite golf course. Like ring tones and Internet avatars, the modern burial has become highly customized.

Death-defying: Martha Thayer and the famous 
Primrose casket.
John Johnston
Death-defying: Martha Thayer and the famous Primrose casket.
Thinking inside the box: Shannon Maestas.
John Johnston
Thinking inside the box: Shannon Maestas.

"It's amazing," Thayer says, "but there are just as many casket trends as there are clothing trends. You wouldn't think they would change that much, but they do. It's wonderful, because funeral service is all about personalization. I always say, ŒPeople are as unique in their death as they were in their life.' That's one of the most important things I can teach."

Thayer is the director of the mortuary science department at Arapahoe Community College, a rigorous, career-oriented program that prepares students for professions in funeral service. But the 35-year-old mother of two young boys doesn't look like a person who has dedicated nearly twenty years of her life to death. She is small and sunny with bangs that curl cheerfully off her face to show bright-blue eyes. Today she wears an orange-pink blouse, a flowing skirt covered with pastel-colored flowers and white sandals.

"When people say, 'Gee, you don't look like a funeral director,' I ask them, 'What does a funeral director look like?' Then they usually say, 'Well, I don't know, but not you.'

"The majority of funeral directors are normal people, just like me," she adds. "I don't know any funeral directors who do fit the old stereotype."

Last year, 5,220 people died in Denver -- and what happened to their bodies after that was largely up to their survivors. As the only state that doesn't require funeral directors to be licensed, Colorado takes a rather libertarian approach to the funeral industry and the care and removal of corpses. (Until 1988, the state did require a license -- but then funeral directors successfully lobbied the legislature, arguing that their profession was already heavily regulated by the feds.) After the necessary paperwork is filed with the county, it's legal to bury a loved one in a pine box in the back yard or scatter his cremains from the top of a Fourteener -- so long as the property owner allows it.

Most people, however, prefer to leave that business to professionals. The ACC mortuary science program is the only place in the state where students can pursue death as an educational track. There, Thayer leads her classes through the entire business, from shepherding families through the post-death process to arranging for body pick up to placing notices in newspapers to choreographing services and filing death notifications with the state. They take courses in embalming theory, merchandising, restorative art and thanatochemistry -- how to use chemicals to sanitize, disinfect and preserve human remains. They leave knowing how to relieve a human body of its postmortem gases and fluids, how to counsel grief-stricken families through the earliest stages of mourning, and how to pitch the sale of a comprehensive, pre-planned funeral package complete with a casket and a cemetery plot. In a funeral home, the director is often the businessperson, event planner, manager and grief counselor -- and training to become one can be as grueling as the job itself can be grim.

"If you're working in some small, rural funeral home, you're going to have to do everything," Thayer says. "You'll be arranging with families and dusting the end tables in every room. Even if you don't wind up working in preparation or anything like that, you still have to understand what it's all about. So our curriculum is very well-rounded. It's very intense, very challenging."

Most students graduate from the two-year, $4,000 program with an associate's degree and a job in one of the metro area's 200 mortuaries, funeral homes, crematoriums and cemeteries -- where starting salaries are about that of teachers or social workers, ranging from $25,000 to $35,000. Even though morticians don't need licenses to work in Colorado, most mortuaries in the state require voluntary certification through the American Board of Funeral Service Education. The ACC curriculum prepares graduates for that rigorous exam, and nearly 80 percent of the school's graduates pass -- which is considerably higher than the national average.

"Across the country, there's a shortage of people coming into the field, and funeral directors are scrambling," says John Horan of the Denver-based Horan & McConaty funeral service company, who currently employs seven ACC graduates and several interns and sits on the advisory board for the program. "In Denver, we're extremely fortunate to have this program at Arapahoe; I've been absolutely thrilled with the quality of people coming out of it, especially those who've had some real-world experience, maybe they've even experienced some profound loss of their own. The graduates are much more likely to stay, to be committed and to have some sound fundamentals.

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