Undertaking a New Career

Like so many other young married couples, they met in college. The school just happened to be the Worsham College of Mortuary Science in Chicago. Lyle and Tracy Donald grew up 40 miles apart -- he in Traer, she in Marshalltown. They fell in love in between anatomy classes and field trips to the Cook County morgue. Almost four years after graduation, they prepare the deceased and wait on the families together at Hamilton's Funeral Home on Lyon Street.Twenty years ago, undertaking was a profession fathers passed on to sons. It stayed in the family. Today, the majority -- and estimated 60 percent -- of mortuary science students are first generation, like Lyle and Tracy. The Donalds both worked at funeral homes before they became licensed morticians. Lyle, having grown up in a house that once was a funeral parlor, seems almost predestined for this line of work. He had always "looked up" to his hometown's funeral director and "thought it was a great profession." After fooling with actuarial science and finance majors at Drake, Lyle, 25, switched to biology and took a job at Hamilton's as a night student, answering phones and retrieving bodies.For Tracy, it began the summer between high school and college. For most 18-year-olds, those are celebratory, even reckless months. But Tracy, 26, took a job in a Marshalltown funeral home owned by friends of her parents. She wasn't allowed to embalm or perform other serious duties. She did get a sense of what funeral direction demanded -- and returned. "Working with the families -- they're so appreciative of everything you do," she says. "It overwhelms you how nice people can be at that time and giving to you just because you're doing your job. They don't see it as you doing your job. That's what's so rewarding, and there was nothing else I wanted to do."The moment must be awkward: announcing to friends and family that you want to grow up to be a mortician."They thought I was crazy, especially as a young woman wanting to go into that business," remembers Tracy. "My mother and I had a long heart-to-heart about it because she didn't think I could cut it. At home, with people you know, it's different. You know most, but not all, of the people coming into the home. But if it bothered me, I would know it." "I was just the opposite," says Lyle. "All my friends thought I would, thought I was cut out for it. I don't know why." After a full year of study at Worsham, the Donalds took jobs at a home in Keokuk. Hamilton's lured them to Des Moines two and a half years ago. The work at a funeral parlor is surprisingly unsegmented. Funeral directors (the preferred term) handle a corpse (not the preferred term) from expiration to internment. Directors prep the deceased -- embalm, make up, dress, rest in casket -- as well as comfort and help families with the service. Lyle feels more at home in the quiet of the prep room. Tracy thinks her strength is working with the departed's loved ones. For Tracy, the first weeks on the job were like a test: "When you go on that house call where someone has lost their baby, can you handle that? Can you keep your composure? Can you do things like that? And I could. Of course I had feelings, and I vent them at other times. I think I've handled myself pretty well."Her biggest challenge: lifting and moving the bodies. Centers of attentionThirty-four years ago Jessica Mitford wrote a book called "The American Way of Death." In its first printing, the jacket featured a wreath of pink flowers in the shape of a dollar sign.Mitford described funeral direction as a racket -- a notch below organized crime but above used car sales on the extortion ladder. Morticians were portrayed as slick businessmen, taking advantage of customers too bereaved and/or uniformed to know better.Our culture is terrified of death. And queerly inquisitive. When the Donalds take, say, a camping trip with family, "We're the center of attention all night," says Tracy. "They have 50 questions. And I just feel our time could be spent on more constructive things than just talking. They have the same questions every time we see them.""I think it's great," says Lyle. "I love answering questions because it does educate people and cuts down on everyone thinking a funeral director is so morbid and you're just this money-hungry, greedy person with no conscience or anything like that. You don't care about the next person, you're just this cold person. Well, we're not."Away from the parlor, the Donalds lead typical middle-class lives. They like to bowl. They go dancing. This summer they traveled to Ohio so Lyle could watch his beloved Reds from the stands.Yes, the funeral business can be lucrative. But if undertaking is such a bountiful career, why could the Donalds find only one other classmate -- out of 50 -- listed in the National Funeral Directors Association register? "They didn't know what it paid, what your hours were," says Tracy. "They thought it was just go in and get this big paycheck." "It's not the glamorous, high-paying job everyone thinks it is," Lyle says. They think about children, maybe when the work, with its odd hours and having to be on call, doesn't seem so overwhelming. "I worry if we'll ever have a family, which a lot of people in other professions probably wouldn't worry about that," says Tracy. "When you have a eight-to-five job, it's a lot easier to find day care," says Lyle."I always wonder how it will affect our children," Tracy says. "Especially because we both work. It's a great majority of our lives. It's not just a job."

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