REDFIELD — When there were deaths in her family, Gabby Gruenwald was always impressed with how the staff at then-Thelen Funeral Home not only arranged services, but helped the family through grief.
Now, Gruenwald, 23, is an intern at that same Redfield funeral home — although it has a new name, Hyke Funeral Home.
She's wanted to be a funeral director since she was a teenager.
"I like to take care of people," Gruenwald said. "Some of the harder parts (are) working with them through their grief, but more than grief, you see a lot of love. ... You see the ways that people express their love for the person in their life that died."
Gruenwald graduated from Northern State University in spring with a degree in psychology and minors in business and gerontology, the study of human aging. For mortuary science, she's taking online classes with Des Moines Area Community College of Iowa while getting hands-on experience at Hyke.
"It's really cool that I get to be in the community that I grew up in" she said. "It's actually a privilege to be back and offer this sort of service to the families that did so much for me growing up."
Gruenwald graduated from Redfield High School in 2013. She used to work baking at C.J.'s Patisserie in Aberdeen.
She started working at Hyke in September and started school in October, Gruenwald said. Originally she was on an accelerated course plan, but she let up a little bit trying to juggle work and school. Her graduation date moved from this August to October.
"I am a licensed trainee through the state of South Dakota, so I'm doing my year apprenticeship while I'm going to school," she said. "Some states, you can't do it at the same time."
Her coursework sometimes coincides with her duties, and Kelly and Bonnie Hyke, owners of the funeral home, are always around to help with questions, Gruenwald said.
"I do my embalming reports with (Kelly Hyke), we do mock arrangements, mock first calls," Gruenwald said.
A first call is when a death is first reported to a funeral home, she said.
"They have to ask all of the questions: Who was the nurse? Who was the doctor? Which room was the person in? Is there next of kin? What is their telephone number?," said Hyke. "A lot of that stuff we know, so we don't ask that."
While Gruenwald's courses are online, her exams are proctored at Northern, so she'll occasionally make the trek to Aberdeen. Sometime next summer, she'll head to Iowa and do an embalming for her instructors.
The biggest challenge in balancing school and work is the unpredictability of the industry. The funeral business has no set hours; while everyone eventually dies, not many people know exactly when that will be.
"I tend to want to procrastinate on homework," Gruenwald said. "I love the hands-on stuff. So to me, I'd rather be at working doing my internship than at home doing my school stuff, but I realize it's just as important."
She assists with embalming and the other scientific parts of the job, but that's only a small portion of a funeral director's duties.
"What drives people out of the career isn't working with the dead bodies, it's mostly burnout from the odd hours and the emotional wear and tear," Gruenwald said.
Funeral home directors and morticians have no idea what their schedule will be like, Kelly Hyke said.
"Last year we went — the longest was six weeks with no call," Hyke said. "Also last year, we had 13 calls in 15 days. You never know where you're going to be at in that cycle."
Heading into mortuary school, Gruenwald had a pretty good idea what to expect, so there haven't been many surprises, she said.
"Some of the things I didn't know would just be some of the things that we do in the embalming room," Gruenwald said.
To prepare for a funeral, about three hours are spent in the embalming room, including applying makeup. But more of the time is spent arranging the event, Gruenwald said.
"We do everything from emptying the garbage to mopping the floors to cleaning the toilets," Kelly Hyke said of funeral director duties at a small funeral home. "On average, for one funeral, a funeral director will talk to about 56 different people to plan that one funeral."
Once she's done with school in fall, Gruenwald said she'll start working for the Hykes full time. Down the road, would like to own her own funeral home.
Gruenwald is part of a growing number of women who are studying mortuary science. It was a field once dominated by men, though women have a history of preparing bodies for burial, she said.
Sixty percent of new mortuary science students are women, according to the National Funeral Directors Association.