On Christmas eve E. Ross Peppler was at home relaxing, wrapping gifts, when the sound of the phone cut through the holiday cheer. The Burlington County Medical Examiner Office was calling to tell Peppler that they had a body for him to pick up; a young boy had been involved in a car accident and had passed away earlier that night.
Peppler headed out into the chill night air and took the family’s Ford Flex to the hospital where the body was being held.
“We drive the Flex because we don’t always pick up bodies from hospitals. Depending on the scenario, we sometimes have to go right to the house of the deceased. Nobody wants to see a hearse in their driveway.” said Peppler.
Peppler brought the child back to the funeral home and spent Christmas even embalming and applying necessary cosmetics in preparation for ceremonies that would be held just after Christmas.
“During a time where everything is supposed to be happy, everything is supposed to be joyous, this occurs and it really just brings you down. There’s no time when things can just be OK, at any point and at any time something can go wrong.” Peppler says.
Peppler is a fifth generation Funeral Director at Peppler Funeral Home in Bordentown, NJ, and a graduate of Mercer’s Applied Mortuary Science program. While Peppler grew up in a funeral home, he still attributes much of the success he has in his profession to the education he received at Mercer. He graduated in the Spring of 2011 and has been helping run his family business since.
Professor Robert C. Smith III told Peppler’s class that, “this is a profession of many hats.” and Peppler says he has found this to be correct. Funeral Directors tasks include, but are not limited to embalming bodies (the process of replacing human blood with embalming fluid, which prevents the body from decaying quickly), carrying out viewings and funeral ceremonies, arranging burials and cremations, as well as ensuring that the family of the deceased is provided emotional support through the entire funeral process.
“I’d say 90 percent of what you need to know to do this job is what’s taught at Mercer, the only stuff that you pick up just from working at a funeral home is how to deal with certain aspects of the business. Knowing the business from a legal and educational standpoint is something that you have to go to school for.” Peppler said.
Being a funeral director requires not only the knowledge of hard science, but also involves a significant amount of psychological and emotional preparedness.
“A lot of people think that you’re just dealing with the deceased, which obviously you are, but you’re more so dealing with the families.” Peppler said, “You need to be kind of a rock, not to be totally devoid of emotion, but to be a step beyond that and to show empathy. You can’t sympathize, you have to empathize. You have to understand where they’re coming from and have everything set up so the family doesn’t have to worry about anything.”
Even for someone who grew up in a funeral home, it can still be a challenge to keep emotions in check at all times.
Peppler says it’s hard “when people pass away who are my age or younger. You’re never supposed to bury a young kid, but when someone who’s like eight years old passes away –from say, leukemia, that they’ve had since they were born– it’s like, holy shit, they’re eight years old. That’s not supposed to happen.”
Peppler says he copes with the strain by removing himself from the situation.
“It doesn’t have to be literally, although it can, but you have to remember that it’s a job. It’s something that you do. It’s also definitely a lifestyle, but you just have to try to be in a good place where you can try and space yourself from the emotion, but without getting too disconnected.” he said.
The Mercer Mortuary Science program pamphlet says that it instructs students in the “business management; public health; the social, behavioral, and natural sciences; as well as the legal, technical, and regulatory aspects of funeral service.”
After students complete their program, they must sit for The American Board of Funeral Service Education National Board Exam, which is known for being extremely rigorous. Passing the exam makes students eligible for graduation from Mercer’s program. Upon graduation students can take their mandatory state licensing examinations.
The Mortuary Science program offered at Mercer is the only accredited program of it’s kind in New Jersey and is instructed by Professor Robert C. Smith III and Professor Deborah Tolboom. Neither Smith nor Tolboom responded to numerous request for comment on this story.