Photo courtesy of Bethani Jacobsen
Bethani Jacobsen, 26, was a beauty queen—and a good one, at that. Nowadays, she wakes up in the morning, saunters to the kitchen for a cup of coffee and takes her two French bulldogs, Brodie and Cash, outside. Walking past framed photos of herself, her sister and her mom in their pageant attire throughout the years, she makes her way to the bathroom where she quickly puts on her makeup for the day, the same way she’ll later do on a corpse.
Bethani then hops into her car for her minute-long drive to work. The former Miss Illinois International pulls into the parking lot of Strang Funeral Home for another day in the business of death.
These days, Bethani is a mortician and embalmer, a real-life Miss Congeniality turned Morticia Addams.
While the decision was surprising to many, Bethani knew this career choice was a longtime coming. It all began when she arrived at her great grandparents’ funeral service when she was in kindergarten—the first funeral service she’d ever been to, at the same place she would later be employed.
Young Bethani took notice of the shaggy maroon carpeting, the pale wood-paneled walls, the flower bouquets carefully peppered around the room, sent from well-wishers who couldn’t attend, and the polished mahogany pews; she felt right at home.
“I always knew I wanted to be a funeral director,” she said, “I was definitely a weird kid. I was always so interested in death and dying.”
Bethani was also a quiet kid. So quiet, in fact, that she was held back from kindergarten because her teacher didn’t think she was ready to move on to the first grade. Her shyness continued on until middle school, when her mother suggested she try pageants.
Mrs. Jacobsen was a beauty queen in her own right. When Bethani’s older sister, Brittani, was six-years old, Mrs. Jacobsen decided to enroll them both in a pageant. Over the years, both of them took home crown after crown, becoming a hobby for the blonde-haired, green-eyed mother-daughter duo.
Pageants, it seemed, ran in the family—and it wasn’t long before Bethani was roped in next. The brown-haired, brown-eyed, tan-skinned 13-year old reluctantly joined her first one.
“I put up a big fit,” she said, “but I tried it and ended up winning.”
After that first win, Bethani couldn’t get enough. Pageants were the only thing on her teenage mind. Her tomboy phase was over, she now donned dresses at every occasion, and she finally felt comfortable enough to talk in front of crowds. She had found a lifelong passion.
Still, this was only one of the reasons she continued to compete. It was around this time that her parents went through a divorce. Pageants became a perfect storm for Bethani: a place to combat her social anxiety and to soothe her familial worries.
Seeing her daughters be successful and confident in pageants made their newly single mother happy through the dark times of divorce, which made Bethani want to compete even more. While performing, she could see that both sides of her family came together to watch her on stage. Her parents, even when they detested one another, would sit by each other for the show and bring her flowers after a performance. Family was always at the heart of the decisions Bethani made.
Which is why it was so surprising when Bethani declared to her family that she wanted to work as a mortician.
“I think I had a lot of people doubting me and thinking that what I was doing was weird—which it totally is,” she laughed, “it is weird.”
In her mind, however, this was a way to help families just like hers through the most tragic events of their lives.
It was during these substantial teenage years that Bethani’s career path became solidified. Her mother, attempting as much support as possible, wanted to ensure that her daughter could see a dead body before paying for an expensive school. So, when Bethani’s sophomore year of high school rolled around, she called upon a family friend for her daughter to shadow at a funeral home nearby their suburban Illinois home.
After years of shadowing, Bethani was off to college in Iowa for a bachelor’s degree. Despite it being unnecessary for a mortician to have a traditional 4-year degree in Illinois, Bethani was not ready to start her career yet, so she made her own major and graduated with the newly founded “mortuary sciences” degree at Upper Iowa University.
Bethani then returned to her hometown to attend a college of mortuary sciences for her certificate. At college, Bethani and her classmates would gather every day for six-hour classes, with no holidays or days off, then one day a week for six hours after classes to work on cadavers.
The cadavers were typically homeless people whose bodies were never claimed from the Cook County morgue. In hopes that someone would eventually identify them, many of the bodies were severely decomposed by the time the students arrived. Bethani and her classmates learned how to sculpt clay to reconstruct their faces before burial.
After graduating, Bethani began breaking the glass ceiling of the death industry with her work. Heading out into the job market is not an easy task for a person whose family is not already in the funeral business, and especially for a woman.
According to the 2016 census, only 28 percent of morticians are females, let alone beauty queens. On top of being a female in a male-dominated field, 89.2 percent of funeral homes are family businesses, which made it hard for an outsider like her to get a job.
While the mortuary business is traditionally highly saturated with males, Bethani says women in the field were on the rise. She saw more women in her graduating class and the classes below her than the statistics led her to believe, giving her hope for the future of the industry.
Still, she acknowledges the prevalence of sexism in her field. Old-fashioned men, Bethani says, are the root of the problem; believing that women don’t have the physical strength, leadership qualities or the gusto to be in the backroom working on bodies.
“Not every funeral home treats women poorly, but I will say, unfortunately, there are many that are still stuck in the 1950s,” she said, “it does give us a setback sometimes.”
Luckily, when she was fully licensed, Bethani was offered a job from a family-owned funeral home in Antioch, Illinois that treats her as one of their own. Now, three years later, she lives in an apartment directly across the street from the funeral home, because one thing remains certain for Miss Illinois—in the business of death, work is Bethani’s life.
Some days, living across the street from work makes perfect sense. When she gets a call at 2 in the morning that a person has passed, it’s her job to drive over to work, pick up the hearse, and head out to pick up the body alone. On these days, Bethani knows it’ll be a long day at the office.
After parking the hearse back in its spot back at the funeral home, she and the body head to the backroom where she will begin the process of embalming.
The beauty queen then cuts open the skin, finds the corpse’s arteries, injects formaldehyde into their veins to drain out their blood, and patches their body back up.
In those early morning hours alone with the corpse, in the windowless medical area of a funeral home, she says she feels the presence of their soul watching over her embalming for a little while.
Naturally, Bethani is a bit superstitious. When a body comes into the funeral home with their feet crossed, she says it means that bodies will come in threes, and she can expect two more bodies to arrive at the home later.
When this happens, she says, “you’re gonna be working a lot for the rest of the night.”
Bethani also calls 3 a.m. the “devil’s hour” and gets a little freaked out coming to work during a full moon. During these times, she says, “Strange things do happen.”
While she is typically unbothered when it comes to the nauseating sights and smells of her office, the 26-year-old admits she does feel grossed out sometimes.
“I can embalm someone and be just fine and have no problems,” she said. It’s the more natural, mundane occurrences that bother her. Oddly enough, it’s the bodily fluids, Bethani says, that leave her feeling disgusted.
On a typical day, meaning a day when she doesn’t have to go pick up a dead body in the middle of the night, she starts the day like many of us—with emails. Next, comes the visitations with families. Prayers, mass, morning services, funeral arrangements and more services at night, all with coffee fueling her throughout the day.
Bethani is a funeral service jack-of-all-trades: she directs the funerals, plans arrangements with families, embalms and reconstructs bodies and even tends to her funeral home’s social media.
Pageantry for her comes in a bit of a different form nowadays. Being a beauty queen, oddly enough, relates plenty to her current gig.
When people ask her those tough questions while planning their loved ones’ funerals, when the pressure falls on her to scrounge together an answer in the heat of the moment, she is able to calmly answer their concerns. And in the business of death, the sad and outrageous questions are expected from grieving funeral goers.
No mortuary school could teach her this skill, she says, that ability comes straight from her days in the spotlight.
“Pageants have really taught me how to take a deep breath, take it in, and then answer,” she said.
She also learned how to engage crowds through pageants. When people look to her to lead a perfect funeral service for their loved one, she must deliver exactly what they hope for. Her support system says she’s the perfect woman for the job.
“If I had someone as bright and bubbly as her directing the funeral, I would feel so much more comfortable,” said family friend Julie Gleason, 53, who lost her mother in 2017. “She lights up any room that she’s in.”
While a beauty queen leading a funeral service may seem out-of-place, it may be exactly what the industry needs—a strong, charismatic, passionate young woman leading people through their grief.
Bethani says a common misconception about her profession is that people believe you turn cold-hearted after all the loss you’ve seen. For her, it’s just the opposite.
“We’re trained not to cry. But on the inside, our hearts are melting. We’re holding it together for the family. But really, we’re just like everyone else. It makes us a little more mushy towards little life moments and things like that,” she said.
She says this job has caused her to “become kind of corny,” and led her to believe clichés like living every day to the fullest while we’re still here on earth.
Bethani is so committed to this notion, in fact, that she even has a tattoo to prove it. Stretching across her forearm is a portrait of hydrangeas, her favorite flower, which is also common for a funeral bouquet, inside a mason jar half-filled with liquid.
“I did it to signify that you should always look at life with the glass half-full,” she said, “that was the biggest thing that I learned about funeral directing, so I thought, why not make it permanent?”
Bethani’s positivity was tested just a month ago, when her grandfather passed away and she was on the opposite end of the funeral process for once. She recalls understanding firsthand what it was like for her clients to deal with loss.
Instead of having someone else handle the death arrangements, she took matters into her own hands—literally. Bethani administered her own grandfather’s embalming and funeral service.
“It’s very difficult to see that and be in that position, but at the end of the day, I wouldn’t want anyone else to do it,” she said.
Even with the loss she sees daily, Bethani still regards death as her biggest fear. Oddly enough, this didn’t deter her from her career path, but invigorated her passion even more.
“It’s rewarding to know that I’m conquering my biggest fear every day, just through helping people,” she said.
Still, many times she finds herself taking home the grief she sees during the day. Separating the emotions of her work from her life at home is a hard task for the mortician.
“A lot of times I have to tell myself: it’s someone else’s family, although it’s sad, it’s not my family and I have to be very grateful that I’m alive, that I still have my family. But I will say, that’s my biggest thing: I feel too empathic at times. It can be physically and mentally draining,” she said.
In fact, Bethani struggles with anxiety and feelings of depression at times.
“When seasonal depression sets in, just like anyone that may not be in this profession, it sets in when it gets cold out or darker earlier—add death and sadness on top of that, it can be quite a bit,” she said. With such a big burden to carry alone, Bethani tries remembering the big picture when these dark feelings close in: she’s making a positive difference for people every day.
Bethani attributes these feelings as one of the reasons she’s still single. After she comes home from a long day at work, sometimes she just prefers alone time to process all of the emotion she saw that day. Relationships can be an added stressor on top of an already demanding profession.
Still, the beauty queen tries to put herself out there. She’s currently on Hinge, a dating app where users can display their occupation along with their other information. For Bethani, most conversations over the app begin with men asking her about her “interesting” career choice.
She typically answers these questions in a very held-back manner, in hopes of not scaring them off too quickly. If she comes on too strong with discussions about her work, men can be turned off to her entirely, no matter how interested in her career they may seem.
Most first dates she goes on, Bethani explains, feel more like a job interview than anything.
“I’m not gonna lie, sometimes it’s a little draining because I do work quite a bit and it can be a lot to talk about work after work,” she said.
On top of explaining her choices to every potential boyfriend, she also has to deal with balancing a busy work schedule and a prospective relationship. Some workdays last from 3 a.m. to 7 p.m., with every weekend booked up for services, and plenty of time being away from her phone. Bethani was in a 3-year long relationship that ended recently, one reason being that even when she was present, her partner felt that she wasn’t fully there after work.
This, in turn, means that a future partner for Bethani must be very flexible. She hopes that this will become a reality for the family she wants someday.
“On days when I want to be alone or I want to binge eat everything because I saw the worst possible thing, I just want someone to appreciate that and I haven’t gotten that fully yet,” she said, “But, I’m certain that someone out there will understand it.”
Surrounded by sadness every day, the beauty queen, nevertheless, maintains hope for the future.
In her apartment, just across the street from Strang Funeral Home, she put up a small fake Christmas tree with decorations sprinkled throughout the living room, two months in advance to the holidays. After she comes home from a long day of corpses and formaldehyde, it’s the little things that add joy to her day.
“This job has really taught me to be grateful that I woke up another day to do what I love,” the former Miss Illinois International said, smiling.
When she walks past photos of herself, her sister, and her mother all donning crowns and sashes as she heads out to work for the day, she is assured of one thing—Miss Congeniality makes a damn good Morticia Addams.