Several months ago, I was honored to be introduced to a professional writer in the Funeral Service field I was already quite fond of. This meeting led to an interview, and below is what resulted from that interview and was published in the November 2015 issue of Texas Director Magazine, a printed publication for Funeral Service Professionals and members of the Texas Funeral Director’s Association. I am pleased to share that article with you now.
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AUSTIN’S NEWEST FUNERAL DIRECTOR BRINGS UNIQUELY ARTISTIC BACKGROUND, PASSION TO HER PROFESSION
By Alice Adams
For the little girl who always arrived home from school, her hands covered in notes, reminders and doodles, her life was highlighted with rich diversity — life in the city of Lubbock during the school term and summers and weekends on her grandparents’ farm in New Home.
As Melissa N. Unfred, CFSP and Funeral Director for the new Distinctive Life Cremations & Funerals in Austin, recalls, “My grandfather was a cotton farmer who played an active role in my early life.”
A memento mori tattooed on her rib cage replicates her grandfather’s guiding words, “If it’s going to be, it’s up to me.”
Unfred’s grandfather’s wisdom has continued to be her personal mantra.
“I was an exceptional student in high school,” she remembered, “when I wasn’t distracted, but that changed when I went to mortuary school. It was totally different for me, studying mortuary science, because I was doing something I loved.”
Like many high school graduates of her generation, Unfred had no clue about what she wanted to do with her life after she graduated from Lubbock Coronado High School in 1997…and needed a chance to find out.
“During my years in public school, I had been on the swim team, the marching band in junior high and choir in high school, but I preferred working in the art room in high school. Art and choir became my primary outlets for self-expression,” she said, “plus I was determined to be independent and, along with that independent streak, I also leaned toward being a bit rebellious.”
Trying to choose between her enjoyment of music and the creative aspects of art, the summer of 1998, Unfred moved to the Dallas-Fort Worth area, where she was lucky enough to meet the standards of Six Flags Over Texas and was hired to work as a face painter for Astro Art Amusements.
“As an older teen, trying to figure out my journey, that job was perfect,” said the director, looking back to the earlier half of her life. “I did face painting and hair coloring, interacting with all kinds and personalities of people while having the opportunity to be creative every day.”
That first job at Six Flags also offered Unfred daily lessons in listening to what each customer was saying…what designs they expected, what look they wanted, what — using her artistic abilities — would satisfy them, make them happy and encourage them to return on their next visit.
Moving back to Lubbock as a more mature woman, now in her mid-20s, she sought more training, more lessons from the retail arena, always selected to take on management roles after relatively short periods in less-responsible-but-equally-demanding sales positions.
“I became the obvious leadership choice because I knew how to listen,” she said. “I had honed my skills, early on, in the ability to find out what each individual customer wanted and expected.”
Her style, she said, was always to sit on the sidelines, analyzing the situation before being certain she could make a positive difference. “Until I know the people and figure out how to incorporate the necessary moving parts, I’m like a wallflower before I feel qualified to engage,” Unfred explained.
Not having anyone in funeral service in her family, her first exposure to funeral service came almost on a lark.
“My mother had heard a news story about a Lubbock funeral home and suggested somewhat jokingly, I might want to apply,” Unfred recalled. “Billie White-Everett at White Funeral Home was hiring summer help, so I made an appointment to interview with her…and maybe it was because she knew my grandfather, but I got the job and went to work, running death certificates and other odd jobs.”
Before reporting to work at the funeral home, Unfred said she had only attending two other funerals, those of her great-grandparents. “I was about seven and my first memory was standing about eye-level with the casket, staring at my great-grandfather and waiting for something to happen. Of course, I had no idea what that ‘something’ might be, but I was waiting, nonetheless.”
Her part-time job at White Funeral Home proved to be itinerary-changing on the young woman’s life journey. “Being at the funeral home, watching Mrs. White-Everett lead with so much poise with such a high level of compassionate strength impressed me,” Unfred said. “Seeing what was happening behind the scenes and seeing the art, dedication and hard work happening during embalming and cosmetizing also impressed me.”
Like the voracious learner she had been all her life, the young woman learned from everyone at the funeral home, from the seasoned directors and embalmers to the apprentices and the older part-time drivers. “Being a quick study helped me learn invaluable lessons and what I gleaned goes into everything I do today,” Unfred added.
She also enthusiastically admits to being an inveterate “fan girl” of the well-known Restorative Art guru, Vernie Fountain, and a huge supporter of The Order of the Good Death, and founder Caitlin Doughty of YouTube “Ask a Mortician” fame.
“I can’t tell you exactly when or why, but I always knew funeral service was something I wanting to do, so after moving back to Lubbock to be closer to my twins, I saw in the newspaper where the mortuary science program at Amarillo College had just gotten their accreditation. Within minutes, I called the program and shortly thereafter was working on getting my licenses. I blew thru the 2 year program in one year and one semester, taking as many courses as I could each semester to finish early. I graduated with a 3.7 GPA and was a member of Phi Theta Kappa National Honor Society.
“Looking back, if there had been a mortuary program at Texas Tech University or South Plains College, I would have gotten my licenses sooner, but access to education held me back,” she confided.
In January 2013, Melissa Nicole Unfred was licensed as a Funeral Director and an embalmer by the State of Texas after serving as a provisional in nearby Abernathy and embalming cases at Combest Funeral Home and Miller Mortuary because, as she explained, “I needed to complete a certain number of cases within a certain period.”
After finding, and weighing, her options, she moved to Austin in October 2014 and decided to find her “dream job” after making the move. “One of the main reasons Austin was attractive,” she explained, “was I had a cousin here, willing to let me bunk with them until I was established and financially stable, and Texas’ first Natural Burial Park was located next door in Cedar Creek, Texas.”
After unloading the basics and storing the remaining boxes, the newly-licensed funeral director found volunteer work in the performance community with the help of her cousin and their friends.
“My cousin’s wife is a long-standing member of the ‘Bat City Bombshells,’ an authentic burlesque performance group and the largest in Austin,” the director said, adding she had been a fan of burlesque since high school, when she read about the Matriarch of Burlesque, Sally Rand, and her artistically seductive fan dances.
“The Bombshells are a mix of Classical and Neo Burlesque artists,” Unfred explained, “and no, I have no rhythm, I can’t dance, but I admire the ability of those in the group and serve as what they call “a Kitten,” better known as Stage Crew. My job during performances includes working with props and picking up after the acts.”
And the connection between stage-managing a burlesque troupe and funeral service?
“First of all, I’m involved in the community as a volunteer and have the ability to meet so many interesting people,” she said, “and it’s one more unique thing to add to my obituary!”
The burlesque group performs a number of shows annually, and Melissa also volunteers for a non-profit Austin fundraiser group called Austin Influential Group, who recently raised funds from a show for Safe Place, a shelter for abused women and their children, and will next make fundraising contributions from their Valentine’s Day, Opulence Ball, to Austin Pets Alive!
Shortly after settling in Austin and as she was searching for the right first job, she saw a piece about a mobile funeral home. “I started doing my research and realized, OMG! This director’s doing what I want to do — he’s giving people what they want. His message was what I was feeling.”
That director was Jeff Friedman, President and Founder of Distinctive Life in Houston.
“So I emailed him and asked, “Why aren’t you in Austin?” she remembered. “He emailed back:’ Come to Houston. Let’s talk!'”
“March 12 of 2015, we opened Distinctive Life’s first Austin location,” Unfred beamed. “I’m doing exactly what I envisioned,” she continued. “I make removals, go to the families and help fulfill their wishes for the service. I am with them at the cemetery, the memorial or whatever they plan for the disposition. I’m their director- beginning to end.”
Some might say this director is overly-aggressive, on the fringes. She sees it differently. “I think it’s all about persistence, like my grandfather always said: If it’s going to be, it’s up to me. Papa Joe was our patriarch and very important in my life,” Unfred said. “I live by what he taught me, and have — in his handwriting — that advice tattooed on my ribs as a memento mori, as close to my heart as possible.”
Has she been met with any resistance in her role as a funeral director, considering her hair is accented with red and purple swaths, well-hidden under her darker hair…and her only obvious tattoos are those on her feet.
“I’m finding a culture of acceptance,” Unfred pointed out. “Here, people are accepted and accept others for the people they are, not so much what’s on the outside.”
The families she has served rank this spirited young woman as an outstanding funeral director. “I think it’s because I’m real, nonjudgmental and because I listen,” she explained. “Not only am I a mortuary science professional, but I also play the supportive role well. In the bigger picture, I am a very small part of the final chapter of someone’s life story. It’s a huge responsibility…and I take it seriously.”
Most workdays begin at 6 a.m. and end close to midnight. “I’m exhausted,” she agreed, “but I’m also excited I’ve been able to get so much done, plus my day has been filled with interactions with many and varied people. It’s not a job, it is a commitment and a life style.”
She said the hardest part of her job is death, itself. “It’s the biggest part and the hardest part. Every decedent had a role to play in someone’s life or they may have touched hundreds, even thousands of people in their lifetime, so my job is how I can help the family pay tribute to, and celebrate this precious life…and it’s also about how you handle the arrangement details, how professionally you do your job and what you do to help everyone involved,” she explained.
“As a Funeral Director, I have the ability to soften the blow of loss,” she continued. “I’m there in a supporting role in the time of need to alleviate any stress, worry, questions — that’s service to the family and it’s what families deserve from the funeral director.”
She takes pride as a professional in being a Funeral Director 24/7, 365. “If the phone rings, you’re a Funeral Director first. That’s the commitment I’ve made,” Unfred said.
“At Distinctive Life, we are truly a team where we all support each other,” the director continued, “and Jeff Friedman and my team have encouraged me to be a part of TFDA and to be actively involved in our professional association…and my ability to serve in all aspects of funeral service and my profession is due to the culture of Distinctive Life and it’s leadership.”
So, what happens if the Bat City Bombshells are performing and the director gets a call? “I always have a suit and heels in my car, so if a call comes, I can be ready to go in minutes…and wherever I go, I always look for the exit before I sit down. I’m like an alternate universe Wonder Woman.”
Like every veteran director knows, as soon as you have something planned, someone is going to need you more.
“It’s all part of my commitment to the funeral profession,” Unfred acknowledges. “I get to do a job I’m honored and happy about every day…and, as someone said — and I believe — if you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life.
Being a funeral director, I am privileged to realize my passion every day,” she said, “and I believe families can sense and see whether or not you’re genuine.”
The director, who recently earned her CFSP designation, is an active member of the Texas Funeral Director’s Association and serves on the Ethics Committee and the Programs and Education Committee. She is also a member of the South Central Regional Funeral Directors Association and the National Funeral Director’s Association, and attends the quarterly meetings of the Texas Funeral Service Commission.
Melissa was recently selected to attend the National Funeral Director’s Association’s 2016 Meet the Mentors Program March 13-15th in Atlanta, Georgia!