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  • Shawntel Newton

Unexpected Career

I am going to take a wild guess and assume Funeral Service is not in the category of childhood dream jobs. It definitely was not for me at least. Ironically, I grew up with a dad who was an owner of a funeral home and his life’s work was centered around death, dying, grief and funerals. Sounds depressing, right? Well on the contrary and let me explain…


First off, you’re probably wondering how does one get into funeral service? Most funeral directors are generational, although our family was not. While in high school, my dad had an interest in the medical field and was working part-time for an ambulance company that operated out of a funeral home. That may sound strange but back in the ‘60s it was not uncommon for a funeral home to run an ambulance service. During this time, my dad witnessed the various aspects of the funeral profession, and it was there that his interest in funeral service began. It wasn’t too many years later that he entered the San Francisco College of Mortuary Science and also worked for the S.F. Coroner’s Office. Later, having graduated from the college and receiving the required licenses, he then moved back to Chico and worked for a local funeral home. After years of working for someone, he decided to buy a funeral home with a business partner and they would start their own. Thus, Newton-Bracewell Chico Funeral Home began. I was six years old when they started.


Being new owners, my dad and his business partner had to do most of the work. They both shared being on call in the middle of the night and working weekends. Needless to say they were busy! Occasionally, my mother along with my two younger sisters and I would go down to the funeral home and visit with dad. While there, we would see him in the preparation room, meet with grieving families and sometimes watch him get a casketed body ready for viewing. When dad would come home, it seemed like he was always on call. I remember hearing our garage door open sometimes at two in the morning. It was comforting when I would hear it for the second time, knowing dad was back home.


Death and dying was very normal for our family to talk about, but to others it was not. It was a quiet conversation. If we ever had a pet that died we would have a little goodbye ceremony for our beloved pet. There was no hiding it! We talked about how we were feeling and we would bury the pet in our backyard. Truthfully, I would come to discover, this is the best way to handle death, even with kids. We talk about it; we should not hide it.


Have you ever watched the movie, My Girl, starring Dan Aykroyd and Anna Chlumsky? If you haven't, I would highly recommend it. It’s a movie about a young girl who grew up without a mother and her father operates a funeral service where they also live. She deals with other kids thinking she is a little weird and faces a lot of grief. This is most evident when her best friend dies. People would compare my life somewhat to this movie. There are a lot of similarities; however there are a lot of differences too. For one, we did not live at the funeral home. We were there a lot but I did not sleep next to a room full of caskets. We actually lived a very normal life; a great life, a life where we openly talked about death and dying. The movie gives a good overall picture of how important it is to talk about our grief.


During my high school years I started to wonder what I wanted to do, where I wanted to go to college. I knew I wanted to get married and have a big family eventually. But I knew I wanted to get my degree and have a profession first. I had a lot of interests. I loved people; I loved helping people. I decided to go to a private university for my first year of college to lay a good foundation for myself. I grew up in public school but we grew up in a Christian home, so I thought a private Christian university would be good. I ended up getting accepted into Simpson University in Redding, California. I packed my bags after my senior year of high school and I moved into the dorms with three other girls. My parents came along to help me unpack and get me situated. Like most first year college students, I secretly cried in the bathroom when they left. Thankfully I was only an hour away from home, but I was in a new place, with no friends and felt very vulnerable.


The first semester went pretty well. I made some friends and did pretty well in my classes. Well, all my classes except my Old Testament class. Out of all the classes I never thought I would have an issue in my Bible class. Ha! Well, let’s just say the Old Testament is not as easy as you may think. Thankfully my professor was very gracious and gave me a little extra tutoring and I finished well. I passed at least! During my second trimester I took a psychology class and we had to take a personality test. This test was designed to help students figure out what they most likely would be good at doing, job wise. I was curious. I was still unsure at the time what I wanted to do so I thought this would be a help. There were hundreds of questions and I remember it taking a long time to complete. Once I finished I saw a popup and the first recommended job was FUNERAL SERVICE. I immediately laughed and thought no way is this valid. Under funeral service was grief counselor. I was sure my dad rigged the test. I knew I needed to call my parents to share the funny news with them. Once I talked to them I could tell my dad was excited. He was thinking I could take over the business one day and continue the Newton name. But I wasn’t too excited just yet. I was in shock and didn’t really know what this meant.


After my second trimester at Simpson I decided to come back to Chico. I ended up working part time for my dad again; this time with more of an open mind. I’ll never forget my dad asking me if I wanted to go on a “call” with him. I knew that meant going to the hospital or someone’s home where they died and transfer them back to the funeral home. I decided to go and we went to a home where we met a widow and she was sharing with my dad that her husband took his last breath and she was ready to make arrangements for him. I stood there listening to her talk to my dad and sharing her grief. After they set up a time to meet later in the day my dad explained to her what we were about to do. We brought in a gurney, like what you’d see with an ambulance and he informed her that we were going to gently place her husband’s body on the gurney and we’d transfer him back to the funeral home. We did just that and once we got back to the funeral home I was curious about what happens next. My dad told me that the deceased gentleman had made his arrangements years prior and wanted to be embalmed. I wasn’t too familiar with embalming but at this point, I was now very curious.


After a few months of shadowing my dad on more calls, to being in the preparation room, I wanted to look into mortuary college. There was more to funeral service than I thought. There was a balance of the preparation room where a licensed embalmer would prepare the body for viewing, and then there was meeting with the bereaved family. The closest mortuary science program was in the Sacramento area, so thankfully it wasn’t too far. I enrolled in the American River College Mortuary Science Program in 2007 and moved to Sacramento to go to school full time.


There I spent a little over two years in the mortuary science program. The program prepares you to take your boards and to become a fully licensed funeral director and embalmer. Mortuary school was interesting to me and I really enjoyed it. I enjoyed the science to it, as well as the grief aspect. It seemed to be a good balance. My last semester I moved back to Chico since we needed to put in so many hours of work for my apprenticeship at the funeral home and the commute wasn’t too bad. I ended up graduating in 2009, passing my boards and became fully licensed in the same year. It was a huge accomplishment and my family was very proud of me.


After graduating and taking my boards I continued to work full time for my dad and was able to serve hundreds of families during one of the hardest times of their life. I was able to prepare their loved one for viewing and provide a meaningful funeral service. I know it’s not a common profession, but it’s one that is needed. It is an unexpected career!


Here is a passage from my book titled, The Final Rose, where I go into detail about working in the funeral industry. This book is available online for purchase on my products page.

One of the first military services I worked in Chico was also the first time I drove a hearse to the cemetery. I piloted the wheel of a large boat-like limo with mixed feelings navigating between drivers and pedestrians delivering precious cargo. I stopped, got out, stepped to the side with my Dad, then shadowed him. A group of four military representatives at the cemetery folded and presented the American flag. About a hundred guests attended. Handsome gentlemen in uniform lined up shoulder to shoulder with their rifles alongside. Unexpectedly, the men fired their rifles which sounded like an explosion! I ducked for cover. I didn't know they would actually go off. I made quite the scene. People asked if I was okay but I acted like nothing happened. I thought, if I start talking I will most likely cry from embarrassment. My Dad quietly laughed at me. That day I not only learned when there are military honors rifles will be loud and never wear heels in a cemetery--wedges work much better.


Here is a photo of me in the prepartion room shadowing my father.

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©2019 by Shawntel Newton