Dying and Death Education professor Teaches Students Valuable lesson on Grief

By Avery Ballmann | Staff Writer

The first week of each month, from 5 p.m. Friday until 8 a.m. the next Friday, Dr. Craig Klempnauer is at the mercy of God’s will and a phone call, as a hospice chaplain for AccentCare.

Once the nurse confirms the death and the family requests a chaplain, Klempnauer drives to the family — within a 65- mile radius — to provide support until the body is retrieved. Klempnauer is present from the first hours the family experiences being without their loved one, to the visitation or funeral service. On top of this responsibility, he’s also a part-time lecturer for dying and death education at Baylor.

Since 2018, Klempnauer has taught this course, usually for students who are pursuing the medical field. Within the curriculum students plan their own funeral and visit a cemetery and funeral home.

“As a future physician, death is going to be important to that doctor’s practice,” Klempnauer said. “They can’t keep their patient alive forever and ever, so they need to know the outcome of death and what all that entails.”

Klempnauer is familiar with the details of death, from when it occurs to the behind- the-scenes procedures. When he’s on-call, Klempnauer said he attends three to four funeral services, while most of his students have never stepped foot into a funeral home before.

Klempnauer partners with Grace Gardens Funeral Home and Crematorium, located in Woodway, a place his students can tour to help overcome the eeriness that befriends death.

Kris Rhodes, Baylor alumna and funeral director at Grace Gardens, took dying and death education in the mid 1990s. When she began working at Grace Gardens, Rhodes said she inherited Craig.

When they arrived this October on a cold night, they were greeted by Rhodes and Glenda Holland, embalmer, funeral director and care center coordinator. The students were quiet and huddled around the fish tank while they made quick glances to the coffin in the other room.

“I love it, because it does take some of the mystery out of it,” Rhodes said. “You can tell they’re a little uncomfortable when they walk in because everybody expects funeral directors to be like ‘The Addams Family’ or something, and we’re just people.”

During the tour, Klempnauer, Rhodes and Holland were cracking jokes and sharing stories from what they’ve encountered in the business. Holland had all of her chemicals and instruments laid out next to the embalming table, and Rhodes showed the coffins and urns they offered. They took the students back to the crematorium, which was being used.

When students entered the embalming room, the smell of formaldehyde filled their noses, and many of them perked up with questions regarding that process. When asked how she copes with seeing deceased bodies, Holland pointed to her radio.

“I don’t really think about it during the day that much,” Holland said.

“I try to stay focused on what I’m doing, so I can make the person that I’m working with look the best that I can for the family, because it’s important to that family to get that closure.”

Like Holland, Klempnauer has ways to decompress after a day of being on-call. He usually watches the Game Show Network, because Steve Harvey in “Family Feud” is a mindless way for him to disconnect and recharge.

“Some were a little skeptical the first time entering into a funeral home — a little leery, not sure what to expect, even though I prepped and prepared them,” Klempnauer said. “But overall, the feeling that they shared was, ‘Hey, I’m glad I did this.’”

When Klempnauer’s class went through the tour of Grace Gardens in the spring, Round Rock junior Bayley Humphrey was enamored by the tour so much that she now works there part time.

“When I was able to go into the funeral home and visualize everything that we were learning and putting down in class, it really helped me learn in that perspective,” Humphrey said. “That class was just so interesting, because it just changed my whole point of view on the scary topic of death.”

Humphrey is pursuing a career as a pathologist assistant with a focus in autopsy pathology. She is also a hospice volunteer, because she was inspired by Klempnauer’s secondary job.

“He [Klempnauer] completely changed my life,” Humphrey said. “It [the class] made me decide that I really want to do autopsy pathology.”

When Rhodes took the class she said she learned valuable lessons, such as making sure the family feels that their loved one’s life still lives on. Rhodes and her team ensure the family feels this philosophy by fulfilling their unique requests, such as having the staff wear purple ties at the service, along with with loved ones.

“There’s so many details, if they’re having a full traditional service, it’s like planning a wedding, with none of the time.” Rhodes said.

Details include whether the person wants to be buried or cremated, whether they want a traditional service, prices for caskets or urns and more. Klempnauer teaches these fine-print details by having his students plan their own funerals. Holland said she has experienced families having no idea what their loved ones would have wanted.

“I think everybody that is in any kind of health care industry needs to know what happens when someone passes away,” Holland said.

Throughout his time at Baylor, Klempnauer has opened two sections of dying and death education and has helped students obtain jobs in the field.

“At the beginning of the semester, they would ask me, ‘Why am I taking this course?’” Klempnauer said. “But they realize at the end, there’s so much more to death and dying than just, ‘I’m going to the service.’ To know what goes on behind the scenes, what led up to that death, is amazing. And to see that growth take place, it gives me satisfaction for those that are going pre-med.”

Dying and Death Education professor teaches students valuable lessons on grief, graves | The Baylor Lariat