By Kristy Smith
Annabelle McCombs may look like a typical 16-year-old, but behind her outward appearance is an inner purpose that's surprising in its focus and intensity. She's just finished her junior year of high school through Pansophia Academy with her sights set on attending mortuary school 15 months from now.
A rigorous, dual-enrollment schedule has positioned McCombs to simultaneously graduate from high school and Kellogg Community College (KCC) in the spring of 2021. She'll start building on that KCC associate of general studies (AGS) coursework next fall, when she begins classes at the Cincinnati College of Mortuary Science, from which she expects to emerge at the age of 19 with a bachelor of science degree.
"I've already applied and received preliminary acceptance to the mortuary school, so now it's just a matter of time and finishing high school and community college classes to get there," McCombs said, adding here "dorm" there will involve residing at a funeral home in the community, for which she will also work while attending school.
McCombs' plan is not the typical choice for college housing, to be sure, but she said she is looking forward to it because it will bring her even closer to her goal of becoming a funeral director, a career path that unexpectedly came across her radar a couple of years ago, following the death of her great-grandmother, Letah AcMoody.
"At my grandma's visitation at Lighthouse Funeral & Cremation and then at the funeral at the church, I saw the two funeral directors, Tate (Goodwin) and Josh (Fleming) and their positive effect on everyone and it stuck with me," said McCombs. "They didn't just do what they had to do to get by, but they checked on the members of our family and went the extra mile. It made the situation lighter and our family was happier as a result."
McCombs began researching funeral directing as a career and sent Lighthouse owner Tate Goodwin a letter expressing her interest in the field and requested a tour of the funeral home and a chance to meet with him. Afterward, she continued to text him questions about his work and the profession, which she said he was always good about answering. She learned Goodwin also knew from about the approximate age she is rnow that he wanted to be a funeral director.
Last June, McCombs began job-shadowing Lighthouse funeral director Josh Fleming. In that capacity, she has helped prepare for and work at visitations and funerals, observe funeral pre-planning and meet with families following a death. She speaks appreciatively of being included in such learning experiences and her funeral home mentor praises her interest and efforts.
"It's very unusual to run into someone who understands so much at this young of an age," said Fleming. "Annabelle's very mature, has the right motivation for it and the drive to accomplish it. She truly cares about families. We've received compliments about her and there have been a lot of people already who have thanked her for what she has put into serving them at the funeral home."
Fleming believes that McCombs' early exposure to funeral work will serve her well going into mortuary school. He said that over the past nearly decade since he graduated from Worsham College of Mortuary Science, he has seen many of his classmates quit the profession.
"A lot of them didn't have a realistic idea of what to expect with the demands of funeral work. But Annabelle is getting up front, before she invests in a mortuary school education, a broad sample of the many different aspects of what a funeral director faces, sometimes on a daily basis. It's challenging work, but helping families makes it rewarding." McCombs agrees.
"Some people think it's strange that I'm helping at a funeral home and not living in that little high school moment that everyone else seems to be living in, but I'm very focused on the future," she said. "I don't miss the activities normally associated with high school that I have given up to focus on advancing my education."
Lest she be regarded as too one-dimensional or driven, McCombs has participated in summer softball with her peers and been involved in competitive dance with Dance Trilogy out of Coldwater. She's also worked at both Bronson Farms in the Union City area and at Station-66 in East Leroy. Even when very busy, her natural warmth and wonderful sense of humor are ever-present.
Declaring "funeral director" as her career choice has netted mixed responses and occasional nose-wrinkling from some people. According to McCombs, it's common to receive responses such as, "I don't envy you" or "Well, I suppose somebody has to do it." When she shared her plans during an icebreaker activity in one of her college classes, a classmate responded, "that's so sad."
"And a dental hygienist who works in people's mouths all day said it sounded gross," McCombs laughed. Still, she appreciates that since she's embarking upon a field that's still somewhat of a non-traditional career choice for women, she's likely to receive interesting feedback.
McCombs said her parents initially seemed taken aback a bit by their daughter's career aspirations. But as she's spent more time observing and helping at Lighthouse, her commitment to funeral service as a helping profession has eased their doubts. "They're just happy to see me happy and motivated to be successful in something that interests me."
Annabelle McCombs and Lighthouse Funeral & Cremation funeral director Josh Fleming (by Kristy Smith)