May 10, 2012

Aspiring funeral director finds her calling

by Pete Rosenbery

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- April Brockett’s interest in the funeral business began while she was a high school student in McLeansboro.

Now, more than a decade later, Brockett will earn her bachelor’s degree in mortuary science and funeral service from Southern Illinois University Carbondale during commencement exercises Saturday, May 12.  She still has a one-year apprenticeship to complete to be a fully licensed funeral director in Illinois, but Brockett is excited about her future.

Brockett’s career choice came more into focus when a local company she worked at for several years as a chemist went into bankruptcy in April 2009.  That uncertain future job status prompted Brockett, who has a bachelor’s degree in biology and minor in chemistry, to once again consider what she saw as her passion.

“That was the fire I needed to go ahead and do what I was meant to do,” she said.

She enrolled in SIU Carbondale’s mortuary science and funeral service program in spring 2010, and has a 4.0 GPA.  With previous credits from her 2001degree from Southeast Missouri State University, Brockett was able to complete her coursework and 12-week internship in two years.  She will graduate from the School of Allied Health in the College of Applied Sciences and Arts at 1:30 p.m. on Saturday.

In addition to school, Brockett, who lives in Crab Orchard, works as a chemist at New Age Manufacturing, Inc., formerly Prevention Laboratories in Raleigh, where she mixes and makes mouth rinse.  She added to her already busy schedule with an internship at Harre Funeral Home in McLeansboro, where she assisted with visitations, funerals and going on calls.

Anthony Fleege, associate professor and SIU Carbondale’s program director, said Brockett simply “is one of the best students in the 12 years I’ve been here.”

“Anything less than 100 percent is a disappointment to her,” Fleege said.  “She almost makes other students around her better by not only helping them, but setting a high standard for them.”

Fleege said Brockett’s desire to be a funeral director was telling with the career change decision in 2009.

“I think she was very determined in the fact that she could have easily moved somewhere and gotten a job in her other field,” he said.  “To work at night and drive (to school) 45 minutes each way proves that she wanted this as her profession.

“Being a non-traditional student she knew that you don’t get a lot of second chances, and she took a chance on this profession and is making the most of it,” Fleege said.

Among Brockett’s honors are scholarships and awards from the Illinois Funeral Directors Association, the Egyptian Funeral Directors Association, Merz Vault Co., two Staab Funeral Home scholarships, and a National Board Examination Scholarship.  She also earned honors as a winner at the 14th annual SIU Carbondale Mortuary Science Colloquium and Poster Presentation.

The four-year mortuary science degree at SIU Carbondale is the only one offered at a public university in Illinois.

While the funeral profession remains a male-dominated occupation, Fleege does see changes over the last 10 years. Nationwide, about 55 percent of mortuary students are female; at SIU Carbondale the number is at 60 percent, he said.

Brockett noted that she has heard from other women that families often feel more at ease discussing arrangements and services with women.  She said all of the funeral directors with whom she has dealt with have great personalities and are all very caring.

Brockett said her primary goal when working with grief-stricken families is to “provide them some comfort by doing our very best.”

She is the daughter of Johnny Brockett of McLeansboro and Jeannie Robinson of Mount Vernon.

Mike Harre, owner of Harre Funeral Home in McLeansboro, said Brockett is “very down to earth.”  Brockett will do her 12-month apprenticeship at the funeral home to obtain her full license once she passes the National Board Examination and graduates.  She has to perform 24 funerals and 24 embalmings -- six per quarter -- to receive her full license, Fleege said.

“Her perspective is very laid back and you need that in funeral service,” Harre said.

Having a female perspective is also important, said Harre, who also graduated from the SIU Carbondale mortuary science program.

“She provides a different perspective, from a woman’s viewpoint, feelings and desires of services that I might not have thought about,” he said.

Brockett gives a lot of credit to her classmates and faculty for her accomplishments since returning to college.  She was high school valedictorian, played high school sports, and admits that she is competitive and wants to excel.  She concedes it was a challenge to return to school, noting that when you are younger “you don’t have the bills that you have when you’ve been living on your own for 11 years.”

“This really does feel like a family,” she said, referring to her classmates and faculty.  “That is something that is definitely different than with my first degree.  I had a lot of friends but there is a bond here between all of us.  It’s a family atmosphere.  Everybody is supportive.”

There are now 55 students in the program with 15 students projected to graduate later this week.  The program has already accepted 22 students for the 2012 fall semester, Fleege said.