The adage, “There’s nothing certain but death and taxes,” still rings true. But at least we’re willing to talk (read: complain) about taxes. Death? Much harder to engage. Yet as COVID stares us in the face, even the most reticent are confronting the topic. Michael LuBrant has embraced death throughout his career, first as a funeral director and now as director of the Program of Mortuary Science at the University of Minnesota Medical School. In the position he’s held since 2002, he guides future funeral directors through end-of-life rituals. But this semester’s new realities — virtual learning, Zoom funerals — offer teaching moments unlike any other. He shares his thoughts on the challenges and opportunities below.
Q: I’m going to generalize here: Why do you think Westerners tend to avoid talk of death? Even with COVID, it’s too easy to ignore the staggering number of deaths.
A: In my experience working as a funeral director, the conversation and acceptance of death varies based on one’s traditions and culture. Some families have a stronger desire to separate from that. There’s so much variation and nuance. But with the growing number of deaths attended to by hospice caregivers, there’s more engagement than in the past.
Q: But it sounds like you still have your work cut out for you.
A: As I travel the state, what do you think the most common question we get from high school students is? It’s not about the job or salary. It’s “What’s a funeral?” Many have not had experience with death. Their grandparents are still living. We really didn’t think about this when I started this work 35 years ago. Back then, especially in smaller communities, more people knew their funeral director. It’s so incumbent on us to be advocates for our profession. We have to be more visible.
Q: How rare is it to have a mortician on a medical school staff?
A: We’re the only medical school in the country with a mortuary science program attached to it. We offer a 120-credit bachelor of science degree in mortuary science. The program started in 1908 with founders who wanted this aspect of health care as part of the continuum of care.
Q: What sets apart the young people who choose this program?
A: Many have had experience with loss and as a result they’ve come to see the importance of what we do. Some worked in a care center or as hair dressers. Mortuary science is a calling. You’re not going to last if you don’t have it in your heart. It takes a dedication and commitment to sustain you.
Q: How many students attend each year and what’s their age make-up?
A: About 30 students are starting the program this fall. Most are traditional college age in their early 20s. We’ve also had students in their 30s and 40s. The gender makeup is changing. In the 1970s, the majority of students were men, with just a 5% female enrollment. Last year, 65% nationally were women.
Q: What safety protocols have you put in place?
A: We have measured out lab spaces to keep students 6 feet apart, and all students continue to wear personal protective equipment (PPE). With funeral home clinical placements, they’ll be a little bit farther spaced and will wear masks when interacting with client families, in keeping with public health guidelines.
Q: Is what you teach changing?
A: We still teach a yearlong curriculum on making funeral arrangements, which includes the simulation of a funeral. But the general curriculum used to focus more heavily on embalming. There are so many options now, including a cremation rate in Minnesota which is about 70%.
Q: As Minnesota’s cultural makeup shifts, I’m guessing your teaching about that has also?
A: We have a course called Death and Dying Across Cultures and Religions. We try to get students primary source readings about the traditions and then bring in guest speakers to reflect on their own traditions and experiences.
Q: What’s the hardest thing now for families dealing with death?
A: Maintaining social distance. One funeral director I know set up a graveside ceremony in which everyone was to stay in their cars. Of course, everybody got out of their cars. There’s such a strong desire to hold one another, to comfort. As a practitioner, you set it up but what are we going to do? It puts us in a difficult position because they have that need for connection. As you’ve seen in the news, some of these funerals are occasions for spread of COVID. We have to be mindful of that. We might require a cap at a certain number. At a visitation, we might ask people to come and pay their respects as quickly as possible to make room for someone else to come in. You need to have the appropriate number of staff to keep things moving. When people are willing to follow the guidelines, it works very well.
Q: Are we in a new normal in how we deal with death?
A: Some say nothing will ever be the same; others say, “When we return to normal …” I think we’ll return to some things from the past but I also think we’ll do some things differently. We are being stretched to be creative and imaginative. One of the positive outcomes [of Zoom funerals], for example, is that people who otherwise wanted to participate but couldn’t due to distance are now able to. Technology has helped us grow as we continue to serve families.