PULASKI — In the small town of Pulaski, people meet with Pam Janssen and cry.
Janssen admitted, she cries, too.
As a funeral director at Marnocha Funeral Home, she sits down with those who have had a loved one die and helps them decide on arrangements for a visitation, funeral and burial.
In the community where she’s lived all her life, where she knows so many people and so many know her, she grieves right along with the grieving.
“In this business — this career — this ministry — how do you sit with people and not have deep sorrow?” she asked.
Janssen grew up in the home right next door to the funeral home her grandparents founded in 1933. It’s on Pulaski Street, the town’s main thoroughfare, and just across the street and down the block from Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church and School and the Franciscan Monastery.
“When I was young, I thought I’d hate (the funeral business),” she said. “I love it.”
Why? “It’s real. People know your name and you know theirs,” she said.
As they sit around the funeral home’s arrangement table, whether it’s pre-planning or planning for services, Janssen invites families to tell their stories, listening and responding with a kindness and a deep spirituality that’s consoling and often catechizing and evangelizing as well.
Through the years she has developed an approach from her own spiritual base, influenced in great part by the Franciscans across the street, she said.
“I can’t keep it in,” Janssen admitted.
She’ll sometimes ask a favorite question — “Who are you from home?” — as a way of reminding people that who they are is a child of God, made in the image and likeness of God.
“People want to know they are loved,” Janssen said. “If you can be kind and love one person at a time, that can be so meaningful to them.
“When a loved one dies, people are broken and open to being helped,” she explained. “They need to know God is sitting with them during this time.”
A fact of life today, Janssen said, is that some who come to the funeral home are anxious because they no longer practice the faith in which they were raised.
“Sometimes they haven’t graced the inside of a church for years,” she said, “and they are afraid you’re going to turn them away.”
Janssen said she calls the Franciscans across the street, and “the friars and our priests have been wonderful in working with them.”
Certified as a minister through the diocesan Lay Ministry Formation Program, Janssen also serves in a part-time position as coordinator of adult faith formation and the RCIA at Assumption. It’s often in that role where she thinks of “the saint sitting in front of me,” she said. “My job is to listen to their stories, echo back and help them grow, empower and enable them.”
An outlet of expression for Janssen is the blog she writes on the funeral home’s website.
Titled, “There Goes the Neighborhood: Stories on life as a funeral director in a small town,” it’s a place where she shares her thoughts on an eclectic mix of topics. Many of the posts, however, are remembrances of the people buried through Marnocha’s. With permission from the families, Janssen often retells stories about the deceased.
“That’s inside me,” Janssen said about the stories on the blog. “I think stories are important.”
Those who read “Pam’s blog” think so, too.
One online comment termed Janssen’s writing “giving CPR for a broken heart.”
Another noted, “Every post you write has a tone that is so peaceful, so reverent, so warm.”
In one of those blogs — the one about Trent — Janssen opened up about the angst she felt when her duties as a funeral director required her services upon the tragic death of the young son of personal friends.
She admitted that the sorrow of Trent’s passing, combined with any number of funerals of children and other tragic losses had her thinking about quitting the funeral business. Janssen tells it well in the blog, how she felt the presence of the Lord helping her to help the family make it through the funeral, and how that convinced her that, as she put it, “this business — this career — this ministry” — is what she is supposed to be doing.
Although this month marks Janssen’s 40th anniversary of becoming a licensed funeral director, she’s not ready to retire.
“There are gifts I’ve been given, and, if I would retire now, that would be like throwing them back at God,” she said. “Those gifts aren’t supposed to be used for our purposes, but for God’s.”
To read “Pam’s blog” about Trent and others, go to www.marnochafuneralhome.com and click on “For Your Heart” in the menu bar.