Editor's note: This is the first in an occasional series about jobs.
People talk about it, and people are afraid of it, yet people are always interested in it.
This is Alan Dodson's summary of the public's perception of death, and in conjunction, his profession.
Mirror photos by Patrick Waskmunski
Alan?Dodson Jr., 23, associate funeral director with Santella Funeral Homes, Altoona, is shown in the casket room at the Leslie E. Axe Funeral Home.
For Alan, the 23-year-old mortician and associate funeral director for Santella Funeral Homes, it's only about half true.
He expressed his interest to his parents when he was in the sixth grade after a school project on balancing a checkbook warranted he choose a career and give an example of an annual salary. This wasn't hard because Alan's uncle owned a funeral home in Bradford, and soon became one of his many mentors.
But Alan has never really been afraid of death. His mother can recall him as a toddler running around in the casket room of her brother's funeral home. At as young as 1 year old, Alan was asking his father to lift him up for a closer look at his great grandmother in her casket.
Now, Alan exhibits the skill of an artist, the patience of a counselor and the dedication of a priest every day as one of the youngest in his profession in the local area.
"I've always been selfless," he said. "I've always put people first, so it just fit me perfectly. I can't really explain it other than it was a calling. I found exactly what I wanted to do."
Alan began doing light work for Santella's when he was 16. After graduating from Altoona Area High School, he earned an associate degree at Penn State Altoona in letters, arts and sciences, and then went on to the Pittsburgh Institute of Mortuary Science. He became a licensed funeral director in December 2010 at age 22. He interned with other funeral homes in school but came back to Altoona and Santella's to oversee the day-to-day operation of their satellite location, the Leslie E. Axe funeral home on Fourth Avenue in Altoona. He lives in an apartment on the second floor of the funeral home.
What Alan loves about the funeral business is that it's always changing.
"No day is the same, every family is different, every case is different," he said. "You never know when it's coming. You never know when that phone is going to ring. The spontaneity of it is what attracted me, too, to the business."
When the phone rings for Alan to take on a case and go out to do a removal - which can be during the day or in the middle of the night - he'll dress in a suit and tie, take a hearse and use a gurney to remove the body, whether it be from a home, a hospital or a nursing facility.
After getting verbal permission, he'll take the body to the funeral home and usually start the embalming process right away.
"All embalming is a simple surgical procedure," Alan said. "I know a lot of people have myths out there, that it can be gruesome. But really the primary use for embalming is for viewing and to restore a nice appearance. I take great pride in embalming because it is an art. It's almost an honor if someone entrusts that type of care of their loved one in you. I consider that a very big honor, and because it is an art, I take pride in what I do."
Alan will set features and position the body to ensure it has a nice appearance before rigor mortis sets in. He prefers to give the deceased a healthier color by injecting them with dyes instead of using heavy cosmetics. If they are emaciated, he will use tissue fill to plump up their face, put cotton in their mouths and use sheets to fill out their bodies.
In school, Alan said morticians are extensively taught restorative art in the case of real trauma to a body. He's thankful he hasn't had to use those skills yet, but Alan has worked on both children and people he's known personally.
"It affects everyone differently," Alan said of tough emotional embalming experiences, including, for him, embalming children. "It can definitely change your perception of the job. I take my job more seriously now."
No matter what the case, Alan said he enjoys being able to restore people's loved ones to look like they had before they became sick or afflicted.
"It all goes back to healing," he said. "It can at least start the healing process. We're not going to heal someone 100 percent. I'm not going to be able to take their sadness or anything away, and grief affects everyone differently. But if I can at least facilitate that and start that process, then I've done my job."
Over the next two to three days of a case, Alan said he will do more than 120 things for a family. This includes finalizing death certificates and obituaries, calling cemeteries, arranging to have the casket ready and prepping and clothing the body for visitation and the funeral. At the funeral, he will help seat people, instruct the pallbearers and even help carry the casket.
Working at Santella's two locations, Alan will sometimes be handling more than one case.
"You have to have a lot of organizational skills," he said. "I write a lot of notes."
Sometimes Alan also has to take on cases with difficult family situations. With all of the choices for them to make during this difficult time, he said his main duty is just to help them make the right ones.
"I let them decide and have their discussions so they don't feel pressured, because I'm not here to do that," he said. "Funeral directors are here to help."
Alan loves that he has the chance to help people day in and day out. But he admits the nature of the job - being on-call virtually all the time and dealing with public perception - can be challenging. He's had to cancel plans with friends at the last minute, and might stay the night at his parent's house after a stressful day if he needs a break from living and working at the funeral home.
"But that's really miniscule stuff to me compared to helping these people through one of the hardest times they've ever been through," he said. "I get great satisfaction out of that, so that's pretty much why I do it."
Alan's mother, Mary Dodson of Altoona, said he's always wanted to help people.
"He never had a chance to be a kid," she said. "He was always so mature for his age. This was just something he always wanted to be. He does really beautiful work. He just puts all his passion and everything into that."
Mary doesn't want her son to "burn out," she said, from always being on call or rarely being able to separate his job from his personal life. She wants for him to have a family some day.
"But it would have to be someone who accepts that life," she added.
That life is well known to Guido Santella, owner of the Santella and Leslie E. Axe funeral homes, who inherited the business from his parents.
Santella said he first met Alan through involvement with the Boy Scouts, and the values necessary to be a good Scout were how he knew early on that Alan had the respectable, ethical demeanor necessary of a funeral director. He knew that they wanted to hire Alan, though funeral service is sometimes kept as a family business.
"For us, we wanted someone pretty reliable, ethical and honest, who can deal with people and who have respect for the living, and deceased as well," Santella said. "He seems dedicated, and I'm pretty happy with the work he's doing."
Alan is excited to continue his work, especially as the funeral business continues to change. He said personalization is getting bigger now, and the funeral becoming less cookie-cutter. Though this area remains traditional, Alan said he's heard of services where people have been embalmed while on motorcycles or in rocking chairs with their feet up and a football game on.
"Before you had two days visitation, service, grave, that's the way it is. He's going to be in a suit, he's going to do this and he's going to do that," Alan said. "But today, people do their own thing. I think it's alright, because that's just the way our society is going today. Whatever you want, we're here to provide for you.
"A good funeral director will try ... to help you have a celebration of life or send your loved one off in the way that you want. That's what we're here to do."
Mirror Staff Writer Beth Ann Downey is at 946-7520.