The Future of the Profession - Is It Really Very Different From the Past?

By: Elli Morris
Tuesday, February 28, 2023

The funeral profession has been around, in a variety of fashions, since time immemorial. What’s the best route to ensure this essential service remains a thriving business into the future? Do nothing? Simply let the profession reflect culture as it always has? Proactively address the recent downward passing trends in mortuary schools? Set aside individual differences, needs, egos, and state politics to establish healthy long-term goals for sustainable businesses? Or, since this article attempts a brief undertaking of mortuary school concerns, is the answer D, all of the above?  

Does the funeral profession perceive problems?

Option one: The funeral profession always has been a reflection of society. The funeral profession is not going to hell in a handbasket.

Option two: If the grades are not up to par, if the students are not passing the exams, if people are not going into the business, that’s a reflection of serious problems.

What are the key issues?

1) There is a shortage of people going into the funeral profession. 

More students are enrolled in mortuary school than in the past but there remains a shortage of funeral home employees. Even though last year might be the highest enrollment ever, the profession is still lacking people taking positions in the field. Why? Is the funeral profession suffering from the same ails as other fields? Homes used to find good employees, grow them in the field, then send them to school. But that route takes time. Plus, nowadays, people are not beholden to one job or location. They look for more money at other homes. The corporations just want arrangers and someone to work, they do not need to grow someone into a management position. Job-hopping is going on in every profession. Nowadays, people change jobs frequently. The lack of employees is not new - the profession always suffered from a lack of employees. In addition, funeral service has never been considered an attractive line of work. 

Or, is there a deeper issue to be examined? It used to be that students had experience, they had worked in a home or grew up working in a family home. That experience meant they knew something about the profession. That has changed. Now, some students do not know about funeral service at all. They take classes thinking it would be a good career without any real foundational knowledge of the job. They have expectations of fewer hours, even a 9-5 job they can leave, but that’s not how funeral service works. Often, it is low pay. It comes with stressful hours and directors have to be on call a couple of nights a week. It is very difficult to compare a career in the funeral profession with anything else on earth. The subject matter is so specialized and the subject of death is so disconcerting for so many people. The issue of death anxiety has become more acute as time has gone by, and the culture has not gotten more mature. 

Alternatively, some say young people that come to the profession are not looking at employability but following an inner calling. They have a mission, a universal commitment to ethically care for the dead and compassionately care for the living. Even so, it’s difficult for schools to prepare students for the day-to-day reality of funeral service work. This leads to disenchantment with the prospect of using their degree. 

Additionally, those who did grow up in the profession don’t want the life they saw their parents’ lead. They may not want to miss their kids’ school plays or recitals or athletic games as their parents did. The next generation is intentionally choosing to not go into the field. 

2) National exam passage rates have been falling for the last decade. 

Most states require passing the exam to practice in the field. Passage rates have gone down steadily for years. People in the profession are complaining that the test is keeping students from going into the profession. Last year, 2021, there were 1269 first-time takers for the arts exam (the exam is broken into arts and science.) The national passage rate was 68%. For science, there were 1267 takers and the passage was 57%. That’s terrible! In 2020, the arts passage rate was 73%, science 64%, which is still not good. In 2008, the arts rate was 80%, and science was 79.8%. It’s not a good trend. Those statistics alone should let us know that something is wrong.

The American Board comes up with what has to be taught; The Conference states what will be tested; and funeral homes are saying here’s what we want. Lots of egos are involved in the “way it should be” and it gets all tangled up. Ultimately, it’s a volatile situation but graduation simply gives one a learner’s permit, not keys to the kingdom. A license is not synonymous with success at all. 

There are numerous potential reasons for the low rates. Blame is going all around. College accreditation used to be connected to student examination passage rates. Schools currently have high enrollment numbers but how many are graduating? And how many are passing the required exams to get licensed for work? In the past, some schools wouldn’t certify students if they knew they wouldn’t be able to pass the national exam. That potentially kept their accreditation rates artificially high.

Some people say that schools are not teaching the right material. Alternatively, people say the national board is not asking questions about the material being taught. But the test writers have the textbooks the school programs use, the approved textbooks, and the curriculum from the American Board which sets the science programs. There’s a lot of effort, oversight, time, and money that goes into developing the exam. The test writers have to prove the material being assessed is in the textbook and show it is in the curriculum. But they aren’t funeral directors, they are just test-confirmers. The test writers are trying to be more transparent but the question is “about what?” The students say the questions are not worded in a way that makes sense. The exam questions have become more and more scenario-oriented. The problem with that approach is it gets into judgment calls and not necessarily facts. 

But, again are the low passage rates simply a reflection of the culture? When students who cannot read attend school, that’s not the mortuary school’s doing. When they get a student who’s not mature enough to see that not everything is fair, that isn’t on the mortuary school. Decades ago, people were failing the exam and they may have had to take the exam six times before they pass. Failure rate and determination are consistent issues with the national exam. 

A separate issue with the low passage rates has resulted in desperate measures - cheating. Schools have been caught harvesting questions - they gave the answers to the next round of exam takers. As a result, the American Academy (???) discredited students for 2 years even though some of the students were already licensed. Lots of funeral homes around the New York school had employees that had been licensed but suddenly their employees no longer were. But, wasn’t it the school that should have been discredited? The school didn’t lose accreditation.

3) No national standard for licensed funeral directors There is a national board exam, not a national license, but some states do not accept the national exam. Now, in the 21st century, it begs the question of why? After all, people don’t die that differently in Utah than in Florida. For decades, there have been communication breaches, territorial boundaries, and egos wrapped up in this idea of licensing. Are the problems better or worse than they used to be? Or, rather than say it’s better than how bad it was back in the “good ole boy days”, wouldn’t it be better to ask, “how good can the profession become?’

One response to the low passage rates is states are saying they will have their own exam, just like they offer a state lawyers exam. This attitude has two potentially major problems: 1) The Conference spends thousands of dollars on the national exam to ensure the accuracy and legitimacy of the test; States do not have that kind of money. 2) If a licensed professional decides to move to a different state, they would no longer be licensed to work. Depending on the state where they move to, they might have to go back to get an associate degree, complete an additional apprenticeship, and they might have to become an embalmer. 

Would they return to school to learn the new state requirements? Or are they effectively trapped working in the state where they passed the state exam? The disparity between states can be great. For example, to be a funeral director in South Carolina, one only needs an associate degree and time as an apprenticeship, with no exam of any kind. In Kentucky, one only needs to be a high school graduate. In Georgia, one has to have both the embalmer license and funeral license to be a funeral director. The employee shortage is driving the discussion that says you don’t need to be an embalmer, but that negates the education requirement, so are they really saying employees don’t need the education? Schools need to be sure they tell students their license only works in that state.

It’s like a stool with three legs – the schools are educating ever more students, the conference test passage is down, and funeral directors are saying, ‘I just need someone out here.’ So that’s why states are developing their own exams. They’re saying, ‘Let’s find a good person who can talk to people for the funeral director and we can find someone else to do the embalming.’ But if we want to be professional we have to have some standards. We can’t back up to the way it used to be, when people worked one year then they were licensed. 

That approach cheapens what all the licensed directors have – they went to school, did apprenticeships, passed the exam, and got the license. Essentially, the states are saying let’s lower the standards.

More importantly, by simply making it easier to get a license, we are not addressing the root causes. One major cause is the stool’s three legs are not communicating, which is what’s needed to get all three in better shape. This takes us back to the problem of egos. 

The burden of multiple state licensing protocols does not simply fall on the licensed professional. States themselves can suffer the fallout. This “unlikely” scenario played out during the height of COVID-19. Recall the crisis in New York City with unprecedented rates of mortality - and a resulting lack of capacity to handle the crisis. New York City funeral directors were begging for help and out-of-state embalmers were eager to step in. But, only New York-licensed embalmers were allowed to work in New York. National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA) went to Congress to request a federal injunction to relieve the exhausted New York embalmers. It took a literal act of Congress for a cohesive national approach to mortuary needs. How is the current state-by-state approach harming its directors and the families they aim to serve?

Key Questions, No Answers

Perhaps the most effective way to get a deeper, more engaged conversation happening is to toss out some questions in hopes that those in the profession can create a path moving forward. Here’s a short list: Who needs to be involved? What actions does the funeral profession need to take? Are there serious concerns for funeral homeowners? What attitudes can be shifted and adjusted? What are the next steps forward? What can the profession look like in the future? 

Ultimately, the number of people involved will be how many answers there are. But a combination of approaches would probably help the profession directly confront the concerns. A wise place to start is to get the major players in a room with a facilitator so all parties feel like they are giving more and taking less. Proactive decisions can be made only by becoming aware of the problems. It isn’t simply a matter of throwing our hands up and saying, “Whatever will be will be” but it is important to fully incorporate external influences such as the culture. By incorporating those into the next steps, the profession is more likely to be of assistance to the students entering the profession and also set the funeral service on a healthy track for the future. Whatever the approach, it must be worked through; there is no magic dust. 

Elli Morris would like to thank Patty Hutcheson and Todd Van Beck for contributing their expertise to this article. 

If you pulled phrases out of a hat that describe Elli Morris’ life, you might draw: environmental filmmaker, world traveler, professional photographer, whitewater kayak instructor, dancing with movie stars, public speaker, journalist, Queen of Mardi Gras, award-winning book author, whitewater Stand Up Paddleboarder, USFS Wilderness Ranger, Sustainability Coordinator, and Master of Forestry from NAU class of 2022. She continues her interest in journalism through contributions to Southern Funeral Director. 








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