BY GRETCHEN MENSINK LOVEJOY/SPRING VALLEY TRIBUNE Katie Hudek, intern Katie Kearney and Jim Hindt are available to assist families at Hindt-Hudek Funeral Homes.

Katie Hudek, intern Katie Kearney and Jim Hindt are available to assist families at Hindt-Hudek Funeral Homes.
Seriously, Katie Kearney isn't kidding around in biology.

She's interning in it.

"I've always been interested in human biology. I took this route because I didn't want to be a doctor or a pathologist, and this is kind of everything. This is a combination of the two," said 22-year-old Hindt-Hudek Funeral Home intern Kearney, from Hazel Green, Wis., who, in spite of her youth, is indeed old enough to be apprenticing at the Spring Valley funeral home, as well as at its branches in Cresco, LeRoy and Grand Meadow.

As a child, she wanted to grow up to be the young lady with the stethoscope and Band-Aids. "I think I always wanted to be a nurse. My mom is in the medical field, and I decided I wanted to be like her," she related.

Upon determining in high school that mortuary science would satisfy her career aspirations, Kearney presented her idea to her parents.

"It was always in the back of my mind ... this or going into dental assistant school. Just talking with a funeral director back home got me more interested in it. I don't think my family took me seriously until I actually started going to school for it. My mom sort of took me seriously, but my dad thought I would go into something else."

Kearney attended Chicago's Warsham Mortuary Science College, an institution established to teach only mortuary science. She chose that school for its reputation and proximity to her hometown three hours away.

She added, "There were probably only about 120 students in the class. There was a funeral director in a town close to mine that recommended that I go there."

Her internship at Hindt-Hudek began Sept. 16 after she answered an online post from Hudek and Hindt for an intern on a mortuary science website, and since then, she's kept busy enough assisting with making arrangements for families and filling in the time spent waiting for a call by cleaning, running errands, doing paperwork, and more.

She's pleased to have decided upon small towns to start her career, because had she remained in Chicago, she would have been disappointed in the experience.

"In Chicago, I realized I did not want to be in a big city. It's easier to start out here, and when we do get a call, I have more time to learn, not rush. It's more family-oriented here, people care. It was hard adjusting at first in Chicago because we were getting three to four calls a day, and that was normal.

"I didn't feel we were giving families the attention they needed, and being in bigger cities, there's a lot of people who don't have bigger families, so there'd be visitations with only 20 people."

Counseling bereaved families in funeral decisions often is more about listening than it is about talking, she noted, and "It can be difficult, but if you just listen to what they have to say, listen to their story, most often, they just want someone to talk to."

Kearney added, "You do as much for the families as you can, even if it's just running out to have more thank you notes printed and dropping them off. They appreciate that a lot."

And the reality that she's dealing with the end of life has brought her greater awareness of her own and others' lives. "It did change how I see life - I appreciate family and my parents more - and you appreciate healthy people more. Expected deaths help people prepare, but it's different when it actually happens, and if someone has been in hospice care, there's some relief."

The practical side of the internship has presented itself well for Kearney. "It's more hands-on than in school, because there, all they told you was what was in the books. Here, if something goes wrong, I actually have to think of how to fix it and fix it. This is actual, real world learning. And in a small community, everyone knows everyone, so you have to make people look their best."

The few difficulties she's encountered include keeping track of people's names and faces since she works in at least three communities.

Kearney hopes to educate herself as well as possible while at Hindt-Hudek, complete her internship, and then become licensed in Iowa and Minnesota.

"Right now, I don't think I'd want my own funeral home; it's a lot of responsibility. But whatever community I end up in, I hope I get to know everyone, and that they see me not as a funeral director, but as a part of the community ... you don't have to be afraid to talk to me."

Katie enjoys her free time by exploring the communities in which she works. "I like to see what's out in the area, learn what they have in common ... the history. And it's been very nice working at Hindt-Hudek. A great experience," she concluded.