Funeral Service Education: What Hasn’t Been Said?

By: Todd W. Van Beck
Tuesday, February 1, 2022

What does a person say concerning the subject of funeral service education that has not been said already? I know in my own career countless articles, meetings, conferences, and efforts have been made in a big way to describe, to analyze, to assess, to argue, to praise, to criticize, and to evaluate this intensely important subject.

In fact, I have concluded that funeral service education has been hashed over, then re-hashed, and then hashed over again about the re-hashing. So, what should we center on in this article?

Possibly a commentary should be made concerning the ever-increasing number of mortuary science programs in the United States. However, I remember very well that way back in the early 1980’s David FitzSimmons, who at the time was the President of the Cincinnati College of Mortuary Science, published a great article entitled “The Proliferation of Mortuary Programs in the United States.” His conclusion way back then was that there were too many mortuary science programs – when he wrote this article there were less than 25 programs, today there are over 55 programs. I personally still agree with David’s observation 30 plus years later; there are too many programs.

Everybody appears to know that there are too many schools, but as with many aspects of mortuary education, a solution concerning this particular issue seems out of our grasp. However, on the plus side, all schools must pass a rigorous accreditation process so who am I to question the validity of that process which results in having so many mortuary science programs? I will leave that one alone.

Possibly I ought to address the interesting topic of the mortuary science curriculum. Many people have harsh things to say about the seemingly lopsided subject matter, the relevancy of certain courses to the reality of 2016 funeral service demands, and the myriad of licensing requirements that are in place in every state except Colorado.

Ah, the sensitive subject of the mortuary science curriculum! Since time began, I believe that mortuary science students have chanted over and over the same phrase, “Why do we have to know this stuff?” I know I asked this exact question when I was a mortuary science student back in the Middle Ages. Looking back the truth was I most often was asking this immature question about a course that I was having big trouble in, such as chemistry. In the courses I was doing great in, I never asked the “What do we have to know this stuff for?” never, not once!

Looking back at this, after more than four decades in funeral service I have concluded that it was easy and terribly immature on my part to ask the “why” relevance question when failure in a particular course is looming on my horizon. Asking that pesky “why” question and then getting immature reinforcements from Funeral Service Education: What Hasn’t Been Said? my other college friends just made me feel a little more in control of an academic situation that was in truth spinning out of control. It was a pretty pale type of psychology, and it still happens to this very day. I passed chemistry but just by the hair on my chinny chin chin – more on this in a minute.

Now on second thought reading what I just wrote I think I will leave the mortuary science curriculum alone also. Not because I don’t have opinions about it, but really because I like mortuary science professors, no matter what subjects they teach, and I don’t want to unduly upset anybody in this article. The juice just doesn’t seem worth the squeeze.

OK here is an educational topic possibility to write on. I will write on the benefits of requiring a bachelor’s degree in all states as a minimum academic requirement for licensing. I will write on the benefits of creating a uniform licensing system that would eliminate reciprocity, endorsements and the hoops that are too often in place and have to be jumped through simply because a person wants to improve their stock in life and by chance the golden opportunity requires them to relocate to another state. No, I will leave this subject alone also. I am too old and too worn out to expect that anybody could accomplish the uniform licensing task, so I will let sleeping dogs lie.

Possibly the reader would be interested in reading some thoughts on the state of the world in funeral service apprenticeships? Would it be helpful to relay the challenges of young entry level people in funeral service who just might be confronted with a not too friendly work environment where the “boss” expects the new person to know way too much, know it way too fast, and then when the apprentice does not meet that ridiculous watermark, (that the “boss” could not have done either when they were 20 years old) becomes the object of scorn and ridicule. No, best leave that alone also, I have good friends who are sponsoring apprentices and they are trying their level best at doing a great job.

I have as you can see, for variety of good solid political reasons decided not to address the following educational topics in this article. 1. The number of mortuary science programs, 2. The mortuary science curriculum, 3. Enhanced academic requirements for licensure, 4. Uniform license, and 5. Apprenticeships/internships. I don’t want to offend anyone and the harsh truth is I have written on these topics in the past and have gotten into trouble.

So what’s left? I won’t talk about having too many schools, I won’t talk about the lopsided curriculum, and I won’t talk about the state of the apprenticeships, so what’s left?

I will leave the criticisms, opinions, and judgements of these avoided subjects to other individuals who are smarter, more insightful, more talented, and more articulate than I am.

I think, however, that I will write about a philosophy of education. Not immediate gratification education, not quick education, not vocational-technical education, not “will I actually use this stuff?” education, and not let’s get out of here as fast as we can education, but I take the risk will write about a great honorable and noble subject: The Philosophy of Education.

There is a sentence from Dr. Samuel Johnson (1709 – 1784, Dr. Johnson was an English author who made lasting contributions to literatures as a poet, essayist, moralist, biographer, editor and literary critic) that points to a persistently important subject in all professional educational endeavors and one that I feel is particularly important for our beloved profession, funeral service: “Integrity without knowledge is weak and useless, knowledge without integrity is dangerous and dreadful.”

In contemporary funeral service education I often hear students speak of education as if it were an end in and of itself. I read and hear people debating in our contemporary times the question as to whether funeral service is a profession, a trade, a ministry, or a business? A philosophy of education is in the end not concerned with proving or disproving anything concerning the sand traps of evidence that people get caught up in and addicted to concerning academic elitism, intellectual snobbery, or a general attitude of affectation of the self. A philosophy of education instead is a process of living life and searchingly asking one specific question: “What is the aim of education.”

I believe very much that if those important people who are charged with and who have earned authentic funeral service influence would center their vision solely on the high level moral and non-political ideal of education simply for the sake of education, we would see some impressive and much needed changes and improvements. However, this sounds easier than it is. Education to what end, for what purpose, are always compelling questions and are very difficult to answer.

These are difficult questions to answer to be sure, but they are not impossible to answer.

Here is how one arrives at an answer about the philosophy of education as reflecting the worthy ideal of education simply for the sake of education.

I mentioned before that I did not like chemistry in Mortuary College. I didn’t like anything about it and I really didn’t like the chemistry professor in a big way! He was obnoxious, ego driven, rude, unreasonable, and he made me work like hell. The first day of class he looked at our entire class and announced in a loud aggressive voice that “When I finish with this class we will hold commencement in a telephone booth.” Do you know many people can you get in a telephone booth?

I hated him.

Add to this annoying situation was the fact that all the student’s sat back and complained and complained that nobody uses chemistry to embalm a body - nobody! The mortuary students in my class were devoted to the idea that the embalming chemical companies mixed the fluids and all we had to do was add water.

This was NOT a philosophy of education.

This was just a bunch of young funeral professional wannabes who were immature, insecure, who were just possibly going into the wrong profession, and who certainly had horrible attitudes toward the very purpose of their even being in the Mortuary College program in the first place!

And still against all these wacky student protests and odds our dedicated but annoying chemistry professor kept pounding away at us week after week, and the more he pounded the more I hated him.

Of course the glaring problem was that TVB was too young and too stupid to even remotely understand what a philosophy of education even was! I missed totally what the chemistry professor was trying to do.

However, when I earned my highest mark on the National Board in chemistry a miraculous thing happened to me, I had a sudden and utterly fickle change of heart, I now was in love with the chemistry professor – it was psycho I know but that is what happened. After doing really well on the National Board I felt great appreciation to my chemistry professor, I even had a fleeting mature moment where I actually went up to him and thanked him, and I began to have the sneaky suspicion that he just might have known what he was doing.

Looking back, my old chemistry professor at the New England Institute of Anatomy, Sanitary Science, Embalming and Funeral Directing truly possessed a very effective philosophy of education. He had it, I didn’t! He lived by example the power and truth of education simply for the sake of education – period!

No argument, no debate, just educational action! The marvelous consequences of any human being implementing future academic decisions based first and foremost on a true, solid, and authentic philosophy of education is that it works!

Here is how it works, it is simple.

OK I admit it, I don’t use chemistry theory to embalm with, per se. I don’t actually use anatomy theory to raise vessels. The truth is I have forgotten all the linear and anatomical guide’s in embalming theory decades ago. However, just because I have forgotten the written theory is not synonymous with being embalming or chemistry illiterate. Far from it!

Here is an example. When I watch a program with my father on the Discovery Channel and the program is about finding a cure for some dreaded disease because I was educated in chemistry theory at Mortuary College I can follow the contents of the program much better than my father can. My father would not know the atomic chart from a pipe organ.

Now my father is extremely bright, but he was never college educated in chemistry, not a day in his 90 years of life. Sure I don’t use chemistry to actually embalm, per se, but I still calculate the HCHO demand, and overall I do use chemistry every day of my life. Because of my education in Mortuary College in chemistry I do know something, I have some level of knowledge, about what is going on in a great big world that is made up of chemicals all over the place.

So my friends in funeral service the ideal end of the philosophy of education for just the unblemished sake of education is, of course, to increase knowledge and skill over a lifetime, to increase competence and understanding over a lifetime, and to increase character and integrity over a life time. These ideals about life are not things we are born with, they are developed, and if a philosophy of education is anything it revolves around human development, and the experience at Mortuary College, mirrors this reality.

Education is a powerful tool for good and for bad. I have worked with students whose life experiences, their life education, taught them to deceive and take the easiest way out. I have seen students in my career who had great talent and intelligence, but their life education taught them the lessons of deviousness and destructiveness even unto themselves.

Education is surely not a substitute for morality, but in teaching and attempting to communicate with students, I have found that moral, ethical and – yes – even spiritual elements must be added to give philosophical character and balance to their lives. These are elements that go immediately to the bottom line in their abilities to function in the “real” world (whatever that is these days) as caring, concerned and compassionate funeral professionals. This is not easy, particularly in the cynical and complicated period in which we live, but it is a worthy ideal which is worth discussion and holding onto as a vision of the future.

“The end of education,” said President Nathan Pusey of Harvard University, “is to see men and women made whole, both in competence and in conscience. For to create the power of competence without creating a corresponding direction to guide the use of that power is bad education. Furthermore, competence will finally disintegrate apart from conscience.” I personally believe that mortuary science education truly accomplishes this, even though the frenzied focus, temporarily for most students, is on performance on a major life changing examination.

The examination is vital, but it is a learner’s permit. The license is vital, but it is a learner’s permit. What I learned from my obnoxious chemistry professor in Boston forty-seven years ago has been a part of my life ever since; I am way beyond the learner’s permit stage.

In the end my annoying and weird chemistry professor was right and I was wrong. His philosophy of education and his dedication to his philosophical ideal of education for the sake of education helped create in little old immature and dysfunctional me a career that is now well on its way to the half-century mark. I was smart enough to thank him, he is now dead, but I am still beholding to him – always will be. Beholding is a humble feeling that feels good and helps people grow up.

So my friends in funeral service let’s return to our beginning questions I asked a moment ago that at that time I didn’t have the guts to confront. I will try now to be a little more courageous.

Based on all this educational idealism, what then could be some answers to the questions I poised in the beginning? Well, being grounded in the philosophy of education for the sake of education the potential answers become simple, evident and relevant for 2016. Let’s give it a try to arrive at our answers through the filter of the philosophy of education as was presented in this humble attempt at writing. Ready? Let’s go!

  • • Too many mortuary schools? You bet there are, so select the best, not the closest.
  • • Too much science in the curriculum? Nay, not true. Any science is good; learn it for the life-long enhancement of your brain.
  • • The bachelor’s degree in funeral service? – It is ideally a good idea, it could be a great idea, a few states already can attest to this truth, so let’s do it.
  • • The apprenticeship/intern experience? Choose your mentors very carefully, and don’t pick the one who promises you that you will own the funeral home someday. (That is supposed to be a joke, but possibly there is nothing funny about this statement in the least?)
  • • Is funeral service a profession? Of course it is. But then that is my personal opinion of which I believe strongly I can back up.

Even with education idealism, not all will be the way it could, should or would be. That is impossible. However, in 2016 the simple fact of life is that when funeral service or any other profession stagnates in the stale pool of education paralysis, then the world, our families, our consumers, and our communities quickly and permanently pass us by. I see this happening right now. Let us, then as a true professional calling ground our educational decisions around the philosophy of education which centers its visionary decision on the philosophy of education simply for the sake of education. Let us abandon territories, egos, and personal agendas and educate simply for the sake of education. Let us continue to include, as difficult and as controversial as it can be, a moral and ethical content way beyond just what is needed to pass a board.

The long and rich history of our beloved profession has been a consistent effort waged by diligent and dedicated people to raise the level of funeral service to humanity in our work of ministry, of teaching and of learning. This is indeed a worthy ideal.

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