San Antonio College's Mortuary Science Department Program Director Juan Moreno presents students work in the restorative arts lab.
José Luis Moreno, program director at San Antonio College's Mortuary Science Department, displays students' work in the restorative arts lab. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Planning for a loved one’s death is something many people don’t want to think about. They put it off for years, hoping to avoid the reality that a person so important in their lives will pass.

But for José Luis Moreno and his 250 students, dealing with death is a life passion.

Moreno is the program coordinator at San Antonio College’s mortuary science department. The local funeral director preparation program is one of just five in Texas and was the state’s first public program.

For 55 years, SAC has graduated thousands of future funeral directors and embalmers, and many of San Antonio’s close to 60 funeral homes have SAC graduates on staff. Mortuary programs from Amarillo to as far away as South Korea have ties to the local department, Moreno said.

Alumni have gone on to work on the funeral services of such notable local figures as banker Tom Frost as well as such national celebrities as former first lady Barbara Bush and pop star Michael Jackson.

Like many of the 250 students currently enrolled, Moreno found a passion for aiding families with their grief through a personal experience with death.

When he was a child, Moreno’s grandma was diagnosed with cancer and placed in hospice care. Nurses were kind to Moreno and taught him about IVs and the circulatory system. After his grandmother died, Moreno learned about the funeral industry through a family friend who worked as a funeral director.

José Luis Moreno stands underneath colored lamps used for viewings that give the appropriate complexion to the deceased. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

When it came time to decide what to do after high school graduation, Moreno had a career aspiration in mind.

Helen Loring Dear, president of Porter Loring Mortuaries, a longtime San Antonio funeral home, graduated from SAC in 2008 and felt a similar passion when entering her career.

From the age of 16, Dear worked to help maintain the funeral home and got a sense of the job responsibilities by watching her grandfather and father work. After graduating from high school, she, too, aspired to a career in the funeral industry.

I’m definitely a feeler. I love to help people, so I just felt drawn to it,” Dear said. 

While the funeral industry has historically been viewed as a family business, more students over time have entered the profession without family ties.

That’s why all those enrolled at SAC start the two-year program with an orientation class that sends them to local cemeteries, crematoriums, and funeral homes to get a grasp on the funeral industry. Students return to SAC to reflect weekly, and there is typically at least one student who discovers the line of work may not be for him or her, Moreno said.

First-semester students also receive an overview of various religions and customs associated with funerals. Even though two candles may look the same and be made of the same wax, they can play distinctly different roles in a funeral service depending on the faith of the deceased.

“I tell my students that if you walk into the funeral home and you need to wait on a Catholic family, you’re going to be the most Catholic person that day, regardless of your personal faith,” Moreno said. The same would apply to the next family and its members’ religion, he said.

Tim Ousley is in his first semester of the mortuary science program but has been a pastor in the Rio Grande Valley near Mission for more than two decades. Ousley spent years helping families grieve at funerals but never saw the preparation work that went into creating a proper remembrance of a loved one.

I would say that I thought I knew something about funerals until I came to work here and to school,” said Ousley, referring to Porter Loring, where he currently works part-time. “I didn’t have any idea what went on behind the scenes.” 

In Ousley’s first year, he will take a class focused on the human body. Students work with cadavers from the Texas State Anatomical Board, dissecting them to peel back layers of skin, muscle, and bones to examine the internal organs.

Outside the anatomy lab where these dissections take place, Moreno points out a sign hanging above the doorway. Mortui Vivos Docent. The dead teach the living.

“We’re the translators for the dead people here,” Moreno said, pointing at a skeleton. “Without them, this would be our limit.”

Moreno hopes graduates leave SAC with a clear understanding of the human body, being able to find and raise a blood vessel so they can carry out the embalming process successfully.

After taking the anatomy course, students move on to a class in embalming. Just like in a medical school, first-year students observe through a window or via video as instructors and advanced students embalm bodies, which are provided by area funeral homes that lack the resources to do the work themselves.

The embalming lab at San Antonio College. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

The highest compliment a family can pay to an embalmer, Moreno said, is to describe their loved one as looking like they are asleep.

The final semester of coursework for a mortuary science students involves artistic work associated in the restorative arts lab.

“The majority of people die in conditions that are going to be okay for us to work [with, but] others die in accidents and others might die of illnesses that pretty much destroy some of the features of the face,” Moreno said.

Lessons cover the canon of beauty, including facial proportions. Students learn that the distance between two eyes is the length of one eye and that the distance from the top of the nose to the hairline is the same as it is down to the bottom of the nose.

Once students master these proportions and learn how to sculpt faces, faculty shows them how to use a 3-D printer to replicate destroyed facial features. For instance, if an accident removes a portion of a person’s nose, restoration artists can replicate what the nose would have looked like, attach it to the face with wax, and use makeup to make it look natural.

The restorative arts process, referred to as cosmetizing, helps families remember what a loved one looked like when they were healthy.

“It is not to make life easier for them, but to make it less difficult, because it is going to be hard,” Moreno said. “It is important for them to have an image – a positive image – of their loved one.”

Students also learn how to apply makeup and cut and style hair. They learn how to adjust the colors in lights that typically shine over the top of open caskets so that the person in the coffin looks most natural.

The entire behind-the-scenes process can take about 24 hours, Moreno said.

When students graduate from the program, they’ll enter into a provisional period before they can become a licensed funeral director and embalmer. To obtain their licensing from the state, they have to complete 45 cases in both areas. While some students may like doing both jobs, most have a preference for one side of the profession.

Funeral homes tend to divide the duties between two teams, with funeral directors remaining with families throughout their visit while embalmers are working behind closed doors to temporarily preserve the body of a loved one.

Jerry Reyes, who graduated from SAC in 2001, prefers funeral directing. He said his time at SAC provided opportunities that took him to El Paso, Los Angeles, and now back to Texas for his work.

Reyes, who initially came to SAC from rural New Mexico, serves as the vice president and chief operating officer at Geo. H. Lewis & Sons Funeral Directors in Houston.

“Once you’re done with schooling, you essentially have the opportunity to go as high as you want to go,” Reyes said. “I could have easily gone back to my rural community and worked at the funeral home where I knew everybody in town. Opportunities came my way and it took me to Los Angeles and Hollywood and dealing with a lot of celebrity clientele.

“I think the thing that has always been my forefront or my moral compass is never forgetting what I came into this profession to do, which is ultimately to take care of families.”

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.