A Humbling Foray Into Funeral Service: What I Learned From Mortuary School, the Real World and My Colleagues – Part II

“I’m here to put the “FUN” in funeral service.”

And with that, after a few cringes, I ended my speech in trying to become class president. Not just any class president. But the class president for my state of Wisconsin’s only funeral service fraternity. This was big time, and I was trying to be taken serious, while still using my humor to garner attention. To keep things light, basically, in a seriously toned setting. Makes sense right?

Student

I came across corny, very much so, but I was also genuine, and able to secure the third most votes to become Secretary of Sigma Phi Sigma.

Enter my first semester of mortuary college. Hopefully, you read the first part to this two part series of blogs to see how I made it this far (If not, stop right now and catch up here: The Rockstar Morticican Vs. The World – Part I). I knew this would be a wild ride of what very well may go down as my final year of college. At this point, I was 31 years old, done with the jobs that didn’t have a great future, the poker playing that was always just a cash grab and more of a passion than a career, and finally having all of the necessary requirements to achieve that high school field trip dream.

I knew a couple students from the get-go, out of 25 total in the class. Only this time, it was all mortuary science students. Gone were the days of general education classes or health science majors being mixed in. This was it. This was a class that was filled with eager students to prove their mettle within the funeral industry, just as I was. I was one of the oldest, but not THE oldest. I had some experience as an apprentice funeral director at this point, but not the MOST experience. I’d like to think that I had the most enthusiasm and was the most out-spoken though. As my opening statement announced, I was here just as everyone else was, only I was going to have fun and do things my way.

1st DayWhen I started the first semester of funeral service, I was playing poker for a modest living (paying the bills basically) with a free night, every night. I could dress how I wanted every day and look how I wanted while attending class. I had grown a decent sized beard, and although I looked liked I didn’t belong, I assure you that I proved I did.

I outperformed the grades our program required us to (B- or better in each class). I understood the material, participated in group discussions and wasn’t afraid to embarrass myself with how little I knew compared to the others in class who had been in this business for a couple years now.

Still, I knew I was looked at as the outsider, just based on how much I enjoyed coming to class, having fun being in school vs. the real world, how I came to class everyday, and being able to basically just go to class and that was my day if I wanted it to be (poker allows that freedom in life- you play when you want).

By the end of the first semester, I knew it was time to get things in order for the second and final semester of the program. I knew the lifestyle of not having as much of a responsibility to the industry or actually participating in it during school was only hurting me. I wasn’t getting the real world experience I needed. I wasn’t networking on the level I needed to further a career in this. I wasn’t even getting my state requirements as they pertained to becoming a licensed funeral director (going to school is only one of the many things needed). Samson, I was not, but man did I feel a little less stronger with the beard gone.

Beard0

I had cleaned myself up. Gone were the days of sweatshirts and backwards caps. In were the mornings of shaving every day and putting on a suit. Coffee included.

For those of you who have made it this far and don’t understand why this is a thing, in so many words, it is this: Being a funeral director is a profession that requires looking and acting like an adult. This is a serious business, and looking the part is just as important as knowing the part. It is also a 24/7 industry, as deaths can occur at any point in time. Funeral directors have to be ready for that, and we are, so being alert and available during your rotation of “on call” nights is a must. It takes a true commitment to helping people and selflessness to succeed.

This is what I wanted and was ready for. In poker terms, I was all in.

As my second semester of funeral service began, I was about a month into my apprenticeship at one of the city’s largest funeral homes (in terms of families served per year). Getting work was not hard to come by, based on that, and I quickly learned what it was like to juggle a 12-14 hour day and night working and going to school full time. My days flew by. The little free time I had was spent sleeping or studying. I was getting a crash course in funeral service in the real world, but was rapidly honing my skills all the same.

Suddenly, it became a battle of real world techniques, scenarios and thinking on your feet vs. what a text book tells you to do or teachers prepare you for. It was tiring, it was time consuming. It was something I will never forget, or complain about. This was the easy part! Being in school actually gave me the breaks I needed in between working and just being able to socialize with my peers in class vs. colleagues at work. I loved being in school and relished the chance to learn more about how I can be better at my job. I really used the things I learned during the day, at night for performing my duties.

And that’s not to say it was all work and no play. My class went on field trips (cemeteries, casket and burial vault companies), we had some downtime in between classes or had days when class ended early and I was “off call” for the night with the weekend coming up. I truly bonded with quite a few students, and to the surprise of no one, most of my friends were the younger generation. I gave them more props than the older students, because at their ages, to be doing what they were doing was remarkable to me. The drive and ability to focus on such a tough profession and still get the necessary grades impressed me. When I was in my early twenties, all I cared about was… well, the things most twenty year olds do. But not them. Being around them kept me young, but also made me step my game up even further. If a 21 year old kid could achieve all of this, why can’t I, a 31 year old?

I salute my graduating class. All but one of us graduated. The experiences we shared, the laughter, the tears, the drinks, the studying, the all nighters working and the moments when we missed something or went through something entirely new. We were all there for one another, because no matter how we acted, looked or were brought up, we were all in this together. We are the future of funeral service. This is the new school. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been doing this for 5 years, you’re from a third generation funeral home family or entirely new to this business; we have to work together and support one another.

Playing a numbers game and selling people short is bad for business and it reflects on who you are in this world, not just in funeral service. Old Blue Eyes

I learned a lot from my fellow students, young and old. Man and woman. White and black. Teachers and professionals. Owners and co-workers. Everyone. And I still am learning. Every single day I learn something new. I ask questions, not because I want to play the “Why?” game of a two year old, but because I want to learn as much as possible. I want to become like the very ones I look up to: The owners and funeral directors I have met and work alongside.

I don’t envy my life or think I am something better than I’m not. I have the attitude that I will become something great, yes; but compared to everyone else, I carry that chip on my shoulder. I haven’t forgotten the comments or looks on people’s faces throughout this journey I have been on for a couple years now, or back in high school. I’m still that same kid. This is how I have to look at things, because this is how I motivate myself and find that instinct inside to succeed.

This profession is more than just a “9 to 5.” It is a lifestyle. It is taking the worst moment in someone’s life and trying to piece it all together for them long enough so that they can say their final goodbyes. I may have hung up the backwards hat on a daily basis, but I still wear many hats, indeed. For those who have had the misfortune of going through the funeral process, you know how fast it all happens and how much work goes into it.

I am someone who has taken his own misdoings and mistakes in life and turned them into a positive. I have found a way to make people smile no matter how tough their situation is, or the heartbreak they are feeling. Nothing in my life has meant as much or has been as great as becoming a funeral director. I will make mistakes and may not know what I am doing at times, but I have never given less than 100% for my funeral home or for a family. And never will. I owe them that, at the very least.

After going through school, going through my internship, going through my apprenticeship, passing my state and national board exams, to finally reaching that status on a piece of paper that shows: Licensed Funeral Director.Graduation

And no one can ever take that away from me. 

I’d like to build on that statement, though, by saying that I have the utmost respect for all funeral directors. Men. Women. Young. Old. White. Black. Experienced. Rookies. It doesn’t matter what your standing is in this profession, I will respect you, listen to everything you have to say and try to follow the leads I am given. In a way, I’m like a sponge. I try to soak up as much information and lessons along the way as much as possible. I have a lot to learn, and will be the first to admit it. But I’ve put in the effort to earn my spot, and will continue to look at each day as its own experience.

If you’re in the funeral profession, you have my hands, my heart and my time.

As I go back to being in my final year of college, I want to thank the teachers, the students and all of the business professionals I had the pleasure of meeting along the way. I was able to go from a punk, just living life and in some ways,  only fulfilling a promise to my mom by finishing my degree, to a business professional myself.

I have since moved on from that funeral home I worked at during school (and am far removed from my first attempt years ago). I am now employed at a funeral home that I feel is really among the best. The service we provide is second to none. Everyone works as a team and it really feels like a family, and our presence among the community is one that really makes me proud. I have found what I was looking for.

From this point on, my time in this industry is all about improving myself and the services I am a part of. I am here to stay. I am here for myself. But above all else, I am here for you and your family. And the one after that.

-Noah Watry

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