Warren native returns to follow a new career path

Times Observer photo by Stacey Gross Mike Lewis and intern Amy Punsky

Amy Punsky’s new job is, in her own words, “weird but good.”

You might even say it’s quite an undertaking.

The Warren native had been an Erie, Pa., resident for many years when her younger sister passed away. That, she said, was the catalyst that got her thinking it may be time to turn an interest into a new career path.

“I had my master’s in counseling,” said Punsky, taking a moment in the parlor of Lewis Funeral Home on Tuesday morning, to discuss how she came to the decision, at 36, to “drop everything and go back to school.”

“I’d always been interested in mortuary science,” said Punsky, and having settled into her first career, she was finding it lacking in certain ways. Counseling was okay, she said, but it didn’t leave her feeling entirely fulfilled at the end of the day. Local funeral director Mike Lewis handled her sister’s arrangements, and “the whole experience made me want to look into it more.”

“I called Mike and I asked him if I could pick his brain,” said Punsky.

Lewis, it turned out, was amenable to the idea. In short order, she found herself shadowing him as he went through the duties that come with being the one to prepare the dead for burial or cremation, and more importantly, to usher those left behind into the process of grieving their loss.

Specifically, Punsky was uncertain that she could actually handle the embalming process. Interesting as she found it, she said, she wasn’t sure it was something the could actually handle in any other than a theoretical sense.

It turns out, said Punsky, that she could handle not just embalming, but everything that goes into running a funeral home.

“I told Mike I thought I might like to go to school for this. And he told me he thought I should.”

Punsky entered the one-year program at Pittsburgh Institute of Mortuary Science with the full support of her mentor.

The program is an intense one. Set up in three trimesters, the program packs a whopping 60 credits into a mere 12 months. By comparison, only the most ambitious students pursuing degrees at traditional four-year universities can take on, at most, 36 credits in a single academic year.

The program focuses on four areas of instruction. Public health and technical instruction is all about anatomy, embalming, environmental health, microbiology, pathology, and restorative art.

Business management prepares students to deal with all the practical aspects of making money as a funeral director, and successfully running a funeral home, including instruction in bookkeeping, human resources, economics, risk management, and marketing.

The social sciences aspect of the field is presented in instruction on everything from soft skills like interpersonal communication to psychology, death as it relates to children, and writing. Legal, ethical, and regulatory considerations are explored in classes geared toward business law, ethics, funeral service law, and regulatory compliance.

In addition to classroom instruction, said Punsky, students rotated clinical embalming experiences and restorative arts labs. Most of the hands-on work Punsky and her cohort got was from the office of the Allegheny County medical examiner, or families looking for a less costly way to properly handle their loved ones’ bodies after death.

Punsky’s favorite part of the program was the final project for her restorative arts lab. Each student, she said, was given a plastic head and mortuary putty and instructed to use the skills they’d learned in class to create a face.

“That was pretty cool,” said Punsky, explaining that what she loves most about her new field is her ability to provide relief to families whose loved ones would otherwise be viewed by those attending the funeral with the vestiges of illness or physical trauma apparent on their faces and bodies.

Punsky’s own sister, she said, was embalmed in North Carolina before being returned to Warren for the funeral and burial, and seeing her looking not quite like herself due to the imperfection of the process was something Punsky wanted to prevent other families from experiencing.

“I love that I get to help the family remember (their love done) as they were, rather than as they looked when they were suffering” with illness or the aftermath of a fatal accident. Seeing their loved one looking peaceful, and as much like themselves as possible, Punsky explained, “sets them on the path to begin to grieve,” and creates the conditions necessary for a healthy grieving process to begin.

Traditional funerals, Punsky said, are a part of that process. Viewing the bodies of loved ones after death not only provides those left behind a form of closure, but the social aspect of viewings and funeral services “brings people together.”

A family doesn’t grieve alone, when traditional funeral rites are observed. Rather, the entire community – everyone who knew the deceased – has an opportunity to reach out and make a connection with the loved ones left behind.

So what does the typical day of a funeral director look like?

There are no typical days, Punsky said.

“You could work anywhere from a regular eight hour day to 13, 14, 15 hours. It all just depends.”

When a call comes in that someone has passed away, she said, the removal cot is prepared and a space is made available in the embalming room to process the body upon arrival. The funeral home retrieves the body of the deceased and delivers it to the home, where the process then involves either preparing and embalming or cremating it.

In the case of embalming, said Punsky, comsetizing, dressing, and casketing are all a part of the process, which can take anywhere from two to three hours give or take.

“It all just depends on the body, and on what the family wants,” she explained, adding that while she’s only had about four weeks as an intern in the field here in Warren, at school she heard lots of stories about many…unique…requests that families – or even the deceased themselves, in the case of pre-arranged funerals – have made.

All in all, Punsky said, the choice to move from counseling to funeral directing has been a good one for her. While her background in counseling set her up with plenty of experience in helping those at vulnerable, often unhappy points in their lives, she now enjoys the relative luxury of knowing just what needs to be done, and how to help a family in need of her services.

While counseling can feel terminally open-ended, said Punsky, providing funeral services offers her the ability to see relief on the face of her clients, and to indulge in real connections with the members of her own community, rather than adhering to the distance that counseling demands.

“It’s hands on. It’s concrete. You know what you need to do to get that family where they need to be, said Punsky, adding that in larger cities or in big firms or corporate funeral providers it can be sort of anonymous.

“You don’t know who you’re working on and you never know that what you’re doing really helps,” said Punsky.

By contrast, working in a small town – her hometown no less – offers her “the feel of community.” Also, she said, “it’s comforting to be home.” Punsky’s mother and father both live in Warren, so the return is not just to a familiar place but to family as well.

“There’s something about knowing who these families are and knowing that you’re helping that adds to it.”

As for Lewis, he’s pleased that Punsky reached out to him in the beginning, and he’s more pleased that he’s been able to see her through the entire process.

“She’s an asset to the funeral home,” said Lewis of his newest intern, of which he’s only had three in the past 20 years.

Amy Punsky graduated from the Pittsburgh Institute of Mortuary Science magna cum laude. She is a member of Mu Sigma Alpha, the honorary society established by the National Association of Colleges of Mortuary Science, which gives recognition to those students who have displayed outstanding merit in scholarship and who have conducted themselves as good citizens of the schools they attend.

A maximum of only 10 percent of the graduating class is eligible for this membership. Punsky was also the recipient of the school’s Memorial Award, which is presented to the student who, through qualities of leadership, professional conduct, and good citizenship, best typifies the ideals of the student body.