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A guitar rests against the wall, and a huge bear grins crookedly from a rocking chair across the room. The handsome 24-year-old comfortably lounging in his Bart Simpson T-shirt appears to be a typical college student. But this student isn't so typical. His goal isn't to be a doctor, an engineer or banker.

Shawn Warenski wants to become a mortician."Death has always been a mystery," Warenski said. "And the fascination of the unknown has always intrigued me."

Warenski first became intrigued with the idea of becoming a funeral director while on his mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints to Pittburgh, Pa.

"That's basically where it all came together," he said.

Missionaries were often called in to help dress the LDS deceased in their burial clothes, he said.

"I was apprehensive at first," Warenski said, "because I'd never been near a dead body before." But, after a few times Warenski became more comfortable in that role. "It took me about a year to get used to the bodies, to their look and feel. You have to adapt."

But that's true about a lot of professions, he said. "For instance, once I worked as a painter and we had to get used to the fumes."

When Warenski came home after his mission he decided to check out just what it took to become a mortician. He began by getting a job in a funeral home where he was a groundskeeper, delivered death certificates and helped with funerals. He soon found that he wanted to be an undertaker.

Dealing with the living

His philosophy includes trying to relate to what the deceased were like when they were alive. "I always try to think of the individuals. What were they like? What did they contribute?"

The fascination for Warenski, however, is not so much working with the dead, but working with the living who are in grief. "You have to always be aware of the family's needs," said Warenski. You have to be willing to console the families and allow them to express their feelings, he said.

Tamara Warenski, Shawn's wife of eight months, said he has just the right personality his chosen profession takes.

"He's good with families," she said. "He's empathetic. And he get's satisfaction from that. Compassion is the one word that describes this profession."

Tamara has even gotten into the business, too. A licensed beautician, she has been called in to style the hair of the deceased on occasion. Although she is still uncomfortable being alone in a room with a dead person, Tamara said she has her own way of dealing with her anxieties.

"I picture them as asleep," she said."They are really pretty and have a peaceful look."

Warenski said his wife has been a great support to him. "A lot of the first dates we went on included Tamara sitting in a mortuary, waiting," he said. "She was willing to make the sacrifice for me to help me meet the goals I set."

Morticians aren't morbid

People often have preconceived notions about morticians. They think they must be ghoulish. "I'm proud of what I do," Warenski said, "but people don't understand about being an undertaker."

"People think he's morbid," Tamara said, "but he's very humorous; he's a tease. He's very playful, and he's very down to earth. He's just a kid at heart. You have to be in this business. If you carried it with you, you'd go crazy."

Warenski agrees. "It's a high stress job. I've learned that I can't take my work home."

Currently employed as an apprentice by Goff Mortuary, 8090 S. State, Midvale, Warenski works days and is on call every other night and every other weekend.

"You work hard and you play hard," he said.

He enjoys sculpting, photography, hiking, biking, playing the guitar and spending time with his wife - not so different from any other young, newly married student.

Warenski has completed 90 hours of college credit at the Salt Lake Community College in general education as well as a one-year resident apprenticeship - two requirements under Utah State law to become a funeral director. Now he must attend one year of school studying mortuary science. He plans on going to Mt. Hood Community College in Gresham, Ore., next fall.

Following school Warenski hopes to come back to Salt Lake City to work and, eventually, own his own mortuary. But it's tough to get started here. Most Utah mortuaries are family owned and operated.

But Warenski remains undaunted. To him, it is his purpose in life.

"It's a calling," he said. "It entails caring for something valuable. You have to handle all individuals with the utmost respect. If you're not willing to do that, then you don't need to be in this business.

"It's important to be personal, professional and to show people you can laugh and cry and that you can be there when they need you," he said. "You have to always bear in mind you're helping someone.

"It's a beautiful job. I can't think of anything I'd rather do in life."