ZERBE TOWNSHIP - Jessica Venesky is a rarity in her field.

In addition to being one of the youngest funeral directors in the area, she's also part of the minority who have opened, rather than inherited, their business.

For Venesky, opening Venesky Cremation Services was a necessity if she wanted to pursue her dream of operating a business in her area of expertise.

"Nobody wants to sell their funeral home," she said. "It's really, really hard if you're not family owned to get in the service."

Venesky would know; she's on friendly terms with most funeral directors in the area because she operated as a contract worker for five years, working on call for 10 different funeral homes.

She's starting her own - with the cremation work itself done elsewhere - in an usual location as well: in a former beauty parlor between a laundromat and a shuttered pizza shop in a small strip mall just east of Trevorton. The address is 141 Trevorton Road.

Since she's the new kid on the block in an industry of long-standing names, Venesky is inviting people to an open house from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. today. She will provide coffee and answer questions about cremation services.

Inspired by kindness

Venesky, a Mount Carmel Area graduate now living in Shamokin, decided to go into this unusual field after completing service in the U.S. Navy.

"We fired 38 Tomahawk missiles into Baghdad," she said of her involvement in Operation Iraqi Freedom aboard the USS Higgins DDG-76.

Around the time she exited the service, her mother passed away. Venesky was inspired by the kindness bestowed upon her family at her mother's funeral by Charles Heizenroth III of Kull-Heizenroth Funeral Home, Ashland.

"I thought if I could do that for somebody, that's amazing," said Venesky.

She used her GI Bill to return to school for her degree in mortuary science, and earned her associate's degree - the highest available in her field - from Northampton Community College. She completed her internship and became fully licensed.

For the next five years, she did contract work at funeral homes, traveling to any central Pennsylvania town that needed an extra set of hands. She estimates she ran hundreds of services during this time.

Gloria Dutcavich, of Dutcavich Funeral Home in Minersville, said Venesky served with her family's business for her apprenticeship when she graduated from mortuary school and continued doing contract work for several years. She supported Venesky's decision to open her business.

"I'd say she's dependable and knowledgeable with what she's doing, a good worker," said Dutcavich.

Too much driving

Eventually, the driving from town to town took a toll on Venesky, so she looked to open her own shop. She chose the former beauty parlor location because it fits her needs.

The lessons Venesky learned while assisting at existing homes helped her in shaping her business. She decided to specialize in cremation after noticing a trend of people more frequently selecting this service.

The percentage of deaths resulting in cremation has risen from 3.56 percent in 1960 to 43.2 percent in 2012, according to the National Funeral Directors Association's website.

She also thought specializing in cremation would allow her to rein in skyrocketing funeral costs.

As a result, she can operate in a smaller space, with just enough room to hold a memorial service and a 10-by-10-foot room to do basic body preparation.

Because the equipment to cremate bodies begins at around $350,000, Venesky is opting to use local, existing crematories to complete that portion of the service. Her business will instead focus on the people aspect - offering a selection of urns that appeal to everyone and keeping a comfortable, inviting space for mourners.

"I want people to be as relaxed and as comfortable as you can be in that situation," said Venesky.Larry Deklinski/Staff Photo