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The women who take us under: Meet two Twin Cities morticians

Emily Mae Anderson

Emily Mae Anderson Susan Du

In loving memory of softer days, Emily Anderson tells of the charmed Saturday mornings of her childhood, spent watching cartoons in the basement while her father embalmed the dead. Blood drains from an arterial incision; preservative fluids are injected intravenously. (“That’s all folks!”) These were special father-daughter bonding times.

Anderson graduated from mortuary school in 2006, and now works as a third-generation mortician at her father’s funeral home in Phalen Park, St. Paul. Death is a constant procession, so she’s on call around the clock to gather the dead wherever they’re discovered, be it the bathroom tile or the garden path. She washes, embalms, and dresses. She ushers families from hearse to gravesite.

Some 20 years ago, the Anderson Funeral Home began officiating Muslim funerals, which now make up a large portion of the Scandinavian family’s business. These are by-sunset, sans-formaldehyde green burials in which the living bathe their own dead, and entire communities turn out to pay last respects. For Anderson, they’re a nice departure from the modern American trajectory of looking askance at death.

“It’s not just that we’re hands-off with death,” Anderson says. “It’s grief in general, and not wanting to deal with that.” It used to be that a death in the family would stop the clock. Now children complain about having to take time off to bury their mothers. Offered the opportunity to help dress the deceased, 95 percent of relatives decline, Anderson says. Many who are cremated don’t have funerals at all. “Our disconnect with grief is then our disconnect with empathy, and I think that’s messing us up as a society.”

Across town in Midway, mortician Sharon Purcell of the Holcom-Henry-Boom-Purcell Funeral Home perches in a stiff chair upholstered with little gold pineapples as she recalls her first foray into the field, a year-long stint in Honolulu in the early 1980s. There were Filipinos who hired professional wailers, Chinese who burned origami ingots, Samoans who lowered caskets hand over hand on ropes.

There were plenty of tourists from the mainland too—couples who’d saved their entire lives for a trip to paradise only for one person to die there, leaving the other to make arrangements to ship a body home.

Sharon Purcell

Sharon Purcell Susan Du

Nearly 40 years ago, when Purcell pivoted from nursing to mortuary school, women made up just one-fifth of her class. But now the next generation of female mortuary students at the University of Minnesota outnumber the men three to one.

The upheaval may come as a surprise to those who assume morticians always work alone in the dark. But not to anyone who views it as a caring profession like any other that’s come to be dominated by women.

“I work with living people that have lost loved ones,” Purcell explains. “You don’t just handle dead bodies. You handle people’s breaking hearts.”

In the basement of the Anderson Funeral Home is a bright room full of caskets lined with plush cushions. The cheapest option is an untreated pine box built by a Wisconsin company that promises to plant 100 trees for each casket built. The most decadent is a $4,200 Rolls Royce of a coffin with a heavy-duty “eternal seal.”

Anderson is forever trying to undersell the caskets. (“It’s like putting a nice used car in the ground.”) But she does encourage people not to skip the little rituals. Say a eulogy. Light a candle. Whatever it takes to initiate the grieving process, which is the whole objective of a proper funeral.

“And just say the things,” she reminds the living. “Say all the things to everybody while they’re here, on the daily. If you have a thought, gosh, share it.” 

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