SPRINGFIELD TOWNSHIP, Ohio -- A young woman in a hoodie is hunched over her laptop, brow furrowed. To her right, a fellow student flips through a binder, carefully marking out sections in yellow highlighter. Behind them, a skull grins beside an antique embalming kit in a glass cabinet.
Welcome to the Cincinnati College of Mortuary Science.
The college is the oldest private nonprofit mortuary science school in the country. Founded in 1882, the school, located next to St. Xavier High School on North Bend Road, offers two degrees, an Associate Degree of Applied Science and a Bachelor of Mortuary Science.
Jack E. Lechner Jr., president and CEO, said the college is known as the "Harvard of mortuary schools."
Students graduate with twice the amount of required clinical experience and earn specialized training and certifications as part of their curriculum. Those certifications include crematory operation, funeral celebrant and mass fatality response. The college also is known for its lab, which includes seven embalming stations.
"Most schools are lucky to have one," said Lechner.
While the college may be a prestigious institution, student Alexa Oehlers said reactions to her course of study are mixed.
"Some people are really weirded out by it," she said. "I've literally had someone be repulsed by me. Some people are interested and want to know more. You just never know."
Beth Williams, special assistant to Lechner, said no one falls into mortuary school by accident.
"I think there's a foundation of calling," Williams said. "There are some people that do it because it's a family-oriented business, but you would be amazed at the percentage of students that have no affiliation with funeral services."
Haley Donahue is one of those students. She said her great-grandmother's funeral showed her the importance of a skilled funeral director.
"When she died, my mom kept telling me she might not look the same, as they prepared me for the funeral," said Donahue. "We got to the funeral home and she looked amazing, and I could see the relief."
When Tyler Dunn graduates, he plans to help run the funeral home his grandfather and uncle started. Dunn said people have a lot of misconceptions about the death care profession.
"Western society is so against facing death and thinking we're going to die, but if they shadowed us for a day, they would say, 'This is nothing like I expected.' Everyone thinks we work with the dead, but really, we're working with the living," said Dunn.
So, what does a day in the life of a mortuary science student look like?
Donahue is just waking up in her home in El Dorado, Ohio. The college is 90 minutes away, so she's up early to beat the traffic and ensure she's there on time.
"You just get used to it," she said.
An hour later, Oehlers is up, too. Oehlers lives a little closer, in Loveland, where she works on the side at a funeral home.
"If you don't leave early, you can't get here on time," said Oehlers. "There's no mercy out there."
Tyler Dunn, who lives just eight minutes away, is just waking up.
"I get to sleep in compared to them," he said of his classmates.
Donahue is still on her way to school as Oehlers arrives to study until class begins.
"I'm here every day at 6 a.m. I'm a morning person, so it's easier for me," said Oehlers.
Class is in session for Donahue, Oehlers and Dunn. They might be crunching numbers in accounting, recreating a celebrity's face in wax in restorative arts or watching a movie on mummification. The range of classes are designed to give students a comprehensive review of the demands of the profession.
"As a family-owned business, you have to know it all," Dunn said.
With a maximum class size of 60, rigorous schedules and serious subject matter, Donahue said the community bonds are strong.
"It's interesting because we learn how the funeral rite in itself is a community event," Donahue said. "There's this sense of support, and we get to live that every day. We get to celebrate each other."
The students said being around death and dying doesn't mean everything has to be gloomy.
"It can be fun," said Donahue. "It doesn't all have to be sad. We play 'pin the casket part on the casket.' "
Two days a week, the students stay later for lab or field trips.
"We have two labs," Oehlers said. "We have an RA (Restorative Arts) lab, where we learn restorative wax, restorative features and cosmetics. And then we have embalming lab, where we learn to embalm."
In embalming lab, Donahue, Oehlers and Dunn practice the techniques they've learned in their embalming theory class. Today they might be working on the remains of someone who's undergone an autopsy, as the school tries to provide diverse experiences for students.
Class and lab have ended for our students, but the day is far from over.
While Donahue begins her long drive back to El Dorado, Oehlers goes on call for a local funeral home. Her evening might be interrupted by a call for a "removal" -- to retrieve someone's remains.
"That can happen day or night, rain or shine," Oehlers said.
If it's a Friday, Dunn usually returns to his hometown three hours north to help out at his family's funeral home.
Being active in their community is important to many students, since most of them will be called upon to be a community's death resource someday.
"I want people to use us as a resource, not just think about us when a death happens," Oehlers said.
The sorority and fraternity have sponsored several philanthropic events, including the adoption of a local cemetery to clean and reset headstones.
"It's a great way to serve your community," Dunn said.
"I'm not doing anything once I get home," Donahue said. "If I don't, then there's no separation, and I feel guilty every minute I'm not studying."
After walking her dog, Donahue goes to bed. She knows that if she's in bed now, the alarm at 3:30 a.m. won't be as harsh.
Dunn also finishes his day by walking his dog and spending time with his girlfriend.
Oehlers, however, hits the books when she's home.
"All my free time I study," she said. "I try to go for walks and enjoy my hobbies a little bit, but it's hard. I want to get good grades."
Their schedules are hectic and the subject matter can be difficult, but students are proud of their hard work and the profession they've chosen.
"Death is sad, but really, it's a joyful thing to serve families, to give them the comfort they need to get through the grieving process," Dunn said.