ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Scott Janssen — “The Mushing Mortician” — is foregoing ice cream and cake this year to celebrate his 50th birthday on the Iditarod Trail, but some of his best friends are still going to sing him a birthday song.
“It is going to be me and 16 dogs and they are going to be howling at the moon,” said Janssen, an undertaker competing in his first Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
Janssen is taking a hiatus from his funeral service business to compete in the 1,150-mile sled dog race from Anchorage to Nome. On Monday, he was in 48th place in the 62-team field.
“One of the reasons I became a funeral director, even as a youngster, I wanted to do things that were a little bit different,” he said.
Five-time champion Rick Swenson was injured Monday in a fall in rugged terrain between the Finger Lake and Rainy Pass checkpoints. Swenson reported he believes he broke a collarbone, but race spokesman Chas St. George says a doctor hasn’t looked at it yet. Communication between Rainy Pass and Anchorage was iffy, and St. George was waiting word on any decision from Swenson, including scratching.
Defending four-time champion Lance Mackey was in the lead late Monday, leaving the Rohn checkpoint just after 6 p.m., followed by Hugh Neff and Sebastian Schnuelle. Rohn is 272 miles from Anchorage.
Janssen is president and owner of Janssen Funeral Homes Inc. He said his interest in becoming an undertaker began in high school when he worked two summers digging and filling in graves and mowing grass at the Oakdale Cemetery in Crookston, Minn. His best friend’s dad ran the cemetery.
“I developed a bit of fascination with death,” said Janssen, an acknowledged horror movie buff.
After graduating high school and marrying his high school sweetheart, Debbie, he thought he would go into the printing business but then hosted a housewarming party and invited all his neighbors, including a funeral home director who lived two houses away.
The funeral home director asked the 20-year-old what he was going to do with his life. Janssen told him he wanted to buy the print shop where he worked. But the funeral home director told Janssen he should learn to be a mortician.
“He said, ‘Scott you put on a good party,’” Janssen said. “’Putting on a good funeral is like putting on a good party.’”
Janssen took the advice and got a bachelor’s degree in mortuary science from the University of Minnesota. He was offered a funeral director and embalmer position at Evergreen Memorial Chapel in Anchorage in 1985, and he and his wife moved to Alaska.
Janssen now owns the chapel and two funeral homes.
Janssen said his more than 25 years as an undertaker have prepared him both physically and mentally for the Iditarod. His job at times has required him to put in long hours, sometimes working several days without sleep to care for the dead and their grieving families.
“I have always had the ability, through my long work hours, to stay awake and function mentally and physically,” Janssen said.
But he said it’s emotional and mental toughness that can make the difference in finishing the Iditarod.
Being an undertaker taught him something about emotional and mental toughness because it requires putting personal feelings aside in order to care for others, he said.
“It is that mental strength you need to go on,” he said.
Janssen estimates it is costing him $70,000 to race the Iditarod but said the experience is worth it. He loves the camaraderie, the thrill of having someone like defending champion Lance Mackey, perhaps the best musher the race has ever seen, walk over to chat.
Then, there’s the experience of being out on the trail, just him and his dog team on a cold, clear night.
“I think the stars are a little bit brighter up here and then have the Northern Lights come out above you,” Janssen said. “It is the closest thing to being with God other than being in church.”