More than merely death


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Sarah Hubner has known she wants to work in medicine since she was young.

Combine that with an inquisitive mind and some by-chance networking, mortuary science came into the picture.

Hubner said death is one of the last human enigmas, because nobody knows what happens after death. She compared autopsies, what she’d like to do as a mortician, to a mystery.

“Autopsies are just a puzzle,” she said. “You’re adding clues and information to that story.”

Hubner makes up a small contingent of students, currently five, at the University of Iowa in the pre-mortuary science track.

The UI doesn’t have an official mortuary science program, and the only program in the state is at Des Moines Area Community College.

Kevin Patterson, one of three faculty members in that school’s mortuary-science program, said around four or five students every year come from the UI of the 104 in total.

Hubner attends the UI in a pre-med track as well as microbiology.

She also works in the Decedent Care Center at the UI Hospitals and Clinics as an intern, where she works alongside pathologists and decedent-care specialists working with autopsies.

“It can be hard if you let yourself get emotional about a case,” she said.

While Hubner will attend the Des Moines school for the program, she’ll be able to take classes online and continue working at UIHC; she hopes to complete a practicum at an Iowa City funeral home.

Patterson said people immediately think of dead bodies when it comes to mortuary science, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.

“My students are going to be impacting families who are having the worst day of their lives,” he said. “Part of it is guiding them through the wilderness of grief.”

Hubner said for her, providing an answer to families through an autopsy is the most rewarding thing.
She said it surprised her the UI doesn’t have a mortuary-science program, with both the medical examiner’s office and Decedent Care Center at the UIHC, as well as the strong community of funeral directors.

One reason the UI doesn’t offer a program is because only 64 semester hours are needed for entry into the Des Moines program, so a bachelor-length program isn’t really necessary.

Michael Davis, an academic adviser whose job is to guide those in pre-mortuary science for class work, said generally, two types of people move toward mortuary science, the biggest being people who have family in the business.

“A lot of what we see is a student with family in the funeral business, and they’ll be the next generation in the family business,” he said.

The other group is students such as Hubner who have a curiosity or previously have networked into the business.

Patterson said 65 percent of students complete the 46-credit-hour program and become affiliated with a local funeral home while completing classes online.

He said the greatest need for funeral directors is in small Iowa towns.

Dan Ciha, the funeral director at Gay & Ciha Funeral and Cremation Services, said funeral directors are retiring, but graduates are uneasy to move to smaller, more rural areas and would rather be in bigger cities.

However, he said the UI doesn’t need a program because the numbers coming out of the Des Moines program are enough to sustain the industry.

“I think, like any profession, some people might not be as qualified as others,” Ciha said.

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