PO Box 768152 | Roswell, Georgia | 30076
Why Do You Want a Career in Funeral Service?
It’s a question all of us get asked at some point after deciding funeral service is the career we’ve decided to pursue. I could easily ask a rebuttal question: Why don’t you want to be a funeral director?
When my husband decided he wanted to become a registered nurse after 15 years in telecommunications, my biggest concern was how he would handle what I called the “ick factor” of interacting with sick patients. Of course, he found this ironic coming from me considering I had no issue being around dead bodies. I never had a desire to become a nurse, and my husband would never be a funeral director. All of us are drawn to where we feel our skills are best suited. I became a funeral director at 30 and he became a nurse at 40. People don’t always find their true calling straight out of high school.
Why did I want to be a funeral director? I had no idea I wanted to be one. I was unemployed, knew I needed skills, and was looking for a job in publishing so I could somehow use my English degree. During my third interview with the general manager of a publisher, she looked at me and asked if my heart was in the job that I had been interviewing for the last three months. It wasn’t, and it was obvious. We shook hands and I left that interview relieved yet lost, and then a couple of weeks later my mother-in-law married a funeral director. That’s when funeral service found me.
Once I decided to go to mortuary school, I knew I needed a job at a funeral home. It seemed like the natural progression to build a network and get my foot in the door for an apprenticeship after graduation. The first challenge was locating a funeral home in my neighborhood. This might seem like an easy task, but funeral homes tend to hide in plain sight. They often have unassuming facades with modest signage or look like large homes rather than businesses.
Feeling intimidated, I chose to call rather than just walk through the front door to inquire about a job. I was shocked at how I was spoken to. One receptionist scolded me for deciding to go to mortuary school when I didn’t know anything about funeral service. When I explained that was why I wanted the job, she hung up on me. Another told me it was a terrible job for women. Still, another asked why I would want to be a funeral director if my family didn’t own a funeral home. I left several messages at different firms and only one called me back. That single call back made all the difference in my education and funeral directing career. It provided me with the experiences I didn’t know I would need to teach. I still hold that funeral home and my time there close to my heart. Funeral service has an opportunity – obligation? – to encourage the people who express an interest in learning more about what this profession does instead of discouraging them, especially when more students like me (female and unaffiliated with a funeral home) are currently choosing to pursue degrees in funeral service and want to become licensed practitioners. No person should be treated the way I was treated when I was considering funeral service as a career. When I ask prospective students why they want to be a funeral director they usually say they want to help people, but every profession helps people in some way even if it is indirectly and not customer-facing. You must want to be helpful but that is not a particular reason to pursue funeral service. Here is an opportunity for funeral directors to educate individuals on the type of help we provide, and how each family can take us on a roller coaster ride of emotions through that process. Sometimes helping a family means you must also give up your time or plans. Finding the right balance of give and take with families might be one of the most challenging aspects for new funeral directors, and it is important to offer support during that time when they are navigating their loss for the first few months. Once students get inside the funeral home and see how we serve families and what it entails they decide whether the profession is right for them. For those whose heart isn’t in it, it’s obvious, and they leave. For those who are dedicated to being there, we shouldn’t make it difficult for them to stay.
After 10 years, I chose to leave the funeral home environment. I embraced the opportunity to take my funeral-directing knowledge into the classroom. Teaching found me in a similar way as funeral service, and I maintain my license to practice but my career is now dedicated to educating students to prepare them for the fulfilling aspects of becoming a funeral director, a job I loved. My decision to teach was driven by the desire to expand my reach within funeral service. I felt like I could serve more families through teaching future practitioners than I could on my own one family at a time. I still feel connected to the environment of the funeral home even if it is vicariously through my students, but in listening to their stories I am still able to relate to what they are going through. The pandemic created a variety of challenges for funeral homes across the country and that is something I never experienced while in practice, but it was an amazing learning opportunity for students (and me) and licensees during that stressful and uncertain time. People do want to work, and they want meaningful work that also pays a living wage. I know too many students who need a side job in addition to their funeral home employment so they can earn an income that supports them. The time of making apprentices pay their dues as a prerequisite for making a living wage is over. That attitude is hurting employment rates and the quality of employees in funeral service. If a funeral home can’t offer a higher salary right away it might consider finding creative ways to lower a graduate’s expenses such as a clothing allowance or providing the suit you want them to wear, paid dry cleaning, tuition payback assistance for years of service. Rather than waiting for the perfect student to show up after graduation, funeral directors should be collaborating with the academic programs to help build a welcoming and educational environment at funeral homes that fosters a student’s professional development. The biggest disconnect I see between licensees and educators is rooted in a lack of awareness of the funeral service education curriculum. I feel confident that any educator would be glad to explain the academic and curricular requirements expected of funeral service programs if asked. Licensees should be getting involved and asking how they can help bolster student success in their academics preparing them for the National Board Examination instead of arguing to lower standards for licensing. Even if more people get licensed but employment conditions don’t improve, it won't change the shortage or attrition in the workforce.
I encourage owners and managers to welcome students into their estab lishments. Funeral directors can assist students in fulfilling accreditation requirements such as embalming, funeral observations, assisting with arrangement conferences, taking first calls, removals, and completing necessary forms. They can also get students involved in setting up and tearing down chapels, creating memorial stationery, arranging flowers for visitations, show ing them where to pick up death certificates in their area, and all those other aspects of funeral service that most have no idea are part of being a funeral director. It’s also a chance to introduce students to community engagement where they can meet clergy or attend association meetings and begin to feel like they are part of something bigger. There are many incredibly supportive licensees and owners doing this right now for my students eight or more hours a week. I applaud them for it. They welcome a variety of students, some accepting new ones each semester. It’s a chance to give immediate funeral service exposure to those students who, like me, didn’t have any experience at a funeral home before mortuary school. It is also a chance for funeral directors to have the satisfaction of building a student’s confidence, to encourage and see them grow in a professional role. The new funeral director student wants to have a meaningful academic experience and be valued by employers. Let’s work together between the classroom and the funeral home to make that happen.
Lauren Budrow is an Assistant Professor in the Mortuary Science Program at Wayne State University in Detroit, MI. She has been a licensed funeral director for 20 years and a full-time educator since 2011, dedicated to life-long learning and funeral service education.