Joyce Torchinsky had planned to become a doctor when she graduated from University of Maryland, College Park. But she couldn't bear the thought of losing a patient.
So she turned to the funeral service profession instead.
"I realized I couldn't do anything to hurt the person any more, but I could do something to help the family," said Torchinsky, who is an assistant professor of mortuary science at the Catonsville campus of Community College of Baltimore County, the only mortuary science program in Maryland and Delaware.
Now Torchinsky, an alumna of the 28-year-old program she helps direct, has the opportunity to teach funeral directors from Northern Virginia to south-central Pennsylvania how to meet with compassion the needs of grieving families.
"It's nice to be trusted by the families that select your services," said Torchinsky. "You have to have a clear head when practically no one else does. The family is trusting you to do the right thing - and to help them do the right thing."
Associate Professor William Gonce, who started the program in 1972 at the request of the Maryland Board of Morticians and the state's two funeral director associations, agreed.
"If [students] enter the field to make a buck, they don't make it," he said, noting that before 1972, Marylanders interested in funeral service had to attend out-of-state schools.
Students "absolutely have to be interested in helping people in their time of need," Gonce said. A student has to be "a truly honest, ethical person as much as a business-oriented one."
Over the years, the program has adjusted its curriculum to meet that need. Coursework - which used to focus on funeral home management and technical aspects of the job, such as embalming - now includes sessions on ethics, the history of death and funerals, and instruction in religious and secular ceremonies.
"Across the country, mortuary science is on the move," Gonce said, adding that funeral service directors are becoming more involved with organizations such as ministerial groups. "We're educating people to help [mourners] have a worthwhile experience, with more to look at than flowers and the deceased."
Torchinsky said, "We do anything the family wants, as long as it's not against the law or immoral. The family is entrusting you with a prized possession: a member of their family." Those in the funeral service field need to treat the de- ceased "as if they were a member of your own family," she said.
The courses, which lead to an associate's degree in applied science, are more involved than most people realize, Torchinsky said. By the time students have completed the two-year curriculum, they have been taught anatomy, pathology, chemistry, microbiology, sociology, psychology and bereavement counseling.
"People will say, 'What do you care about anatomy and chemistry? The person is already dead,'" Torchinsky said.
Proper embalming procedures require funeral service directors to understand human body structure. In addition, funeral directors need to be familiar with the ways in which medications or other treatments might react to embalming chemicals.
"I came out of that program feeling like a genius," said Torchinsky, who scored 99.4 out of 100 on the National Board Examination, a daylong multiple-choice test that students must pass before they can become funeral service directors in the United States.
Even cosmetology classes - which the program calls "Restorative Arts" - are specialized.
Under the supervision of Nick Daugherty, a licensed mortician, students learn hair and makeup techniques, along with how to recreate or enhance facial features with mortuary wax.
"We need to make it as aesthetically pleasing as possible," said Torchinsky.
The two-year program has about 100 students at any time. About 10 percent of those who enroll in the program drop out, administrators say.
Students leave the program for a variety of reasons, ranging from conflicting time commitments to a realization that funeral service is not for them.
Torchinsky said many people who enroll in the program are older and might be switching careers. "It can make a difference in how many classes you take, whether or not your family is in a position to help you," she said.
Many students travel from as far as the Eastern Shore, Delaware or Western Maryland.
To accommodate these commuters, classes run later in the day.
"The idea is to let you work in a funeral home in the morning, which is when most services take place," Torchinsky said. "I always tell my students to look around, that these are their colleagues in the funeral service."
Torchinsky said graduates of the program can look forward to becoming part of a rewarding profession.
"There are no competitors, only colleagues," she said. "If you're good, honest and dependable, you'll always have a job."
Information: the Catonsville campus of Community College of Baltimore County, 410-455-6950, or the college's Web site at www.ccbc.cc.md.us.