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Undertaking a change

By Staff | Mar 2, 2009

Winnebago funeral director Gary Owen, left, will be retiring soon, and Sara Van Waus will assume the director duties in April.

Sara Van Waus, a recent mortuary science graduate, will assume the manager position at Winnebago’s Spencer-Owen Funeral Home in April.

She’s part of a trend in which more women are entering the traditionally male-dominated funeral-services business. In fact, 68 percent of her classmates were women.

Statistics reported last year at the funeral directors state convention confirm the fact more women than ever are entering the profession. Nationwide, in 1970, about 95 percent of undertakers were men. By 2007 this figure dropped to 43 percent and men currently comprise only about 25 percent of graduates entering the field.

The profession hasn’t changed much over the years, so it is somewhat of a mystery as to why so many women are entering the profession.

With her arrival in January, Van Waus joins the ranks of other women funeral directors already serving the people of southern Minnesota. Gayla Satre and Susan Nasinec of Mankato and Wells respectively, are two who are recognized in the area.Van Waus will assume the duties previously performed by Gary Owen, the current manager, when he retires in April.

Gary Owen

After providing almost 39 years of service to the people of Winnebago, Huntley, Delavan, Amboy and Vernon Center, Owen is retiring. He hopes to do some traveling, something he and his wife have neglected to do over the years. Owen confesses he also would like to do a little more golfing and fishing, as well as travel around the country to visit his old Marine buddies.

“I started here in June 1970,” reminisces Owen. “My father-in-law, Victor Spencer, was the previous funeral director.”

“I was born in the old Winnebago Hospital and graduated from Winnebago High School,” says Owen.

Other than the years spent at Normandale Junior College and the University of Minnesota, plus his stint as a hospital corpsman in Vietnam, the former Marine has spent his entire lifetime in Winnebago.

“It was a natural development for me to go into the mortuary science field,” says Owen. “The course work to be a military corpsman helped prepare me. My father-in-law was another big factor. He wanted me to return to Winnebago and work with him.”

After graduating from the school of mortuary science at the University of Minnesota, Owen went to work at the Spencer-Armstrong Funeral Home located on Cleveland Ave. He worked at this site until January 1996, when a new mortuary was constructed near Highway 109. The change from Cleveland Ave. was due to the fact there was no room for expansion. The past decade Owen has appreciated being in a one-floor building.

“The Spencer-Owen business was sold to the Vertin family of Breckenridge in 1984. Since then, I have been the manager, not the owner,” explains Owen.

In addition to seeing more women entering the field, Owen cites other changes which have occurred during his tenure.

“Probably the biggest change is the increase in cremations,” says Owen. “There are so many variables families can consider with cremations. Personalization is the key.”

This is also true during the selection of a casket. Some of today’s caskets come with memory drawers, a choice of back embroidered panels and casket corners.

Other changes he notes are the increase of memory candle usage and on-line obituaries where photos are included.

“Currently we are in the process of getting a Website up and running,” says Owen. “With traveling, our mobile society and the economy, Web tributes are great.”

Owen is also seeing more services being held in the funeral home with visitations getting larger.

“When I first got in the business, I took the casket to the person’s home where the visitation would take place. Viewing would often take place from 2-9 pm in those days. Now, visitation is from 4-8 pm to accommodate the working public.”

He says photo boards are also gaining in popularity, as they are an aid to conversation when people are grieving.

Owen says he has had some rather strange requests from families, particularly when they wish to place items in the casket. Sometimes they just want to have the hearse or coach drive by the deceased person’s home.

Job duties have also changed for an undertaker. Computers now enable the funeral director to email obituaries all over as well as adding more personalization to the services they provide.

The increase in paperwork is another very noticeable change. The State mandates annual reporting of pre-need trust funds on a VRV system, filing on-line of death certificates, burial permits and license renewal, OSHA requirements, cremation authorization and contacting the coroner regarding all cremations.

“I didn’t even need continuing education units (CEUs) when I first started,” says Owen. Now he must earn 12 CEUs every two years to remain licensed.

“The OSHA training is mandatory every year too,” he says.

Being a caring and compassionate person are the basic personality characteristics an undertaker should possess. They also should be the type of person who can give options to the grieving family and good guidance.

“Some families have no idea what their loved one would like when it comes time for the funeral arrangements to be made,” says Owen. In these instances, he tries to give them some direction.

“You really have to be honest with people,” says Owen. “You have to be ready to give them options when disasters occur.”

On average, Owen says he has about 55 funerals per year, but one year he had 81. A declining population in the area will no doubt impact these numbers more in the future.

He also says December is generally a busy month. Statistics support him since the holidays generally are more stressful or depressing, resulting in more deaths.

Being an undertaker is a very emotional, serious and stressful occupation says Owen. One deals with a lot of stress and different work hours. This is particularly true in smaller communities.

“The families I deal with here, I’ll see on the street, in the post office or in the grocery store tomorrow. Hopefully, they feel good about the job we did for them,” says Owen.

“I have had some really unique services over the years,” says Owen. “I have had antique tractors and fire trucks lead the procession, as well as driven the coach or hearse by the deceased person’s home in order to accommodate the wishes of the families,” says Owen.

As his retirement date nears, Gary Owen confesses he definitely will miss the people, but chuckles when asked if he will miss the job.

Sara Van Waus

Having recently graduated from the University of Minnesota and learning she had passed her State and National Boards, Sara Van Waus arrived in the area on Jan.1.

Originally from Worthington, Van Waus says she is looking forward to working here and getting to know the people.

“The Cities were not for me,” she says. “I like being part of the community.”

A 2005 Worthington High School graduate, Van Waus then attended Minnesota West Community and Technical College for two years before transferring to the University of Minnesota to pursue a degree in Mortuary Science.

“I was interested in psychology and anatomy when I first entered college. Mortuary Science involves both,” she says. “In the first year I knew the direction I wanted to take. It helped having a sister already in this field, because I was able to see what the job really involved and she gave me a lot of advice. I also worked at a funeral home while in school, so that also helped me.”

Presently, Van Waus is trying to get as much experience as possible before Gary Owen leaves. He is helping her to become familiar with all the area ministers she will be working with in addition to the locations of the many area cemeteries where interments are held.

Eager to learn, she also has been ‘job shadowing’ Bob Kennedy at the Patton Funeral Home and Cremation Service in Blue Earth.

“I’m lucky to do my internship and work with both Gary and Bob,” says Van Waus, who currently is getting double duty while working at both of the area funeral homes.

Although she did perform clinical rotations while at the University, she has also been involved in a nine to ten month internship which requires her to do 25 embalmings and make 25 funeral service arrangements.

Van Waus says, “schooling does not teach us to be good funeral directors. That quality one must learn on the job. I know a person has to be flexible and adapt to the situations as they arise.”

She agrees with Owen when describing personality traits needed for the job – being caring, genuine and possessing a sense of humor.

Although she brings new thoughts and and new ideas to the job at Spencer-Owen Funeral Home, Van Waus says the families always come first. She will give them some new options, but basically it goes back to what the family wants.

“Service is the key,” she says.

For now, everyday is new and each experience and family is different for the recent graduate.

“This is a rewarding job,” she says. “I like working with families and making the experience as easy as possible for them.”

As for Gary Owen, after nearly 39 years in the business, he says ” if you’ve done a good job and get a ‘thank you’ that’s all it takes.”

Having lived and worked in the same area most of his life, Owen adds he has developed deep connections with many people and families over the years, so each funeral becomes a little more personal.

Even though the profession hasn’t changed much, there remains the question “why are more women becoming undertakers?”

Some believe making a personal connection is what accounts for the growing number of women finding success in the industry. Others says it represents a fundamental shift in what people expect today from a funeral director. Where once the industry required only a somber face, black suit and knowledge of modern embalming techniques, today people expect a more sympathetic figure when they walk in the door of a funeral home.

“I have no qualms about the gals doing the job,” says the retiring Owen.

Sara Van Waus hopes to meet these expectations and ‘lay to rest the undertaker image’ as she meets with families in the months and hopefully years ahead at Spencer-Owen Funeral Home in Winnebago.