PIMS program proves to be a worthy career

Alum, current students share passion for funeral services

Written By Megan McKenzie, For The Globe

15 years ago, Kevin Drobish, 47, found himself and his family faced with the daunting responsibility of making funeral preparations after the loss of his maternal grandfather.

“We were offered very terrible funeral service,” Drobish recalled. “We wanted something that was a little bit outside of what they were offering, and there was a lot of resistance.”

But Drobish’s unpleasant experience didn’t end there. “It progressed all the way through the embalming procedure, and the cosmetics were not very good,” Drobish said.

However, from that frustration and loss came Drobish’s inspiration. He was going to pursue the career of a funeral director. He made this decision within a month of the loss of his grandfather and began his schooling three years later.

Funeral directors possess a job that comes with a multitude of responsibilities ranging from filing death certificates to preparing the deceased for burial. The most prominent of these is their unique position to work with both the dead and the living.

“We serve the living by caring for the dead,” Patrick Lanigan said, 68, funeral director and owner of the Patrick T. Lanigan Funeral Home located in East Pittsburgh. “The care has shifted to us of the person that died, and we care for the folks that are living by meeting with them and arranging a funeral that will meet their needs.”

The responsibilities of a funeral director were emphasized to Drobish after his experience with poor service. Originally a Pittsburgh native, he lived in Colorado when he began his search for mortuary schools to attend. The Pittsburgh Institute of Mortuary Science (PIMS) caught his eye for a few different reasons. Their program is one of the three oldest in the country and “has a really good reputation.” When it came down to a choice between Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, Drobish chose to return to his hometown. “I had a stable family here and it was easy for me to transition back here.”

Drobish, now an administrative coordinator and faculty member at PIMS 12 years later, teaches students who share the same passion that is important among funeral directors; caring for others.

“One of the first questions we ask prospective students when they come to our admissions is ‘why do you want to be here?’, and the answer we like to hear is ‘to take care of people,’” Drobish described.

Funeral directors often possess this trait along with open-mindedness and willingness to learn all aspects of death. “A lot of cultures celebrate or look at death very differently, so you can’t have a very narrow-minded attitude towards how people do this thing.”

“It just has to be somebody that wants to be a helpful individual and somebody that wishes to make interpersonal relationships with family members,” Lanigan said, sharing the same sentiments.

He described death as a “very personal time” that families go through, and funeral directors often become a safe haven for the bereaved. “The responsibility that exists 100 percent of the time is working with the persons, the survivors, the living.”

Brighid Shanahan, 18, a funeral services major at Point Park, gained her interested in funeral service after she experienced a series of losses.

“When I was in seventh grade, my grandfather passed away,” Shanahan said. “I was freaked out. It was the weirdest thing I’ve ever experienced.”

In the years following, Shanahan lost another grandfather and her grandmother, with whom she was very close. Though she had previous plans to be a school teacher, her interests began to shift. She contacted several funeral homes with requests to shadow to understand more about the job and had little luck until she spoke with the funeral director who handled her grandparents’ funerals.

“He was the reason I wanted to be a funeral director,” Shanahan recalled. From this experience, Shanahan was sure about her future as a funeral director.

She began looking for schools to attend that offered a four-year degree and found only four that suited her. After gaining acceptance to three programs, she visited two of them. Point Park’s joint funeral service program with PIMS caught her attention. When she visited Point Park, she fell in love.

“I love their program, how they have it set up, and their staff,” Shanahan said. “I couldn’t have made a better decision.”

PIMS accepts students both fresh from high school and those with varying levels of college degrees. “We try to get students ready not just for service but for the general workplace as well,” Drobish said of the PIMS program.

In the state of Pennsylvania, students are required to have an associate’s degree and complete a one-year mortuary degree program. Once a student’s educational requirements are complete, they participate in a paid internship. After this, students take three exams: one from the school they attended, the national board exam and the individual state exam. Once they’ve taken these steps, students can officially receive their funeral director’s license and can begin their practice.

Another way funeral directors work with the living is by helping them make their own funeral arrangements. Both Drobish and Lanigan encourage others to make arrangements in advance.

“It can cause a tremendous headache and a larger amount of stress on top of the death already that’s occurred when people have to deal with these things,” Drobish said. “I recommend everybody just talk to somebody you know and make sure that there’s somebody that can carry through your wishes for you.”

Lanigan warns, however, against what he referred to as “dictating from the grave.” When an individual begins planning their own funerals, they should consider the needs of their surviving family.

“I think they need to allow the family members leeway to be able to have things that will be beneficial to them,” Lanigan said. “Family members or friends may need to be able to gather together to support one another, to express their sorrow, and help themselves on this grief journey which leads to them transcending to a new life without that person that died.”

But while funeral directors strive to guide and care for both the living and the dead, they must also learn to care for themselves despite the common mentality that they’re “supposed to be tough” for everyone else.

“It can get kind of lonely sometimes,” Drobish admitted, speaking from his own experience.

For the first eight years of his job, he was on call at every hour and every day, missing every holiday with his family.

“If you don’t have a good support system around you, sometimes you can fail at your job,” Drobish said. “So that’s one thing I stress to my students, make sure that you’re taking care of yourself ultimately, otherwise you can’t take care of anybody else.”