Whether you know him or not, the work of Glenn Bower has probably touched you. As the longtime director of mortuary science at Cypress College, he or someone in his seven-person staff has likely taught someone at the center of one of the most emotionally trying times of your life. The department is the only one of its kind at a community college in Southern California, one of just two such programs in the state. In his nearly 15 years as a full-time faculty member and years of previous experience as a new-hire trainer at various mortuaries, Bower has instructed funeral-service professionals now working in Orange County, Europe, Asia and South America.
"My favorite part of teaching would be the 'ah-ha' moment," Bower says. "Explaining something to a student and in the days or weeks or months to come, all of a sudden, the lights come on, and you can see the lights click on in their eyes, and they say, 'Okay, now I get it.' That's a great reward."
And according to Bower, the reward continues when he hears about students succeeding in the world of mortuary science. He says he loves to hear his current and former students "doing wonderful things with families and that they're truly appreciated, not just in the funeral home, but the community in which they're serving."
It's easy to mistake the funeral-service industry as a depressing or macabre industry, but Bower is quick to dispel that notion. "It's a great business to be in to help people," he says. "This is an emotionally hazardous time. To lose somebody of such relational significance is very hard to do."
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Many students who enroll in the program have experienced a loss themselves and want to comfort others who will inevitably mourn someone's passing. "Some had a great funeral experience, and they want to emulate that," explains Bower. "Most of the people coming through have that internal drive to help people."
Bower himself was a graduate of the program at Cypress College, enrolling after being laid off from the aerospace business in 1992 and at the suggestion of his brother-in-law, who was in the mortuary industry. In fact, all of the current faculty are Cypress College alumni. "I think we have a better success rate in the funeral industry because we've been in the seats as students," he says. "We know the expectations; we know what it takes to get through and be successful out in the workforce as well."
The program is so successful that about 70 percent of the students have a job lined up before graduation, even in this economy. (Guess Ben Franklin was right when he mused about death and taxes.) When not instructing students at Cypress College (this semester, he teaches anatomy and pathology, funeral service thanatology, and funeral service counseling), Bower volunteers as the chairman at Center Stage Theater and as part of the arts ministries at Messiah Lutheran in Yorba Linda. While funerals and community theater may not seem related on the surface, Bower says his work as a funeral director translates well to theater production. "If you think about it, funeral services are very much about presentation," he explains.
He also shares a passion for genealogy with his wife. While researching his family, Bower found out the funeral business was actually the family business, long after he became part of it. "My great-grandfather was a cabinet maker and casket maker back in Nebraska," he says. "I found that to be a little bit of family irony."