BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
FORT MADISON – After 20 years in what was traditionally a man’s world, a Fort Madison woman has shown that well…maybe not so much.
Heather O’Tool has spent the past 20 years helping families bury their loved ones, a career that typically was handled by men…in suits…with deep voices.
The wife, and mother of one, says that trend is going away and women are finding their own path and putting their own flare on an otherwise somber profession.
“It’s turning around now. It’s a physical job picking up bodies and not a lot of students are still doing it. My mortuary science class in Houston had 120 students in it and I think only about 40 are still doing it,” O’Tool said.
In bigger city funeral homes, you typically get every other weekend off, but in a rural community like this you don’t get that time off. Some women want to be home with the kids, cook, have weekends off. And in this career you have to create a balance and lot of that stuff goes on the back burner.”
But O’Tool said she sees families transitioning in how they want funerals to be conducted and by whom.
She said people are looking for that friend to handle things for them.
“People don’t want the old man with the somber voice in a black suit. They want someone they can run into at the grocery store and see at a ballgame. They want a friend that can take care of the family. They really do,” she said.
O’Tool grew up in Northwest Iowa and graduated from South Dakota State with a Bachelor’s Degree in Biology and then went to Houston to attend a year long mortuary science program.
“Well, my plan was to come here and get my Iowa license. Iowa is tough and my plan was to get it here and then go back to Arizona. But… I met a man, got married, and here I am.”
“The people who ran the funeral home in my hometown were friends of my parents and I was always intrigued by the work that they did. That’s what originally sparked my interest,” she said.
The idea of a woman in the mortuary business was tough on the social life, she said.
“Guys would run when they found out I was in mortuary school. People have a general perception that all we do is work on bodies, but that’s not the case. About 20% of the time is spent on the body, unless an autopsy is done. But the rest is spent on working with the family.”
She realized the importance of her work and the impact she had on people’s lives when tragedy struck her own family more than seven years ago.
Her husband Todd Matlock, complained of feeling ill one night during dinner and said he was on his way up to bed to lay down. O’Tool said she had just put their plates in the sink and went around the corner to see him laying on the floor, a victim of a massive heart attack.
“I was dumbfounded. You think someone in my position would be better prepared for that, but I didn’t know what to do,” she said. “And from that point on I had a better understanding of the shock and loss people experience in death. Now I completely understand how people can forget pictures or where people live in planning funerals because they are still dazed and they’re really still in shock.”
She said he was her right hand man and helped her raise her daughter Kerrigan. With the 24/7 nature of the funeral business, she said sacrifices had to be made, but she never thought about leaving the business.
“The crock pot is one of my best friends. If I have a visitation at night, I would make sure the meal is planned. And when Kerrigan was playing sports you just made those sacrifices, I may end up at a softball game in 90-degree heat in a suit, but it’s just the sacrifices you make for both the career and the family. We make it work.”
O’Tool did an internship in Keokuk after graduation and then went to work at Lunning Chapel in Burlington for 10 years. While she worked there she also helped out on a part-time basis at King-Lynk for about seven years. She’s been at King-Lynk full time for the past 10 years.
She said she has no plans to change her career or own her own business.
“I’m happy as a lark just doing what I’m doing. Never wanted to own my own business. I had an opportunity years ago, but I don’t want the finances and responsibility of ownership. I just want to do what I love doing.”
“I had a young lady that had to make funeral arrangements for when her dad that passed away suddenly. She said to me, ‘I have to make all these decisions in less than a day and I can’t think. It’s almost like trying to plan a wedding in two days and I don’t know if I’m doing all of this right’. Death is inevitable and unfortunately we don’t know when it will take place. People plan for weddings, retirement, kids’ college. Heck most people it takes 2-3 months to plan a week-long vacation. More and more people are pre-planning the service they want at the time of death. It so greatly eases the burden and stress on the survivors at the time of need. I’ve never once had anyone say, ‘I wish Mom or Dad would not have done this’.”
Helping people move through the phase of loss and providing some closure for families is O’Tool’s passion.
“I just love helping people. When I meet with somebody you become part of their family. You really do. You see them at the grocery store. You may have helped bury someone in their family and they come and thank you. That goes a long ways,” she said.