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Former Art Student Finds Her Calling In A Funeral Home: ‘We’re The Last To Put A Smile On Your Face’

Noble Square resident Anna Wolak discovered the artistry and compassion needed to work in the business of death — and fell in love.

Anna Wolak, 31, graduated from Malcolm X City Colleges as Valedictorian. The Noble Square resident earned her degree in mortuary science and plans to work in Chicago funeral homes.
Hannah Alani / Block Club Chicago
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NOBLE SQUARE — After a decade of juggling jobs in food service and the local music scene, Noble Square resident and art school graduate Anna Wolak has finally found her calling: making the dead look more alive.

Last month, Wolak graduated as valedictorian of Malcolm X City College, 1900 W. Jackson Blvd. She earned her Associate’s Degree in Mortuary Science and will intern at Christian Funeral Home in Avondale. 

With a 4.0 GPA, Wolak was the city college’s first valedictorian to study the science of death.

Wolak, 31, moved to Chicago in 2008 after attending art school in Pittsburgh. She took on “token art school jobs,” such as bartending and working in groceries and bookstores.

That passion for art shines through in her work and Wolak said working in a funeral home is as much an art as it is a science.

First, there’s the literal craft of embalming and reconstructing a deceased person’s face using special fluids and make-up. 

Inside the mock embalming room at Malcolm X , special make-up is used to construct and mold faces of celebrities — muscles, hair follicles and all. Skin colors come in “peach,” “suntan” and other varieties. 

The time-consuming project brought Chicago native Kanye West’s face to the laboratory. Wolak, a “Golden Girls” fan, chose to replicate Bea Arthur’s face.

Credit: Hannah Alani/Block Club Chicago
A peak inside the Malcolm X City College’s Mortuary Science lab, where students learn the art and science of the funeral home business.

“We say, ‘We’re the last one to put a smile on your face. We’re the last one to put you down,'” Wolak said, with a laugh. 

Then there’s the more abstract — and much more serious — art of effectively connecting with fragile, grieving families who are going through the worst experience of their lives. 

During school, Wolak said she was struck by how emotional and cathartic her studies were at Maclom X. Her flash cards and study guides combined the memorization of human body parts with analysis of family structures and grief processes.

“I didn’t think I was capable and smart enough,” Wolak said. “I needed to get kicked around by life a little bit before coming to this.”

Wolak discovered her passion a few years ago when her grandfather landed in home hospice care, that she realized her passion for mortuary science.

During her grandfather’s final days and after his death, Wolak took note of how caring and thoughtful the funeral home staff was for her and her family.

“They were two men in perfectly pressed suits. … My mom fell asleep, and they tucked her in with an Afghan,” she said. “In that moment, I realized, ‘I need to do this.’”

After her grandfather’s funeral, Wolak searched for mortuary science programs in Chicago and came across Malcolm X — Chicago’s only mortuary science program. She immediately enrolled.

During Wolak’s pre-placement interview two years ago, Karen Scott — the program’s director — said she stood out as a student who was going to excel.

“She does not have a sense of complacency,” Scott said. “Her work ethic [is] a no-excuse mentality. She has a humble spirit.”

That spirit is important in the funeral home industry, Scott said.

“I’ve attempted to walk out at 4 or 5 p.m. If a family comes in crying, you turn back around,” she said. “Some days I don’t eat until 10 p.m. People don’t understand the rigors. … Every family is different. It’s not cookie-cutter.”

A Chicago native, Scott’s first job in high school was working as a typist in the Cook County morgue. That job introduced her to funeral directors, with whom Scott became “smitten” — in the professional sense.  Similar to Wolak, she noted.

While most graduates pursue careers at funeral homes, some head to the medical examiner’s office to work for Cook County, Scott said.

“I wanted to know what, why and how,” she said. “I wanted to understand what [funeral directors] do.”

Funeral homes are mostly family-owned businesses, so Chicago’s morticians either come up through the family business or learn the ropes at Malcolm X, Scott said.

The program itself is two-years long and while it is rooted in science and business studies, it blends in courses about effectively communicating with grieving families.

“Mortuary science and death care is more about the living than the dead in a lot of ways,” Wolak said.

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