By Stacy Thomas | Photos by Eddie Dant
“The only thing you can learn from dying is to live your biggest life.”
December 24, 1956 -July 10, 2011
Jillian Becher does not look like an undertaker. The 29-year-old petite blond looks as if she should be surfing a wake rather than planning one. “When I initially tell people that I am a mortician, they think I am joking,” she said. Luckily, Jillian has a morbid sense of humor. “I’m usually the one laughing at the most disgusting jokes. My husband says I am the weirdest girl he has ever met.”
As a funeral director for Becher-Kluesner Funeral Home in Jasper, Jillian recently relocated her family – husband Brayden and son Crew, who turns 3 on September 3 – back to her hometown to step in where her late father John Becher left off. “I always thought I would own my own boutique or something. Sometimes life leads you back home, in your own back yard – literally.”
In July 2011, Jillian was in college. “I was trying to find myself at age 24. I had just got married. I worked as a waitress, in a hair salon and as a nanny. Nothing was clicking. I was about to interview for a sales job at a news station, and then the accident happened.”
On July 10, 2011, just 10 days after her perfect beach wedding, Jillian’s father was killed in a tragic motorcycle accident. “John had met some friends for a bike trip to French Lick, Indiana,” said Laurie Becher, Jillian’s mother and John’s wife of 30 years. That night, John received a call that a family friend had died. The family of the deceased requested John to personally pick up the body and take it to the funeral home.” Assuring the family that he would be there in 30 minutes, John headed back to Jasper. He never made it home.
“My dad was my best friend,” Jillian said. “I spoke to him almost everyday. I last saw him on July fourth before I headed back to Louisville after my wedding. Our last conversation was on July ninth. As we ended the phone call, he said ‘I love you sweetheart.’ I thought it was strange; we never ended our conversations that way. We were always being goofy or silly, not mushy.”
After the death of her father, Jillian went through an emotionally dark period. She and her husband did not go on their honeymoon. A bout of depression set in, followed by an alarming weight loss. “I felt numb. I didn’t care if I lived or died,” she recalled.
In January 2012, feeling inspired by the new year, Jillian decided to enroll in mortuary school at Mid-America College of Funeral Service in Jeffersonville. “It just felt like what I was supposed to do. I had never previously been interested in the business. My dad never pressured me,” said Jillian. “I had also just found out that I was pregnant with my son (Crew).” Her family held an intervention. “They were worried that I was not taking care of myself and that my choice to go to mortuary school was a result of obsessing over the loss of my Dad.”
“I was very concerned for Jillian,” her mother Laurie recalled. “She was about to embark on a very special vocation in a small town… a town that was still in mourning over the loss of her father. She was still in mourning. I wanted to make sure this decision was from her heart and not out of obligation to the family. A funeral home is a home… designed to make a challenging time easier, especially for a small, close community like Jasper. A funeral director has to be present and allow space for others. I wanted to be assured that before Jillian took on this role, that she had allowed enough emotional space for herself.”
Despite her family’s concerns, Jillian was eager to start her new career path. The anticipation of the arrival of her first child had given her a new perspective on life. In school, however, she found it difficult to be taken seriously. “I felt that they thought I was not going to make it. Here I was this young, pregnant, bubbly blonde,” Jillian said. “I would get called out during class to answer questions by my instructors. I studied even harder so I wasn’t the weak link. I never let them see me sweat.”
Two years later, Jillian’s hard work paid off. Becher & Son Funeral Home – now known as Becher-Kluesner Funeral Home – was started in 1938 by Tommy Becher, Jillian’s grandfather. Eventually, Jillian’s father would join the family business. “My dad wanted to be a veterinarian,” Jillian said, “but he was failing out of school. He sold his books to buy a motorcycle. That’s when my grandpa pressured him to go to mortuary school.” John Becher became a part of the family business in 1992; Jillian joined in 2014. “This was the first job I didn’t have to interview for!” she laughed. “It might seem rare for a woman my age to be a funeral director in Dubois County, but this really is a growing industry for women.”
Six Feet Over
Even though Jillian is the middle child of five sisters, “My dad always called me his ‘little boy’. He said I was the only one who had the stomach for embalming. My first real memory of the funeral home was in kindergarten. I saw my dad working on a body. I was never scared, I was always interested.” Growing up, the family lived next door to the funeral home – literally, six feet over. “I just thought it was normal,” she said.
Back then, Laurie set some ground rules with her husband. “I told John I would live next to it, but not in it,” she said. “John broke the stereotype of the cold, unapproachable funeral director. He was present with people; he made them feel comfortable and was easy to talk to. John always said, The only thing you can learn from dying is to live your biggest life.”
In May 2014, Jillian and her family temporarily moved back into her childhood home with Jillian’s mother, where they reside now as they await a move into their own home, which belonged to her grandparents. “My Grandpa passed away 14 months ago. Brayden (her husband) and his brother are renovating my grandparents’ house just a few blocks away.”
Toward the Light
Now that she is a funeral director, a typical day for Jillian starts around 6:30 a.m. She makes breakfast for Crew and heads next door to the funeral home. “My dad always referred to it as the ‘fun’ home. He literally was always trying to put ‘fun’ in funeral.”
Although her job can be sad and stressful, Jillian views herself as both party planner and host for the celebration of a life. “A funeral is just as important as a wedding,” she said. “It is my responsibility as a funeral director to make sure the person looks their best and we do everything right. All of the little details are important.”
The morning before a visitation, she and her coworkers clean the parlors, set up the flowers and memorial displays, and set out the registry and cards. Sometimes, Crew comes over for a visit. “It is nice to be so close and have him around. I could not do that with any other job,” Jillian said. Although she would like to see her son follow in her career footsteps, she will leave that decision up to him. “I want him to be worldly. Maybe his path will lead him back home like it did for me.”
An hour before the visitation, Jillian meets with the family and leads a few prayers. “Jasper has a large German community. At some funerals, traditional German prayers are recited.” There are, she explained, a lot of misconceptions about what goes on behind the scenes in a funeral home. “It really is a peaceful place. It is a neat process to see. I wish I could have worked with my dad. I would have learned so much from him.”
Through her own experience with death and a career that revolves around death, Jillian has learned so much about life. “I used to be really afraid to die. I don’t think about it anymore. … I have so much to live for,” she said. “I have a compassion now that I did not have before my dad passed. I look at people differently. I try to talk to everybody, say hello, and be friendly. I listen carefully. I pay attention to little things. I strive to be the kind, caring person people need in a time of grief.”
When she is not working, Jillian likes to laugh and stay lighthearted. “I don’t watch scary movies. My job is serious and sad enough.” However, she is a fan of the now-defunct television series Six Feet Under. “I loved that show. It really does shed light on the industry. Mind you, I do not see ghosts or anything like that,” she laughed.
Now age 29 and due to give birth to a little girl in November, Jillian admitted that she does not yet have a will. “I am working on it.” Right now, she is busy living her biggest life.