Jon L. Fullerton is used to his friends' joking about his profession.
"How's business? Pretty dead?" they say, winking at him.
Fullerton, 47, has been a funeral director and an embalmer for 28 years. He recently replaced Bill Wilkerson as the general manager of Alaskan Memorial Park & Mortuary.
Wilkerson retired after more than four decades of serving the dead and their families. He spent the last 11 years of his career in Juneau.
Fullerton may take jokes about death lightly but he treats death itself seriously.
"I am taking care of people's loved ones. It's a big responsibility," said Fullerton, 47.
He experienced the grief of losing a loved one at a young age. His wife, Elaine, developed a brain tumor in 1984 and died within a year of her diagnosis. Their older daughter, Jami Lyn, was 7 and the younger one, Dawn, 4.
"You realized what it was like to be on that side of death, talking to a funeral director," Fullerton said.
He gets more emotional when arranging a funeral than while embalming a body, he said.
"When you talk to family members to help them arrange a funeral, they are drawing you into their circle. You get to know the deceased as a person.
"I don't get as emotional when I am in the preparation room. I find that part of work fascinating, trying to restore the person to what the families remember," Fullerton said. "It's important for some people to see their loved ones for the last time and have that closure."
Vicky Villanueva, who lost her sister to cancer in July, said Fullerton treated her like his own family.
"He was very supportive and accommodating," Villanueva said. "When he received the death certificate, he stopped by my house and gave it to me so I didn't need to drive to the funeral home."
Steve Olmstead, pastor of Chapel by the Lake, said Fullerton is kind, sensitive and courteous to the families he helps.
Despite his dedication to serving the dead, being a mortician was never Fullerton's top career choice.
He majored in music in college and wanted to be a high school band teacher, but there were no openings when he graduated.
"It was in the '70s and there was a recession," Fullerton said. "Schools were either laying off their music teachers or stopped hiring."
When Fullerton worked as a security guard at a hospital while he was in college, an undertaker he knew there eventually convinced him to go to school to be a mortician.
Fullerton took the advice.
Since graduating from Cypress College's mortuary science program in 1981, Fullerton has worked at various funeral homes in Modesto and Sonora, Calif.
He said people's attitudes toward death have changed a lot in the past 30 years.
"When I first got into the business, we lived in a death-denial society. It was something that wasn't discussed," Fullerton said. "Now people talk about it more openly. I got HBO so I could watch "Six Feet Under," a popular television series set in a Los Angeles funeral home.
Fullerton said he volunteered to transfer to Juneau to come to his roots. He grew up in Fairbanks, Anchorage and Kodiak.
"In Modesto, we had 100 funerals a month. We have about 175 funerals a year here," Fullerton said. "I can spend more time with families."
Fullerton usually starts his day at 7 a.m. so he can talk to family members on the East Coast or in foreign countries. Many of his summer clients are cruise ship passengers.
Fullerton is bringing a new line of service to Juneau's funerals.
Family members can give him up to 12 pictures of the deceased. He scans the pictures and makes a video presentation of the deceased with music.
The presentation will be stored permanently on a Web site. Friends and family members can read the obituary, update the Web site and sign a guest book.
"It makes everlasting memories," said Fullerton, who made a video presentation as a tribute to his wife.
In addition to providing new services, Fullerton is learning from every funeral and every client.
"This is not a job you can just kick back and settle in," Fullerton said. "Every funeral is different. You learn something new every day."
I-Chun Che can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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