I’ve found over the years that a career as a funeral director is usually nothing like the image the uninitiated has.  I’m not saying that it’s bad; it’s just different than the portrayals that the industry and popular culture puts forth.  It’s a fantastic career and I want to praise and encourage anyone that is looking to get into the business.  I think that we, as funeral professionals, are quick to lament the pool of unqualified and ungrateful applicants while we pat ourselves on the back for being part of such a noble and incredible profession.  The shortsightedness of people in this industry means that they are blind to the fact that we WORK AROUND THE DEAD. This wouldn’t be a problem but for the little detail that most people DON’T WANT to work around the dead. In my mind, that means that we need to take those people that express an interest in the profession and help them to the path from unqualified indoctrination to qualified professionals.

Life in the fast lane
“When I was seven, I totally knew I wanted this.”

When people express an interest in spending a portion of their life learning about what we do, we should encourage them to understand what it is, and what it isn’t   It seems as though we aren’t communicating effectively with those that we come in contact with. Here are some of the questions and preconceived notions that I frequently get from those that have a deep desire to get into the biz and the casually curious individuals. There’s no particular order:

  • I want to be a funeral director. I think it would be amazing to work with the dead and prepare them.

Truth is, funeral directors don’t do a whole bunch with the dead. There is the occasional makeup, helping with some prep-work, removals from place of death, and transportation to the cemetery or crematory. There may be some other occasions to help with the dead, but for the most part, this is left to the auspices of the embalmer, removal techs and the crematory operator. Tip: If you want to be an embalmer, cremationist, or removal tech, approach the interview as a potential job – not an opportunity to get in touch with some philosophical greatness.  Even funeral home employees think that’s creepy.

  • I think that it would be wonderful to be in the funeral profession because I want to be of service to people at a difficult time.

I think this is the biggest misconception out there.  I hear this one more often than not when it comes to people that want to get into the business. Like we are the social workers creepy cousin that has some martyr function. It’s almost as if these people seem to think that they are blessed with some capacity to walk the hallowed halls of grief and cushion death’s evil blow and that they are unique because there isn’t anyone else out there that can, or would want to, do it.  Here’s the raw truth if you are one of these people: Families that come to the funeral home do not want you to hold their hand.  If they wanted a damned therapist, they would call one.  I’m not saying that it doesn’t take a special kind of grace, a ton of empathy and a pile of sensitivity to work with people when they are going through the process of loss. What I am saying is that they want someone who can get them death certificates in a hurry and take care of cremating their loved one.

Cremation Diva
“I’m undead, I completely identify with your dead loved one.”

  • How do I go to school and get paid?

Mortuary science schooling is no different than any other trade, or even academic, degree.  You either take out loans or work your way through it.  If you are fortunate and diligent, you can get a position in a traditional funeral home so that you can get the view from the conservative perspective and learn the positives and many negatives in that world.  I will say – I didn’t do a mortuary science degree like many people in the business. The mortuary science degree covers the sciences, body prep, funeral arts, and business and marketing.  I had an embalming apprenticeship for a short while, but that’s as close as I got to the ‘science’ part of it.  My reasoning to pass on it was that I had eight years of business education and couldn’t justify going back to get an AA degree for something that I don’t want do – embalm. I spent 5 years managing multiple funeral homes and cemeteries in all operational aspects, largely by accident, so I didn’t need extra schooling to gain entry or experience funeral directing. In some parts of the country, the mortuary science degree may be the only way in.

  • What are the daily duties of a funeral director?

My best answer to this question is: “A funeral director is a wedding planner on a very compressed time scale.”  It depends on the type of firm that you’re working in as to what you do on a daily basis. If you are in a lower cost cremation house, you meet with families to collect information, prepare the death certificates, file them with the county, send cremation authorizations to the crematory and call the families to come get their loved one when the death certificates and remains are back.  If you are in a more traditional funeral home, it really is more event planning. In addition to the things mentioned above, you need to do all of the things that make a memorial or funeral services happen. Flowers, catering, service stationary, and merchandise (casket, vault urn) ordering needs to happen. Coordinating with the cemetery and crematory are critical too.  In short: project management. Often times, you are coordinating the resources of the funeral home to see to it that the tasks are accomplished.  Note: playing with the dead and holding hands with a sobbing widow are not on this list. You won’t have time.

Direct Cremation backlog
“This is exactly why I wanted to be a funeral director!”

  • How do I network my way in?

It’s tough to network your way into the business.  The general view of funeral home managers and owners that anyone that is that eager to get a job in the business is probably cracked.  Irony, yes, but it is also accurate.  There are a lot of people that just think it’s cool to hang out with dead people. Truthfully, the dead are really boring. Their families on the other hand are a hoot.  It’s rare that a traditional funeral home hires in entry level funeral directors without a license. They will hire removal techs, admin positions, and sales people and if you prove that you have the interest and staying power to stick with it.  Good funeral directing is an artful balance between listening, event planning, and operational management. None of which are easily demonstrable without some form of vetting beyond the internship.

Putting the Fun back in Funeral
Funeral directors love a bar as much as the next toddler

  • I really like alternative funeral practices; is there a market for non-traditional service?

We all believe, like you, that there is a burgeoning marketplace for funerals that don’t adhere to the American contemporary funeral practice.  Much of what we, as a movement, need to accomplish needs to happen within the construct of the traditional funeral home because they have the largest audience.  This is difficult for those of us that have a passionate drive to give people options that run complimentary or even contrary to the normal practices because the traditional funeral homes don’t have the time or inclination to entertain the notion of new alternatives. The reality is that in any given market – excluding New York and LA – there isn’t a viable market for more than one boutique event funeral home.  In many markets, such as my dear little Seattle, you could argue that there’s enough overlap with what the traditional firms offer that you really don’t have a full time business model for it at all.  Yet.

  • What does it take to get licensed/do I need to be if I just want to do home funeral?

Google “Funeral director license [your state]” and find out what the licensing requirements are. In all the states that I know of, you don’t need a license to be a home funeral practitioner. For the purposes of this post, I am only going to be talking about the regulations of Washington State, as it is the state I am licensed and practice in, although your state is likely similar. I highly suggest that you look up your state regulations to familiarize yourself.  If you want to be in this business, you will need to know them anyway. The industry’s dirty secret is that you don’t need a funeral director for any part of the arrangements after someone dies.  The family can act as funeral director for the purposes of disposition (final place of rest for the dead – cemetery or crematory).  Home funeral practitioners help facilitate the care and handling of the deceased much like a midwife helps in the birth of a child. In fact, midwifes of old did both.  So long as you do not touch, help prepare, or transport the deceased in exchange for money, you can be the home funeral guru.  If there is an exchange of money and you lay a hand on that body and rub oils on them, help lift them into a casket, drive them to the crematory, or act on behalf of the family in the processing of any of the paperwork you are guilty of practicing funeral directing without a license. The punishment varies, but if you had a hope of one day becoming a licensed professional, you can pretty well kiss that one goodbye.  My humble opinion is that it’s too easy to get the proper credentials to not approach your new profession properly.

90% of the industry
The old white guys will be with you on the cutting edge of funeral practice

These are some of the top questions that I get with great frequency.  When I opened Elemental Cremation & Burial, one of my main goals was to change the way that people approached our profession. Not just how the client families interact with the funeral home, but how we attract talent into our midst. Cultivating bright and motivated people from all walks of life with all sorts of life experience is what will change the industry to be more accessible to all that have to work with it.  Where I really struggle is in the communication of what we really do.  So many people have it set in their head that the great mysteries of the funeral profession will be the elite sanctum that fuels their “calling”.  To communicate the daily activities of a regular funeral director to someone with an idealized notion of the funeral service is akin to telling a kid “A pilot is just like a bus driver, but with horrid hours and less flexibility – but the view from your office is great!” Not a very good recruiting tool.

Usually, what I recommend to people is to research the firms in your area to see if there is one that looks like it would fit you.  You won’t know until you talk to them, but you can start with firms that specialize in something that you can identify with. Are you into home funeral? You may want to reach out to those in your area that are practicing and seeing if they would be willing to sit down and discuss opportunities for you to volunteer for them.  Want to get into traditional American funeral practice? Look at getting a job doing removals and odd jobs around the funeral home for the local mom and pop firm.  If you’re a Jew, try your hand at getting certified to perform Tahara and help out your local Jewish funeral home.

If you just read that paragraph and had the thought “Oh no, removals/odd jobs/volunteering is beneath me.” or felt your heart sank because there wasn’t anything interesting, you may not be cut for this. If you thought “Yep, I’m willing to do anything. Let’s get in there.” then you’re either cracked, or you have what it takes.  Or both.

All the Debbie Downer stuff is really a reality check.  If you’re still reading, you are probably more cut out for this than most. I want to point out that the funeral business is one of the most wonderful jobs/careers that you can have. It’s splendid because you can create amazing moments in some of the darkest hours for people. When you do your job properly, people nearly drop to their knees and thank you for making their lives so much easier. You do this by minimizing decisions, listening to their needs, removing tasks, and delegating appropriate responsibilities to the family to manage. When you’ve succeeded, they invite you to their homes for dinner. They begin to think of you as a family member that they didn’t know they had. They will bake you cookies and send you cards. Families will regale their friends with how wonderful you are – right in front of you.  I’m not making this up.  If you do your job properly, people feel better and feel blessed to know that you are walking this planet.  You can’t get that kind of satisfaction coding a website or tending bar.  I know – I’ve done both.

If you take anything away from this post, I want you to take away one major piece of homework: Identify WHY you want to be in the funeral business.  There are no right or wrong answers, and yet the answers that you give may shock you and illustrate why funeral isn’t for you.  If you think it’s because you have an existential quest and think it sounds cool to be around death (many of you do, despite how cheesy the statement sounds), you really aren’t going to be satisfied. If you want to counsel and help people, this job will leave you so unsatisfied that you’re going to go home and psychoanalyze your pets as an outlet. If you are one of the people that heard that you could make a whole bunch of money in the funeral biz, I’ll just let you keep thinking that there’s a goldmine in them thar coolers.  I think naïveté is cute.

If you are completely honest with yourself, you may find that an alternate path unfolds; that hospice work is for you, or that forensics is what you really want to do. It could be a life dedicated to the clergy is something you didn’t realize was a passion. Maybe you just want to be a psychologist and really need to buckle down and do the schooling.

As with anything in life, when you’ve formulated realistic expectations, you can approach your decisions with a little more measure and a lot more success.  Keep asking questions and continue to chase your passion and your growth.  The more people we have in this movement, the better able we will be to serve families the way they deserve to be served.