In high school, Barry Lease got a job washing hearses at a funeral home.
Today, as program director for the Pittsburgh Institute of Mortuary Science (PIMS), he’s guiding a new generation of death care professionals on a career path that’s often misunderstood.
“Our job is more about the living than the dead,” he says. “Like a paramedic runs to an injured person, we run to the bereaved.”
The school on Baum Boulevard in Shadyside will celebrate its 80th anniversary on Sept. 7 from noon to 6 p.m. There will be refreshments and entertainment, including a screening of the film “Getting Grace,” with an appearance by actor/director Daniel Roebuck, and even an assortment of funereal relics and anatomical oddities on display courtesy of Trundle Manor.
Lease is hoping Pittsburghers will come out, meet the staff, tour the facility and learn more about PIMS.
PIMS student Emily Anderson didn’t think she had the stomach for the business. Even the idea of giving blood made her squeamish. But a chance encounter with PIMS instructor Michael Burns (he was her Uber driver) gave her the courage to enroll last September.
“I had never seen a procedure or an embalming,” says the 28-year-old student. “In the first term, you shadow in the prep room and watch the more tenured students embalm. I was nervous I’d get a gut feeling I was in the wrong place. Instead, it was one of the most beautiful things I’d ever seen and it solidified my career choice.”
PIMS is one of 58 mortuary schools in the United States.
Most pupils enter right out of high school and spend 20 months working toward their degree. There are four programs available with classes ranging from human anatomy, microbiology and psychology to business law, ethics and communication skills. Students also intern at a funeral home for one year.
Many end up working in the field and may even open their own parlor, though a small percentage go into related fields such as organ procurement and pathology.
There are about 100 students on campus and another 150 taking online courses. The student body is 75 percent female.
Burns, a 1987 PIMS graduate, says the institute allowed him to explore multiple interests.
“Like every high school student, I didn’t have a clue what I wanted to do,” he says. “I liked science, I had an interest in business as well as psychology. Here I get to do all three every day.”
A small, unassuming building in the school’s parking lot serves as the embalming lab. Students must embalm 30 bodies before graduating, the highest standard in the industry. (At some mortuary schools, novices simply observe a licensed technician perform the procedure.)
Each year, PIMS tends to more than 500 deceased people, including unclaimed bodies from the medical examiner’s office. Families can choose to send their loved one’s remains to the institute, where embalming is done at no cost.
And as funeral practices change, so does the PIMS curriculum.
The cremation rate is growing exponentially, as are green burials — a chemical-free internment practice where everything that goes into the ground, including caskets and clothing, is biodegradable. In learning about this growing trend, PIMS attendees visit Penn Forest Natural Burial Park in Penn Hills, the first cemetery of its kind in Pennsylvania.
Dealing with death and grief can weigh on students and faculty, so they seek lighthearted moments throughout the day that help them cope.
Annie Cerutti, the school’s business office advisor and a 2012 PIMS grad, lines her desk with trinkets, including colorful sugar skulls and a funeral scene made out of Legos. She sips coffee from a mug that reads “This might be embalming fluid.”
As a final project, students must sculpt a celebrity’s head out of clay to showcase their restorative skills. On a shelf in one classroom, you’ll find the noggins of Whoopi Goldberg, Abraham Lincoln and Nicolas Cage, among other stars.
“We’re just human beings,” Burns says. “We work hard, we play hard, but we know the seriousness of the situation and we would never mix those two.”