For a woman whose business is death and dying, mortuary science professor Jody LaCourt has a surprisingly sunny disposition.
LaCourt, a University alumna, teaches restorative art and embalming theory – ironic, seeing as she fainted in her first embalming class as a student.
LaCourt spent 12 years as a funeral director in the Twin Cities before joining the Department of Mortuary Science three semesters ago.
The classes she teaches reflect her personal preferences in the field.
“There are funeral directors who would rather do the preparation work,” she said, meaning the embalming and cosmetic processes. “That’s the category that I fall into.”
She said she thinks her field experience makes her a better teacher; her classes aren’t strictly based out of a textbook and instead incorporate stories and examples from her work as a funeral director.
Funeral service combines a number of interest areas -psychology, anatomy, science, business – LaCourt said, which is what drew her to the field initially.
The mortuary science department is a fairly small one, so the class sizes are small and the students are familiar with one another.
In LaCourt’s embalming theory class, she begins with a quiz of instruments used in the preparation room. She set up about 20 stations with instruments such as an eye cap, positioning block, hemostat and forceps.
She also gave her students descriptions of theoretical funeral homes, which she created using horror stories that she’d heard in the field mixed in with some from her own experience.
One common assumption is that funeral directors are morbid, creepy individuals – a myth that is mostly encouraged by Hollywood films and TV, LaCourt said.
“There’s nothing dark and twisty about it,” she said. “It’s an honor and a privilege to take care of someone’s loved one.”
LaCourt also teaches a restorative art lab, in which students learn how to apply cosmetics to faces and rebuild areas of trauma.
The students work on plastic rubber faces with classical music playing in the background.
The rubber faces had all been traumatized in some way, and the students’ tasks were to rebuild an eye and the mouth.
LaCourt alternately jokes with her students (“Did you give your head a name?”) and reminds them to stay on task (“No talking for the next four minutes”).
The University’s mortuary science program is one of only four in the country that offers students a four-year bachelor’s degree, and the only program in the Big Ten to be housed in a medical school.
Students in LaCourt’s classes learn embalming on real bodies, which they receive through the Anatomy Bequest Program in the medical school, and get to assist on or see an embalming process each week in their lab section.
Although LaCourt’s area of specialty lies behind the scenes, she said many of her students were drawn to the field because of the service funeral directors give to families.
“It’s so important for the family to be able to say goodbye to their loved one,” she said.
And she knew she was in the right field when she stepped into the prep room of the first funeral home she worked in, Werness Brothers Funeral Chapels, and felt that she could make a difference in someone’s life, she said.
The process all begins in the prep room.
Even if everything in a service goes perfectly, “when the family walks up to the casket and they do not like the appearance of their loved one, everything else you did right is all washed away,” she said.
LaCourt still works as a funeral director during the summers, keeping up her licensure and working her skills.
“I think I have the best of both worlds,” she said. “I would really miss it if I didn’t have the opportunity.”