Death-defying: Martha Thayer and the famous 
    Primrose casket.
Death-defying: Martha Thayer and the famous Primrose casket.
John Johnston

Death Becomes Her

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.

"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.

"A lot of that can be attributed to Martha Thayer," Horan continues. "She is supremely committed and passionate about the importance of a good education. Like a good mortuary science educator, at times she's their teacher, at times she's their friend."

Since Thayer took over in 1996, she's taught every course in the catalogue and helped develop an academically rooted, integrated curriculum. Under her direction, ACC's mortuary science school has become one of the most successful of the 54 such programs in the country. As a result, getting in has become increasingly competitive: The program is full through 2006, and there is a long waiting list of people who hope to land a seat if someone drops out before each semester begins. That rarely happens, though. Thayer personally selects the students after they complete a host of general education requirements and a rigorous points-based application. This semester, she rejected sixty applications and accepted ninety, the largest group she's ever enrolled.

"The Mortuary Science program has definitely raised the profile of Arapahoe Community College, and I think the success of the program is tied directly toward Martha's standard of professionalism, the quality of her work, and the consciousness with which she performs anything," says Linda Comeaux, associate dean of the school's Division of Health, Math, Science and Engineering. "She's got the qualities that make a good educator: She's an enjoyable person, she's just funny as heck, she's very responsible and amazingly self-motivated.

"There's this idea out there about funeral directors, that perhaps they're not personable, that they have an awkward humor," she continues. "Martha is the polar opposite of that. She brings a different sense of what the profession is, that it's not gloomy. I don't think her personality contradicts her profession; I think her passion promotes her profession."

Thayer has been passionate about death since she was seventeen. One day, while reading the newspaper with her mom, she saw an ad for a receptionist at the Moore Howard Mortuary in Denver.

"I was joking, and I asked my mom, 'Omigosh, could you see me working in a funeral home?' Without missing a beat, she said, 'Yes.' I was kind of taken aback at first, but she explained that she thought I had the ability to help people without becoming so emotionally involved that I couldn't be effective," Thayer remembers. "It was just part of my personality. I was able to be empathetic and able to do the job."

The next day, when she told her classmates at Littleton High School about the ad, they dared her to apply. She took the dare, got the job and kept it until she graduated from ACC with a degree in finance. There was no mortuary school in Colorado at the time, so she headed to Texas to study at the Dallas Institute of Funeral Services. After returning to Colorado, Thayer worked in funeral homes around the metro area, including the Monarch Society, a nontraditional crematorium. In 1988, she approached ACC's administration about starting up a mortuary science program; six years later, when the school finally agreed, Thayer was on hand to help shape it.

"I wish there was some other word for it than `calling,'" she says of her chosen career. "When I started in this, I was a teenager, and people thought I was a freak. Period. The most common reaction was: 'Why would you want to work with dead people?'

"But my attachment is never to the person that died; my concern is for the family I'm serving," she continues. "Really, I think most people who are drawn to funeral service are actually pretty needy. We need to feel needed, and we need to serve people every day so that we feel needed for serving need. See how that works?"

Thayer is analytical and warm, silly and serious, energetic and detail-oriented -- a laundry list of qualities that are the hallmarks of a good funeral director. But she rejects the idea that any one type of person is more suited to the job than another. Every semester, Thayer's classroom packs with twenty-somethings and retirees, stay-at-home moms and lawyers, accountants and salesmen looking for a second career. The mortuary science program is a human hodgepodge. And that, she points out, makes it a little bit like a funeral home.

"A couple of years after I started teaching, I stopped trying to determine who was or wasn't going to succeed in funeral service," she says. "We had a girl who came in with different colored hair every other day, and I immediately thought, 'Oh, she's not conservative enough.' Now she and her husband own their own home. She cleaned up very nicely. You just never know.

"I tell them, though, that if you are the kind of person who likes to hit the snooze button, this is not for you," she adds. "When it comes to a service, you only have one chance to do it right; the body cannot start his own funeral."

While Thayer might not always predict who will be successful, she does have radar for who's drawn to her program for the wrong reasons. As part of the application process, potential students must answer essay questions about why they want to pursue death as a career. A couple of key words are red flags.

"Sometimes we'll get a person who has experienced a lot of loss, maybe three or four deaths in the last two years. I've sat that person down and said, 'This isn't for you.' Because this isn't therapy," she says. "And I've had a few people who say they want to be like Grissom on CSI; I've had people apply because they want to work for the coroner. I have to let them know that this program won't move them one inch closer to their career goals in forensic science. This program will put them in a field where they'll start out by mowing the lawn, washing the car, cleaning the house and picking up dead bodies in the middle of the night."

Rudy Bettmann displays a plastic skull covered with wax that has been molded to resemble a human face. As the facial reconstruction professor at ACC, it's his job to teach students to prepare a body for open-casket ceremonies or visitations. "A lot students make [the heads] up to look like celebrities," he says. "Every semester, we get a couple of the President; we just had some of George Bush.

"We teach them to create a positive memory picture," he continues. "We're repairing injuries, lacerations. You might have someone who's died unexpectedly due to an accident, or to an illness that created a very traumatic memory. We're able to take away some of that negative. It's really a tremendous help to the families."

As the director of his own funeral home in Denver for twenty years, Bettmann frequently had to repair bodies for viewing. He loved it, but the emotional strain of the job eventually got to be too much, and he left the business. In 2000 he began teaching at ACC; he's since developed a curriculum for reconstruction that's been adopted as a model for mortuary science educators around the country.

"I love teaching, and I love having contact with people," he says. "There's a lot of things you learn from life alone, and there are a lot of things you learn from sitting in a classroom and listening to teachers who've had experiences that you haven't. In this classroom, everyone learns from each other: It's an all-encompassing education for everyone, even the teachers. People who are drawn to funeral service are drawn by a need to help others; it's just something that's in us. I always say, 'We care for the dead, but we serve the living.'"

Students have to land a job or an internship before they get to work with a corpse. There are no dead bodies in the classroom where Thayer and Bettmann teach -- just the Primrose casket, several miniature stone and plaster tombs, an urn and a crystal Celtic cross made to resemble a gravestone. Egyptian hieroglyphics are painted on the walls, and the podium bears an image of King Tut -- in homage to the earliest-known embalmers in human history. On a high shelf sit gooey embalming fluids the color and consistency of Pepto-Bismol; in a corner is an embalming machine that resembles an old-fashioned gumball dispenser.

"There's a cadaver upstairs in one of the chemistry classrooms, but I've never even looked at it," Thayer says. "Studying a corpse for medical purposes and preparing a body for a viewing are totally different. It just doesn't apply."

"Fortunately, the days of the cadaver are on their way out," Bettmann adds.

At the end of each semester of Embalming Theory and Lab, Thayer and Bettmann take the class on a field trip to watch an embalming -- a slow process where toxins in the blood and various body fluids are replaced with other chemicals. In most small and family-run mortuaries, undertakers perform embalmings at least occasionally, so it is mandatory to learn the skill.

Thayer considers the embalming field trip to be one of the best days of the entire semester. But for students, it can be scary as hell: While some have been working or interning at mortuaries for years and are used to the sight of dead bodies -- even those that have been smashed up in accidents -- others have never seen a cadaver. Thayer strategically groups the newbies with old pros who can take some of the fear out of the experience.

"I've never lost anyone to the embalming lab," she says. "I've never had anyone pass out or throw up or anything like that. Afterwards, a lot of them say, 'I was nervous. I was up all night for a week worrying about this. And now I wish I hadn't wasted so much time doing that, because it wasn't bad at all.'"

For some mortuary science students, the embalming lab is one of the few times they come in contact with others involved in the program, living or dead. Five years ago, Thayer launched her classes on the Internet so that students could learn the laws of decomposition, human anatomy and mortuary law from home, the library or coffee shop. Currently, pupils from twenty states log in: There's a young man in Washington state who's getting his mortuary science education in order to move up in his family business, a small mortuary that sits on a commercial apple orchard; in Utah, a mother of seven children, who does the occasional funeral service for her rural mortuary, learns online; in Spearfish, South Dakota, a 25-year-old woman studies between services and yard work at a tiny, family-owned funeral home.

"Right now, there's barely one mortuary science program per state, so there's a real need for people in smaller communities to have access to this education," Thayer says. "You think about how many programs there are for nursing, for EMT and medical schools. But generally people don't think that much about death; people are surprised to learn that this is something you can get a degree in."

At the end of every semester, the online students pack up their wax heads and fly to Denver for tests and assessments. When Thayer's got them in the flesh, she tries to feel them out, to see where their own heads are. Most people who enter funeral service will quit within five years; last year, the American Board of Funeral Service Educators launched a nationwide effort to track graduates of mortuary science programs for five years, to determine how they fare once they leave the classroom. But even without any hard data, Thayer knows that burnout and emotional stress are the usual reasons why people drop out. In the end, not everyone is cut out to work with the dead, no matter how much they prepare.

"I had one young student who called me right after she started working in a home, and she was crying, and I asked her what was wrong. She said, 'They brought someone in! He died!' It was like, 'Yeah, that's gonna happen,'" Thayer says. "You've got to have the right combination of personality if you're going to help the family. You can't be on the phone crying every time someone dies."

Thayer devotes class time to exploring the emotional strains of the field and encourages students to talk to her about their feelings and fears; she also requires them to keep journals tracking their experiences when they take internships or jobs in funeral homes.

"It's important that they learn how to process," she says. "When they first go out and start working in the homes, I tell them that if anything bothers them -- if they see a lot of trauma or really bad accidents or things like that -- that they need to talk to me so we can work through it. You don't want to go home and be sitting around the dinner table saying, 'This is what I did today.' The person who died deserves more respect than that.

"I try to stress to them that there are a lot of pluses to this career, but there are some minuses, too," she adds. "It's very emotionally draining. I try to make sure that they have a real concept of what this career is like -- that it isn't like Six Feet Under. You don't get to start the embalming machine, then go on another call and eat a sandwich while you're driving the hearse."

Shannon Maestas was eighteen when she entered ACC's mortuary science program. As a junior at Highlands Ranch High School, she'd written a five-page paper about funeral service for a career-exploration class.

"I knew that everyone would be writing, 'I want to be a massage therapist, a marine biologist, a doctor or a lawyer,' all of these common things," she remembers. "And I had read an article about funeral service, and I knew nobody was going to do that. I thought it would be funny, because nobody would have expected that from me. I was the head of the pom squad. I went to the mall."

But the joke eventually became serious. The more she thought about it, the more she decided funeral service made a lot of sense as a career option. When she told her parents she was enrolling at ACC, they thought she'd lost her mind.

"They really thought it was out of left field, because I've always been very skittish," she says. "I don't like scary movies, I don't like to be alone in the dark by myself, I'm frightened of a lot of things like that. So they were like, 'What? You want to work in a mortuary?'

"There are so many different aspects of this job that people don't consider," she continues. "I always knew that whatever path I was going to choose, it would be something that just felt right. Even when I was eighteen, when people would say, 'What do you want to do?,' I could say with confidence: 'I want to be a funeral director.'"

Stylish and articulate, Maestas seems more like a perky morning-TV host than a woman who deals with the dead. But she's the location manager of the Chapel Hill Mortuary & Cemetery, a new facility in Littleton owned by the Olinger Mortuary chain. At 27, she is younger than most of her counterparts, and she's constantly proving herself to the families who come in, bereaved and somewhat skeptical of the young woman who's there to help them through their grief -- not to mention the endless details and arrangements that accompany funeral service. That challenge has made her better at her job. Maestas delights in bucking people's expectations of what people in her profession are like, and she is proud, almost defiant, to be young, female and on her way up. She's already a rising star within Service Corporation International, the Texas-based conglomerate that owns hundreds of mortuaries around the country, including the Olinger chain, and she hopes to eventually transition to the company's corporate side -- the most lucrative part of the industry -- which handles everything from sales and development to acquisition and marketing.

"When I first started, a lot of people would mistake me for the secretary or someone's daughter," Maestas says. "There's always the challenge of proving oneself. You're always dealing with those families who come in and, from square one, they're thinking, 'Oh my gosh. You're young! And you have no idea what you're doing! And you're a girl!' But at the end of it all, they're so surprised that you knew how to do it, and you did it well. That part of it is very satisfying.

"I was working at one home in Fort Collins, and these guys brought me into the prep room as if to say, 'Oh, you're going to do this?'" she continues. "It was a challenge. As if I was going to run screaming from the room -- as had happened with the last person, a young female. But when I picked up the instruments, they saw that I was serious, that I wanted to do this. When you do show them that you do want to do prep work, or show them that you're willing to move flowers for services or anything that needs to be done, that makes them step back a little bit."

Maestas' funeral home has the airless, antiseptic immaculateness of a new hotel. There are boxes of tissue on every table, in every room. In one softly lit office, headstone options are laid out like model cars -- in different colors and sizes, in sandstone and marble, from simple to ornate. In the chapel, huge windows afford views of the foothills to the west. And the entire place -- from the front desk to the sales office to the cemetery -- is crawling with females. The staff consists of twelve women and two men, but Maestas says the gender imbalance is purely an accident. Since she took over a management position last year, only women have applied -- or been qualified -- for openings.

"There have been times when we've gone to a church to do a service, and there's a woman funeral director, a woman assistant funeral director. Even the limo driver is a woman. And you can kind of hear people say, 'They're all women!' You would never hear a person say, 'They're all men!'

"There's just so many stereotypes of what a funeral director is. Very few people have actual interaction with funeral directors, so you get this weird perception based on movies, or TV or how you grow up. I like to break that stereotype, because we're not all Goth and clothed in black and mysterious and reclusive. We go out. We're part of the community. And no, we're not all men."

In fact, every Wednesday Maestas gets together with people in the business and bowls. "It's pretty typical that a lot of your friends wind up being other funeral directors," she says. "You're the only ones who can really relate to what you do and what you deal with. So it's a little bit of release. When you're dealing with such emotionally charged issues, if you don't take care of yourself, you will get burned out. You can get together and kind of get it out of your system."

That group would easily disprove the common perception of the funeral industry as a grim, creepy enterprise run by old men in black suits. But in Colorado, that reputation was undeserved from the start. The earliest funeral parlors were owned by families who attended church and worked hard like everyone else; while funeral directing was traditionally dominated by men who were born into it, women were always involved in the day-to-day functions. And over the past five years, the profession has been attracting even more women, as well as older people and non-traditional folks.

According to the National Board of Funeral Service Education, death is a growth industry in general, and for women in particular. In 1971, when the NBFSE began tracking enrollment data at mortuary science schools, 95 percent of students were male. But by 2000, the numbers had crossed the gender line, as more than 50 percent of new enrollees were women. Currently, a majority of Thayer's students at Arapahoe Community College are women.

"I have so many moms who see this as a great supplementary income," Thayer says. "But I also have women who were lawyers, who worked in the corporate world and discovered that funeral service is a way to serve and help people, without having to be a nurse or a social worker. They discover how rewarding this job is. It's something you don't get when you go into an office, turn on a computer and then go home. I think it's naturally appealing to a lot of women."

"Woman are better caregivers," says Bettmann. "They're just less threatening to people who are weakened by emotional strain. People are more comfortable with them in this kind of environment than they would be with a man. And the industry has come a long way in making it more welcoming to women. There used to be a question of physical strength; it takes two people to pick up a casket, for example. But there's been all kinds of new technology and innovation to take care of some of that."

The new crop of funeral-service workers -- men and women -- views the field as a cousin to social work, teaching or the ministry. Debbie Winslow, who serves as a funeral director at Chapel Hill with Maestas, worked in Christian broadcasting and even started her own church before entering ACC in 2003. At the time, she was working as an accountant with a corporate firm; the idea that she could make a career out of helping people appealed to her sense of spirituality.

"When I was working in accounting, the only reward was when all of my numbers balanced out at the end of the day," Winslow says. "In this career, it's very rewarding to help people through a difficult time; it appealed to my caregiving side. I can provide encouragement and comfort and love and acceptance during the worst time in a person's life. I feel as though I've completed my calling."

Winslow was in her forties when she made the career change to undertaker, a profession she'd never before considered. But while it seemed dramatic to her friends and family, her story is really becoming the norm.

"The funeral industry is changing dramatically," says Katie Monfrey of the National Funeral Directors Association. "It used to be generational, meaning most of the people you'd see in the business had come into it through a family involvement. Now we're seeing a lot of first-generation people who are coming into it because they have a real interest; we see cops, social workers, people from nursing who see this as an outlet. It's something more people are actually choosing to do now, rather than just being born into it."

"People who are coming into the work force now, at the tail end of the baby boomers, are much more inclined to be looking for work with meaning, with importance," says funeral director Horan. "When my father went to work at the phone company, he wasn't looking for meaning: It was a good, solid job. But we're seeing people now come into funeral service after they've had a half a dozen jobs. It's later in life that they get some experience and come into this. It's one of a few jobs where, in the span of a few days, you have many, many opportunities to make a difference in someone's life."

For her part, Thayer is convinced she has the best job in Colorado -- even if people think it's creepy. "When little kids go out and look up at the night sky, they say things like, 'I want to be an astronaut or a doctor,'" Thayer says. "Not very many of them kick the dirt and bury a worm and say, 'I want to be a funeral director.' It's just not something most people are aware of as an option.

"I consider myself very lucky to have found my life's calling at the age of seventeen. I counsel adults every day who still don't know what they want to do when they grow up. But guess what? They are grown up," she continues. "But I get up every day to come see my students. We have a bond, because none of us thinks that the others are weird or freaks for wanting to be in this business. We just understand."

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