Yearning to Help
When a close friend's brother committed suicide, Christine Brunner felt helpless. She desperately wanted to do something to help the family cope with its terrible loss. "Being there for them just wasn't enough for me," Brunner says. A couple of years later, she was flipping through employment ads and saw openings for funeral directors. "Suddenly, it hit me that I wanted to do that."
Soon she was going to school part-time at MATC. Today she has a rewarding career as a funeral director in Cedarburg, personifying the nationwide trend toward more and more women entering the profession.
Recalling her life a few years ago, Brunner says she felt unfulfilled in her job in human resources at a nonprofit organization. Her career interest tests had always suggested that she should be a minister, a counselor or a teacher. "Funeral service fits all those interests," she says she realized. "Getting people started in dealing with their grief and understanding religious traditions are big parts of it."
West Allis Campus Convenient
Brunner was lucky to live near MATC's West Allis Campus, which offers the only funeral service program in the state. "We are so fortunate to have this program here," she says. "The next nearest options were in Illinois and Minnesota. If we hadn't had this program at MATC, I wouldn't have been able to study funeral service at all. Going out of state would have been impossible for me."
Christine Brunner found her "true calling" by training for funeral service at MATC's West Allis Campus.
Brunner was able to take several required general education courses at MATC part-time while keeping her full-time job. "The flexibility of scheduling was absolutely phenomenal," she says. "There was no overlap between work and school. It was very important to me to be able to keep the two separate."
Before they can begin studying mortuary sciences, program students need 60 general education credits. These can be earned at any accredited college, whichever one is most convenient. That arrangement helps people successfully juggle the demands of school, work and family, says instructor James Augustine.
"We are so fortunate to have this program here. The next nearest options were in Illinois and Minnesota.
If we hadn't had this program at MATC, I wouldn't have been able to study funeral service at all."
A great deal of work gets packed into the year of study devoted entirely to funeral service. "It was the most intense thing I've ever done in my life," Brunner says. "Pulling all-nighters in your late 30s is a lot harder than doing it when you're younger," she adds with a laugh.
When she started the program, Brunner wasn't sure she would be able to handle embalming, but she persevered and excelled. "Christine came here eager to learn all she could relating to the responsibilities of a funeral director," says John Pludeman, instructor and chairperson of Funeral Services. "She excelled in the classroom, demonstrating a genuine caring attitude toward the families she serves. Since becoming a funeral director, Christine has proven herself as a reliable, trustworthy professional in her community."
Brunner did so well that she and classmate Christina Camacho were co-salutatorians of the August 2006 class, tying for both the Jim and Ruthann Augustine Award and the Edison Family Award honoring the female student with the highest grade-point average. They are part of a new national trend toward more women entering the profession. Reflecting that, the 2008-09 class was nearly 75 percent female – a huge change from 20 years ago.
Brunner is a licensed funeral director at Mueller Funeral Home, which has facilities in Cedarburg and Grafton.
Joined Cedarburg Funeral Home
Funeral service graduates spend a year working as apprentices at funeral homes and must take both the State of Wisconsin licensing exam and a national board exam. Brunner landed an apprenticeship with Mueller Funeral Home, a small, family-owned business with facilities in Cedarburg and Grafton.
After she finished her apprenticeship and passed both the state and national tests, the Mueller family offered her a permanent job as a funeral director in May 2007. She and her husband live in West Bend, only a 30-minute commute to the Cedarburg location – perfect for Brunner, as funeral directors are frequently on call to meet with bereaved families day or night.
Brunner dispels the notion that funeral directors and funeral homes make a lot of money from their clients. "We don't work on commission. We work on straight salary. I'm making less money than I did in my human resources job. But the satisfaction I get from the job is worth everything. I just absolutely love what I do. This is such a rewarding job."
She acknowledges that the work isn't easy. "The most challenging situation for me was probably when the first suicide came through our funeral home not long after I started. It's heart wrenching. And it's very hard when people around your own age die. It makes you face your own mortality." But it's all worthwhile to help people at a time when they need it most, Brunner says. "That's why I got into it in the first place."
For more information on the Funeral Service associate degree program, see: