Out-of-the-ordinary job provides experience, sense of maturity

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James E. Ryan founded the Ryan Funeral Home in Manhattan in 1925 and, while the name and owners have changed as employees have passed down the company, Ryan’s establishment is still in Manhattan today.

Yorgensen-Meloan-Londeen Funeral Home, or the YML Funeral Home, as it is currently known, continues the tradition of being a locally owned and directed funeral home, but funeral directors do not work alone.

Owen Praeger, senior in mathematics and computer science, and Mark Grady, senior in biology, women’s studies and secondary education, serve under the title of Funeral Home Assistant at YML Funeral Home.

“I had no idea what I was getting into,” Grady said about starting his job at the funeral home. “I’ve been doing it for a while, so I’m kind of getting used to it, getting used to seeing dead people.”

Most of the job, Grady said, includes hanging out in the office and answering the phone.

Praeger agreed, saying the atmosphere is laid-back.  

“I have a lot of free time to do homework and watch football,” Praeger said.

When Praeger and Grady are on the clock, but not in the office, their job becomes very different.

Grady said each time the funeral home receives a call about a death, one funeral director and one student respond to the call together.

“For the most part, it’s the elderly or people in the hospital,” said Praeger. These deaths are easier to handle because it’s “not a surprise,” Praeger said.

But this is not always the case.

“Sometimes bodies are pretty messed up,” Praeger said.

Grady agreed and said, “There have even been people who have partially decomposed.”

Praeger and Grady have been called to the scene of suicides and car accidents that took lives suddenly and unexpectedly. For these student employees, their job is a constant reminder of how short life can be.

Grady said the most difficult part of the job is seeing people his age or younger who have died.

When the funeral director and assistant arrive to pick up a body, it is common for them to interact with the family of the deceased.

“The families are usually there, and they’re distraught,” Praeger said.

Douglas Meloan, funeral director and part-owner of the funeral home, said being compassionate toward the family and friends left behind is yet another aspect of these students’ jobs.

He said the job of a funeral home assistant is not for everyone. When hiring a new student, Meloan said he looks for very specific qualities.

“They have to have good communication, get along well with all types of people and be able to be on call, even in the middle of the night,” said Meloan.

It is not out of the ordinary for YML Funeral Home to hire a student who soon decides he is not cut out for this line of work. Having the ability to deal with tragedies, mangled bodies and families in despair is a skill employees must develop.

“You have to have some way of separating yourself from what you’re actually doing,” Grady said.

For Grady and his co-workers, humor is often their choice of a coping mechanism. Even on the way to pick up a body, “We’re usually making jokes about something,” Grady said.

Meloan said he has watched some of his student employees bow out after their first few calls, while he has watched others go on to make careers out of the funeral business.

Meloan said the students who are good at what they do “mature pretty quick.” He said it causes students to “focus in on life” and remember that “life is precious.” Meloan said this is especially important for college students to realize because all too often, “They think they’re invincible.”

If you know a K-State student with a “weird job,” email your idea to news@spub.ksu.edu.

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