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Student story: Trained for a life in dealing with death

By Mark Feldmann

When Katie Gochanour was in elementary school, she took a test to find out what she would probably be when she grew up.

The results showed one of her classmates was going to be an animation artist. Another would be an actor. She, however, was going to be a funeral director.

“I’m not kidding, that’s exactly what it said and I was so upset,” she recalled. “I mean, who tells a 10-year-old girl they’re going to be a funeral director?”

The test proved spot-on correct. In May, Gochanour graduated from the funeral service program at Milwaukee Area Technical College (MATC) and was awarded a scholarship from a national organization.

After serving as an apprentice funeral director for almost two years at a Racine County funeral home, she is set to become a licensed funeral director at an Iowa funeral home this fall.

“I had always thought about doing this,” Gochanour said. “When I was young, my parents took me to plenty of funerals, but they never really explained what they were all about. I got interested because I wanted to find out what was going on.”

When Gochanour turned 15, her mother’s best friend died. She attended the funeral and recalled seeing the comfort and compassion provided by the people at the funeral home. “That care and consideration really helped my mom get through everything,” Gochanour said. “That’s when I decided I wanted to make that kind of difference in peoples’ lives, too.”

Changing plans

Born in Illinois, Gochanour moved to Wisconsin when she was in second grade. She graduated from Whitewater High School in 2018 and attended the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay for one year.

When the Covid-19 pandemic began, Gochanour reconsidered her plans to study radiography. She researched the funeral service industry and decided to give it a try.

MATC’s Funeral Service associate degree program is the only program of its kind in Wisconsin, noted program coordinator and instructor Gabriel Schauf.

Gochanour spent her first year finishing prerequisite courses. She started the program’s technical courses in the second year, learning embalming and restorative arts, how to safely and ethically handle and prepare human remains, and how to best meet the needs of the bereaved.

She also discovered that discussing her educational journey could be awkward. “My friends were either really interested in it or they just didn’t want to talk about it at all,” Gochanour said. “I was always pretty open about it and would educate anyone who wanted to know things.”

Living about an hour away from MATC’s West Allis Campus – where the funeral service program is based – Gochanour appreciated the hybrid classes offered by the college. “You could do your classes live from home, or if you had to, watch them taped. It was a really great option,” she said.

Gochanour also was required to begin an apprenticeship at a funeral home before starting her technical courses. She secured a position at a funeral home in Burlington.

“As an apprentice, you do a little bit of everything,” she said. “You help run services, you work behind the scenes with embalming, you make transfers when people pass, you meet with families. You are on call almost all the time. This is where you really learn the business.”

Gochanour recalled some incidents where she didn’t fit the image that individuals associated with funeral directors. “People have asked where my supervisor is. One person thought I was the teenage daughter of the director,” she said. “But it’s all about presenting yourself well, having confidence and getting people to trust you.”

Successful educational journey

In April, Gochanour was honored with a scholarship from the International Order of the Golden Rule, an association of independently owned and operated funeral homes dedicated to promoting ethical service.

Scholarships were awarded to nine students across the nation and Gochanour received a $500 Award of Excellence. Recipients were chosen based on academic performance, community involvement and an essay exemplifying their commitment to serving grieving families with compassion, fairness and dignity.

“Our instructors sent us information about it and I decided to look into it,” she explained. “It’s always nice to get money to help pay for school.”

One of MATC’s 19 funeral service associate degree Spring 2022 graduates, Gochanour also passed two required National Board Exams for funeral directors and a Wisconsin state test.

Gochanour said she is very happy she is taking this career path, although she admitted the profession can take a toll at times.

“I see victims of traumatic accidents, people my own age and it can be hard,” she said. “You need to know how to detach yourself and have emotional awareness. You need to think back about why you decided to get into this – to help people. And you need to try to do that as much as possible.”

This article was originally posted here.

Mark Feldmann

is a copywriter/storyteller at Milwaukee Area Technical College in Wisconsin.

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