Mortuary science students, family mourn loss of friend

Joanna Dornfeld

Most of the University’s 48 mortuary science students gathered Wednesday to grieve the death of classmate James Ellison, who was killed Tuesday.

Ellison, a 22-year-old mortuary science senior, and Daniel O’Connell, a 38-year-old University alumnus, were killed Tuesday night at the O’Connell Family Funeral Home in Hudson, Wis., where Ellison was interning.

“It’s such a blow,” said Michael LuBrant, mortuary science program director. “We’re completely devastated. Everybody knows everybody. It’s just very small.”

Although classes in the department were cancelled for the day, about a dozen students stayed at the mortuary science office for support.

“They are taking care of each other,” LuBrant said. “I am very proud of them.”

Ellison, of Barron, Wis., attended the University of Wisconsin-River Falls before transferring to the University’s mortuary science program two years ago.

“James felt mortuary science was his calling,” said Sally Ellison, James’ mother. “He was very proud of what he did. He wanted to be a funeral director because he felt like he could help people at the worst time in their lives.”

Ellison’s family searched for the comfort Ellison hoped to provide others as they began making funeral arrangements Wednesday.

The family gathered Wednesday in Barron. Ellison is survived by his parents, Sally and Carsten; two brothers, Jordan and Greg; and a sister, Julia.

Ellison also had a serious girlfriend, with whom he had discussed marriage, said Kelley Ellison, his sister-in-law.

“It’s hard,” Sally said. “He was so ready to finish school and become part of society.”

Ellison would have graduated
in May.

Ellison lived in River Falls, Wis. while attending the University so he could stay close to the friends he made during his first two years of college.

In the small mortuary science department, students get to know each other quickly.

They passed tissues Wednesday as they listened to each other share memories about Ellison.

“He always had a really good sense of humor Ö That is really nice, especially in the funeral business,” one student said.

But they also laughed, sharing fond memories about Ellison.

“He’s the reason I passed Public Health last year,” one student said. She said Ellison went to her house the night before the exam and forced her to study, then showed up after the exam to see how it went. The woman passed the exam.

Mary Catherine Casey, Inner Life Program coordinator in the Center for Spirituality and Healing, met with mortuary science students and faculty Wednesday to discuss their grief.

“Today I would imagine people are in disbelief,” Casey said. “(Students) really won’t be able to take in the truth of this until (they) know the ‘why’ of this.”

The faculty and students plan to go to the funeral together next week to show their support for Ellison’s family, LuBrant said.

Students must also deal with the fear of a new professional risk, Casey said.

“It’s a time of great gentleness, and the gentleness has to do with giving people the room to explore the myriad of feelings (they) have,” Casey said.

The mortuary science department invites University faculty, staff and students who knew Ellison – or would like to get to know who he was – to stop by the department Thursday afternoon or Friday to express grief and share any memories they have about Ellison.

The mortuary science department is located in A275 of the Mayo Memorial Building.

“We’d like to invite the community here to our space,” LuBrant said. “Grief shared is grief diminished.”

“I think we have the opportunity to use our community to teach,” he said.

Students will create a memorial table with pictures, candles and a book for people to write things they remember about Ellison.

It could take years for friends and family members to cope with their loss, Casey said.

“He used to say, ‘When your time is up, your time is up.’ And he believed in Jesus, as we do, and that’s helping us a lot right now,” Sally Ellison said.

– Mike Wereschagin contributed to this report.