Compassion for the Dead Drives Unique Mortuary Technician to Help Families

  • Published
  • By Stacey Geiger
  • AFMC Public Affairs
On the soldier's service dress uniform, the woman evenly lines up all the medals and ribbons he achieved for years of sacrifice and dedication. She ensures his hair is neatly combed and his face looks flawless. She needs him to look perfect there in the coffin because she knows this will be the last image his family and friends will have of him when they come to say goodbye.   

For more than seven years, Stefanie Mullinix has been the mortuary technician at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio.

"I like to help people. I see people when they are in a terrible spot in their lives, usually the worst spot ever. It gives me a sense of gratification if I can help them through the process of getting their loved one buried," said Mullinix. 

Most people have no idea what happens when an active duty death occurs and how the military takes care of the deceased and their families; Mullinix doesn't necessarily want them to know either.

"There are a lot of things that families do not know about what I do from start to finish, and I don't tell them. What they do know is that we will make sure we are here for them, we will take care of their loved one and the deceased will look good," said Mullinix. 

Mullinix grew up around a funeral home. Her father was a mortician and she was exposed to death at a very young age. She recalls many times visiting her father at the funeral home,  running around and playing hide-and-seek. Despite those early experiences, it was never Mullinix's intention to become a mortuary technician. In fact, she had a passion for theater and earned an associate's degree in liberal arts.

After graduation, however, she realized her degree was not going to pay the bills. In an attempt to find something more solid, she joined the Army Reserves and started working at the same funeral home her father worked at doing odd jobs such as general help, transporting the deceased and setting up visitations. It was then that she figured, since she did find science interesting, she might as well go to mortuary school. 

In April 2002, Mullinix began attending the Cincinnati College of Mortuary Science, but school came to a hault in January 2003 when she received orders to deploy to Iraq. While she was serving her country as a M249 gunner, she often thought about her classmates back home graduating and receiving their mortuary licenses.

After a 15-month deployment and receiving numerous medals and awards--such as the Combat Action Badge, Army Commendation Medal, Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary
Medal and Iraq Campaign Medal--she picked up right where she left off and graduated in March 2004 with a bachelor's degree in mortuary science.

Mullinix then completed a mandatory one-year apprenticeship at a funeral home and took her state boards to officially become a licensed mortician. She started working as the mortuary technician at Wright-Patterson in December 2008.

Because Mullinix is also a licensed mortician, she is unique from the other mortuary technicians in the Air Force. She is able to help with embalming and cosmetics and knows exactly what the standards should be.

"It's not required for me to do but I can do it and I want to do it...It's a personal thing," said Mullinix. 

She is the first mortuary technician at the base who is also a licensed embalmer and possibly the only one who is both a mortuary technician and a licensed embalmer in the Air Force.

There are, of course, duties expected of every mortuary technician. As soon as there is a death notification, mortuary technicians contact the family to go over their entitlements and help with options for the funeral. They appoint a Family Assistance Representative who is usually a friend or coworker who knew the deceased well. This person acts as a liaison for the family and is available to assist with any questions or concerns the family may have. Mortuary Technicians also appoint and train a Summary Courts Officer who inventories the deceased's personal belongings at the work station and home. The Courts Officer is also required to check for any open accounts on the base, post a notice for any claims and work with transportation to send all the deceased's belongings to the person entitled to receive them. An escort is also appointed and trained by the mortuary technician. The escort will accompany the body until it has reached its final resting place. During the travel, this escort ensures an American Flag remains properly draped over the coffin and if cremated, the escort will carry the urn and a folded flag.  Lastly if needed, the honor guard and chaplain are scheduled, and then all the paperwork is finalized for the funeral expenses as well as any travel expenses for family members.

 And Mullinix fulfills these duties as expected.  But she doesn't stop there.
What fuels her to go beyond expectation is her passion for helping others during such difficult times. She chooses to personally assist with embalming.  She chooses to dress the deceased and make sure the  uniform is worn within the Air Force standard. She chooses to ensure that everything is proper from inspecting the casket for dents and scratches to positioning the hands and head correctly.

"Everything needs to look good because it matters," she said. 

Mullinix recalled a case she handled where the deceased had serious damage to the head as a result of a gunshot. She personally did the restorative work. The family later commended her for all her meticulous work. They feared the head wound would be visible, but were so thankful when it was not.

"Stefanie is unique because she came with the mortuary experience, and that is special. She will do anything to help ease the difficulites for the family, and her dedication to making it right is obvious," said Joe Clawson, Chief of Readiness and Plans and Mullinix's supervisor.

Mullinix may think the families are not aware of what she silently does, but in fact they are. Her affection and dedication for the deceased is clearly apparent when they look at their loved one that one last time.

"The appreciation letters and cards that I receive and having people tell me that despite the circumstances, they are glad they made a new lifelong friend--it feels great and it makes it all worthwhile," she said. 

On the soldier's service dress uniform, Mullinix evenly lines up all the medals and ribbons he achieved for years of sacrifice and dedication.

"It's a tragic honor to be able to do what I can do for the fallen soldiers and their loved ones."