Wayne State University Mortuary Science Program

Last week, we had the distinct privilege to follow mortuary science student and future funeral director Jilliann Rutherford through her classes at what is considered one of the leading colleges in America for funeral directors. The alumni roster can proudly boast some of Michigan's most notables: Desmond, Lynch, Schramm, Calcaterra, Pixley, and Techner, just to name a few.

We were invited to shadow Jilliann through the invitation of the Mortuary Science Program Director and Funeral Director Mark Evely, who is also an attorney. Mark's own path to his profession, like so many, was inspired by a moment in time. As a young teenager working at his local funeral home in a small town, a fellow high school student was killed in a car accident. She was transferred to the funeral home where Evely worked.  He would be a part of preparing for her final good bye with the family and friends from the close-knit community. "I knew at that moment this is what I was called to do."

Professor of embalming, Sharon Gee-Mascarello also had a similar story. She has been teaching at Wayne State for some 17 years. She has graduated many students, including Roger Husband, who went on to prepare Rosa Parks for her funeral.

We also spoke to Jilliann as she embarked on her final test of embalming and preparing a deceased in the embalming lab.  As expected by her professor, Jilliann successfully accomplished the procedure, giving this person the dignity, respect, and care that the program teaches its students to uphold as their principles.

It seems there is no shortage of these poor souls who find their way to Wayne State mortuary science program due to lack of either family or the funds for a proper burial.

After watching the love and care that's taken into their preparation, you gain a real sense of just how wonderful this service is to the Metro Detroit community. I asked Jilliann why she chose this profession. While she was working, she simply responded, "I want to be there for people in a time of loss and difficulty in their lives."

Earlier in the week, we had the opportunity to film with Matt Smith. He is new to the faculty. More of an artist, Matt is known worldwide for his ability to care for the deceased who have faced traumatic deaths or diseases that have caused them to lose their recognizable appearance. The work that Matt teaches enables students to learn artistic reconstructive procedures so family and friends can say goodbye to their loved one with a vision as if they had just fallen asleep.

We spent an afternoon with students in this class, which is called "Restorative Art." The students start with a Styrofoam head that is covered with clay.  The future funeral directors must attempt through a photo, to turn their model into the likeness of that person. Some chose their fellow students or family members,  while Michaela, another student, chose David Bowie.

We had a chance to go to the local campus diner and talk openly with several of the students: Jilliann Rutherford, Gabby Ducharme, Andrea Sebby, Conor Schweihofer, Scott, Young and Pat Kenrick.  Each of them shared their thoughts on the career they have chosen for the rest of their lives as well as the stigma that comes with the title 'funeral director.'

On the next day we accompanied Jilliann to the Eugene Applebaum College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences at Wayne State University to document her going through a cremation certification class put on by the National Funeral Directors Association.

Make no mistake: these are kids only a few years out of high school. Some come from families in the business, so-called "legacy students", while others have chosen this path for their own personal reasons.

One thing is absolutely for sure.  These are caring young men and women who will someday be caring for you and me and most importantly having the responsibility of helping our loved ones as they come together to say goodbye to us.

I'm excited and proud that we will be able to feature the day in the life of these wonderful people who have chosen a profession that so often is marred with misunderstanding.

I am certain this film and their stories will change that perception.