Courtney Harris is a co-owner of the Bennett-Barz Funeral Home in Beulah and the Terwilliger Funeral Home in Kaleva. She graduated from Wayne State University's Mortuary Science program in 2007 and became dually licensed as a funeral director and embalmer that year. When she's not busy with demands of the deceased, the 29-year old runs a YouTube channel called "the Blonde Morticia," which features videos with titles like "Really Ridiculously Good Ways to Make Sure Your Next of Kin Does What You Want with Your Dead Body." Since it's Halloween season and the duties of the mortician are almost universally regarded as spooky, we decided to call Harris up and find out about what goes on behind the scenes of a funeral.
MT: So how did you get into funeral service? You started young, right?
Harris: I was 16. I had an assignment for a class where I had to "job shadow" somebody. My dad worked out of state and my mother was a homemaker, so going to work with one of my parents really wasn't an option. My mother suggested job-shadowing a funeral director. That's what I did, and he's never been able to get rid of me. I've been like a stray cat that keeps coming around.
MT: When did you start "the Blonde Morticia?"
Harris: I started that Oct. 30, 2012. I think there are a lot of facets of funeral service and also of dying and grief that a lot of people don't think about, and I think it's important to show people all of the aspects. I like the focus to be more on the families that I deal with. I didn't get into this to make people go, "Oh, wow, you deal with dead bodies. That's so crazy." I didn't get into it for the shock value. There's so much more to funeral service than dead bodies.
MT: What do you hope to accomplish with "the Blonde Morticia?"
Harris: I guess I would hope that people read my posts and watch the videos and that they'll create a dialogue with their family. I hope my posts make people realize that in talking about your funeral, it's not just about you. Your loved ones are going to grieve for you whether you want them to or not. So many people say, "Well, I don't want a funeral because I don't want people to be sad." People are going to be sad, and people are going to grieve.
And for a lot of people, seeing is believing. If they don't see the person after they died, it's hard to wrap their mind around the fact that they're gone.
MT: What do you have to do to prepare a body for viewing?
Harris: Embalming is a means to temporarily preserve the body. It involves the replacement of the blood with a preservative chemical. That chemical is injected into an artery, and as it's injected into the artery, it pushes the blood out. We don't "suck" the blood out, like some people think we do. We push the blood out.
In the state of Michigan, embalming is required if a person doesn't reach their place of final disposition within 48 hours. You are basically not going to go to a funeral home and see a body that has not been embalmed. Decomposition occurs as soon as your respiration ceases. While decomposition is natural and inevitable and will happen to all of us, embalmed or not, most people don't want that picture in their head of their loved ones not looking themselves.
Embalming is only temporary. You can only hold Mother Nature off for so long. Your body will decompose no matter what.
MT: Do you do cosmetics, too?
Harris: I use very light, natural cosmetics. Embalming fluid itself is tinted. It's not like it's clear water. The embalming fluid itself will put color back in a person's face. The natural color that occurs in your face is from the blood under your skin. If you're replacing the blood with something else, it makes sense that it would need to be something that is a similar color, or mimic the color of blood. I try to make people look like how they did. I think a lot of funeral directors get stuck on trying to make someone look younger.
MT: Have you ever had a strange requests?
Harris: Most people have pretty conventional requests. I can think of once where a gentleman died, and he wanted to be buried with his pet, and so his family had his pet euthanized and buried with him. Maybe I'm at the point in my career where nothing surprises me anymore. I've found that if someone has a truly strange request, they never preface it with "This is gonna sound weird, but ..." Usually when somebody wants something weird, they just blurt it out.
MT: That is pretty weird. What's your advice to our readers regarding their inevitable deaths?
Harris: My advice would be don't be afraid of it and don't try to fight it, because it's going to happen anyway. Talking about your death is not going to cause it. Your being born is what's going to cause your death. I do think it's important to talk about. I think the more comfortable you are with the fact that you're going to die and with the fact that everybody you know is going to die ... I think that accepting that makes it all a little easier.
MT: Were your classmates at the Mortuary Science program a lot of Gothic types?
Harris: No, there weren't any Goth-type kids. There were a number of people who it was a second career. That seemed fairly common, that people will go into a career in funeral service later in life. I say "funeral service" — a lot of people say "funeral business." I absolutely hate that term, and it's something that I never use.
MT: Why's that?
Harris: While this is my profession, and I do earn a living in doing this, that is not the focus of why I do this. I'm in this for funeral service. I don't get out of bed in the middle of the night, I don't spend time away from my family, I don't miss family functions and reschedule my life constantly because of the living I'm making. I do those things because I'm serving my community, and I'm serving people I've known my whole life. I think when your focus is service — not business — I think you will do a better job, and it will be more fulfilling for you and for your family.
Learn more about Courtney Harris at facebook.com/TheBlondeMorticia.