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Undertaker: Courtney Harris

Erin Crowell - November 2nd, 2009
Undertaker
Courtney Harris brings a caring factor to a dying profession

By Erin Crowell 11/2/09

Courtney Harris doesn’t eat anything with her hands.
If she has to, she will eat potato chips with a spoon. It’s a trait she’s possessed as long as her friends have known her. But that’s not what made Courtney so unique in high school. While other 16-year-old girls wanted to be teachers and actresses, Courtney knew she wanted to work with dead people.
“Usually people are surprised when I tell them what I do,” says Harris, the petite blonde who is now 24. “When people think of a funeral director or embalmer they don’t think of me.”
Harris is the owner, manager and funeral director of Terwilliger Funeral Home in Kaleva, as well as owner and funeral director of the Bennett-Barz Funeral Home in Beulah.

SPARE THE DETAILS
Harris started her career in mortuary science at age 16 when she job-shadowed for Kirk Barz, owner and funeral director of Bennett-Barz and Terwilliger.
“I wasn’t particularly thinking about (mortuary science),” Harris says, “but after working with Kirk, that was pretty much it. I knew that’s what I wanted to do.”
Barz also started his undertaker career at an early age, 20, and believes enthusiasm is important.
“Anyone excited about working is worth hiring,” Barz says.
Harris began her employment for Barz during the summer before her junior year of high school. At first, she thought her job would be limited to everyday duties.
“I thought I would be cleaning toilets and washing the hearse, things I still do today,” she says, “but I was also working visitations and funeral services – everything that goes on behind the scenes.”
Which included the embalming process (preserving the body by replacing blood with formaldehyde).
“I just observed Kirk. It never really bothered me,” she says.
Even though she was young, Courtney took her job seriously. When someone from school would ask about the dirty details, Courtney would maintain her professionalism and spare her clients—and in all probability, her friends—from a description that would make even the strongest stomach do flips.

WOMEN’S WORK
At 22, Harris earned her funeral director license and her Bachelor of Science in mortuary science from Wayne State University – which is the only accredited mortuary school in the state of Michigan. Currently, there are just over 105,000 individuals working in the funeral service industry, according to the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA).
Sixty percent of mortuary science students are women, says Jessica Koth, public relations manager of the NFDA. Out of her graduating class of 17, Harris says only three were men and the rest were women.
Michael F. Mastellone, department chairman of the Nassau Community College School of Mortuary Science in Garden City, New York reported close to 75 percent of the college’s mortuary students were female – attributed to what he calls the “caring factor,” typically found in careers like nursing or social work.
“We’re actually going back to a time in history when it was the women who cared for the dead,” Mastellone said in a June 2008 New York Times article.
There are around 35,000 licensed funeral directors in the country, however it’s unknown exactly what percentage of those are women, says Koth; but, regardless of gender, the burnout rate for funeral directors is high, says Harris.
“It’s a 24/7 job. When I leave the office, all calls go to my cell phone. I get calls at all hours of the night,” she says.

AMONG THE DEAD
When a person dies, the first call a family makes is to a funeral home.
“We’re responsible for moving the body,” says Harris. “As soon as we get permission, we start the embalming process right away.”
Formaldehyde is injected by needle into a raised artery or vein, which displaces all of the body’s blood. Where does the discarded blood go?
“Right down the drain,” says Harris. “It’s mixed with a solution and flushed into the city sewer.”
The whole process takes Harris approximately one-and-a-half hours to complete. “I’m meticulous when it comes to embalming,” she says.
When she’s finished, Harris leaves the body in the preparation room and goes home for the night.
Not that she lives far. Harris lives right in the Terwilliger building, in an apartment, complete with a bedroom, bathroom and kitchen.
Sleeping in a building near dead people doesn’t bother her. “They’re dead. What are they going to do?” she says matter-of-factly. “The only time I get freaked out is if I hear the leveler at night” (what keeps the casket level in the hearse). “Sometimes it will just go off on its own. It’s scary when you hear bumps in the night; because you shouldn’t here.”

IT’S PERSONAL
But, death—even for the professional—can be uncomfortable.
“It’s personal, being that I’m from the area,” says Harris. “I’ve buried a lot of friends’ parents, grandparents, even some people from school.”
And sometimes there are the inconsolable.
“It happens more than I like. Not everyone who passes away is old. Accidents happen. While I’m not a psychologist or psychiatrist, it’s important to me to be sympathetic. Everyone needs someone to listen.
“Being the last person to be able to do mom’s hair, do mom’s makeup, that’s an honor for me, being able to present (a family) with a version of their loved one who is more like they were before they were sick or before their accident.”
Paying attention to what a family wants for their loved one is important, says Harris. Every detail is covered, from the emblem on the corner of their casket, to the way their hair is styled, to the color of their last suit.
Before she worked in the funeral business, Harris’s grandfather passed away. She recalls that same attention to detail at his funeral:
“My grandfather wore pajamas and long johns all the time. The only time I ever saw him in a suit was when he was buried,” she says, “but underneath his suit he wore long johns.”

CARE & CONSIDERATION
While eating chips with utensils has nothing to do with her work, Harris possesses the meticulous characteristics of a person dedicated to her job. Everything is handled with thorough care and consideration, characteristics that many in the funeral industry say explains the growing number of women in the business – or rather, the service – as it’s so commonly referred to.
Lina D. Odou, one of the early 20th Century pioneer women of embalming was once quoted as saying the following:
Over and over again have I heard mothers ask undertakers if they could not furnish women embalmers for their dead daughters, and many others to whom the dead are sacred have asked the same question, and I have invariably heard such men say there are no women to be had for such a purpose.
Well, men, there are women to be had—women like Courtney Harris—and that number continues to grow.

For more information on funerals and other statistics, visit the National Funeral Directors Association website at nfda.org. To contact the Terwilliger Funeral Home of Kaleva call 231-362-3575; the phone number for the Bennett-Barz Funeral Home in Beulah is 231-882-5502.

 
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