If you check with the American Board of Funeral Service Education, about eighty-five percent of students enrolled in funeral service education had no prior relationship, be it via family or friend, with the sector of preparing the deceased for final disposition and assisting the family with dealing with the loss, which naturally brings me to inquiry: what in God’s name would possess anyone to come to that unequivocal moment of illumination and say, “You know what? I’d really like to be a funeral director.”
But the calling apparently comes to a fairly large portion of the population. More than anyone could possibly imagine. In 2012, the number of occupations rounded off at about 33,200. And while it’s safe to say that this is a sector that will never become obsolete, as long as there are humans around to pass away, the outlook for the profession is particularly bright thanks to the ever-increasing population in America and the ever-aging Baby Boomers who are reaching the final stages of life. I am waiting for a pilot episode of “Dying Something” to air at any time. The government projects the number of jobs to increase by 12% over the next ten years.
In fact, you could say that never was there a better time to buy a shovel and start practicing digging holes.
While disposing of corpses may not seem to require demanding formal training, for centuries in established civilizations like England’s gravediggers used to pile bodies upon bodies in the most haphazard way (regardless of lifelong achievements), and cementaries were notorius for their rotting stench, filth, and pestilence. Honoring the dead, back then, seemed to be the last thing on people’s minds.
Nowadays, you will need to spend some time at the higher education level if you want to have a fighting chance at landing a job. There are 57 accredited Mortuary Science degree programs, most of which are two-year programs, but 7 are apparently full bachelor degrees. That’s a long time to spend learning about cadavers and their final resting place. I can only imagine the hours of practicum sessions. The following is a list of some of the subjects that students have to sign up for to complete the academic requirements:
- Sciences, including microbiology, pathology, chemistry, anatomy, embalming andrestorative art
- Business and funeral home management, funeral directing, accounting, business communications and computer applications for funeral service
- Social Sciences, including history and sociology of funeral service, funeral service psychology and counseling
- Law and Ethics, including business law, funeral service law and funeral service ethics
Another unquestionable skill which doesn’t appear to figure anywhere there but must be inserted some place is sympathy. And even empathy at times.
The minute my brother, sister, Mom and I walked into the funeral home, this quality was made evident by the level-headed, soft-spoken, practical and yet sympathetic kindness of the man who received us. His name was Richard. Beecher & Bennett is located in one of those classic 1960s plain brick one-story buildings that seemed so popular in New England towns years ago. Some people find them appalling, but I am equally unnerved by the trend toward southern mansions as a way of dignifying death, as if fat white Doric columns are really going to make the difference between a humble a departure and one that has bizarrely resembles an epic Hollywood film about antebellum America. You half-expect to see Scarlett O’Hara herself pressing the button labeled “Start Incineration”.
Richard, just like his place of employment, brought everything down to a ground level. And underground one, in fact. He invited us to meet in a conference room in the basement, which meant descending a steep stairway that made us feel like we were entering a crypt. It was a fitting setting to talk about what to do with Dad.