Confessions of a Mortician (Funeral Director)

confessions of a mortician Wherever I go, people ask me what it's like to work as a funeral director. I tell them it is not an easy career, particularly given the emotional component of the work. As funeral directors, we deal with issues of mortality -- our own as well as those of our clients -- on a daily basis. We also work long hours in a field where, contrary to public perception, the pay is not commensurate with the work we do. Still, the intangible rewards are many in a career I see as being a sacred trust.

Death and taxes

Unlike taxes, there's no getting around death. Inevitably, our days are numbered. That's why the world needs funeral directors -- today's term for morticians -- the people who do the work most people would not want to do. A funeral director's job entails removing bodies from their place of death, embalming, arranging the details of the funeral, dressing and applying cosmetics to the deceased, supervising the visitation and directing the funeral service. As a self-employed funeral director for more than 25 years, I've found that the job description alone evokes a mix of fear and curiosity.

Why would anybody want to do this job?

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Job Outlook

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, funeral directors held about 30,000 jobs in 2008 and employment is expected to grow about as fast as average through 2018. Job opportunities will be good, especially for funeral directors who also embalm.

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The BLS reports that in May 2009, average annual salary for funeral directors was $60,390.

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What kind of person is attracted to working with the dead? Well, for the most part, it's not the grim popular caricature seen in movies, nor a job usually worked by Goth types. In the past, children of funeral directors often followed in the family business. But these days, this is less common, as larger corporations have absorbed many of what were once family-owned businesses. More likely, it's a person who's had an experience with a funeral director during the death of a loved one -- like my friend Ellen -- who will enter the business. Ellen found her calling after observing the caring nature of the funeral directors who handled her sister's funeral. For others, the interest sometimes stems from a part–time job at a local funeral home.

For me it was a little of both. Death has always fascinated me, from the time I was a child. No, I did not bury my Barbie dolls as a little girl; rather it was the loss of my grandmother that piqued my curiosity as to what this "death thing" was all about. But I put that interest in death on the back burner as I dreamed of a career as a writer. The turning point came when I was a teen and got my first after-school job in a local funeral home. From that modest beginning, I was hooked. Putting my plan of becoming a journalist on hold, after college I enrolled in mortuary school. I became one of the few female students in the course, as well as one of the few who did not have other family members in the business. Eventually, I was able to incorporate my love of writing with my job as a funeral director, by publishing a memoir called 'Grave Undertakings' (New Horizon Press, 2003).

Getting hired, and fitting in

To outsiders it may appear that funeral homes are looking to welcome new hires with open arms. But as any funeral director will tell you, getting a job is the hardest part. It is not unheard of for young people looking to serve an apprenticeship, which is a requirement to receive your necessary license to work in the field, to offer to work for free. And free often isn't too far from the starting salary. One of the biggest myths about the industry is that it is a high-paying field. The reality is much different. It is not wise to consider entering the funeral service if you are looking for a high starting salary. Another problem is the belief that there will always be a lot of work. After all, people are always dying, right? Again, the reality doesn't square with the expectation. According to the latest data available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the death rate is down across the country.

Once you are hired, you'll soon learn that conformity is key. The dress code for funeral directors is conservative. No minis or stiletto heels, please. If you can't keep the miniskirt in the closet, well, don't even consider this career. Wild hair colors, visible body piercings and tattoos are out as well, and will relegate an aspiring funeral director to a futile job search. Not too long ago even beards were considered extreme. It's wise to remember that we generally deal with older folks as well as clergy.

The work is usually somber, but not always

Although most of the time an air of sadness permeates the workday, some moments on the job are decidedly more lighthearted. For example, there was the time a colleague's car was stolen along with cremated remains stored in the trunk, waiting for delivery. Fessing up this embarrassing problem to the family, my colleague was met with an unlikely response:

"Nobody liked Uncle Jimmy and now somebody went and stole him!"

Many people might be surprised to know that most funeral directors have a keen sense of humor. I try to always to keep mine at the ready, particularly during the night I found myself in a hospital emergency room after stitching my hand to an autopsied corpse I was working on.

In fact, gallows humor can go a long way as a protective cloak when the work gets overwhelming, which it often does. Several years ago, I conducted funerals for the husbands of two of my closest friends, who became young widows within weeks of one another. And in 2001, the crash of American Airlines Flight 587 -- one of the biggest aircraft disasters in United States history -- came on the heels of the horror of 9/11. We, as funeral directors, pitched in to help. They were very dark times for those of us who had to handle the fragmented human remains.

This career is not for everyone

To be good at this career, having a respect for tradition, ceremony and religion is a must, as is a compassionate nature.The work is physically and emotionally demanding and you must be willing and able to work long hours -- really long hours. An ever-present sense of urgency is another reality of the job. You also need a strong stomach for the postmortem sights and smells and the ability to adapt quickly to sudden changes.

That said, if you are dedicated and driven, you can make a good living and a rewarding one at that. While we can't bring back the dead -- the thing that our client families wish for the most -- we can, at least, ease the transition between life and death for families, making the experience of losing a loved one a bit easier to bear.

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Shawna L

Just so you know, there are many, MANY people in the funeral business with both tattoos and piercings. Times are changing. Just because you have these modifications doesn't mean you can't dress professionally and exude professionalism. I wish people would stop spreading the "no mods if you want to succeed" message. It's such a "back-in-my-day", finger-pointing line of thinking.

February 21 2014 at 9:33 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Christalena Garcia-Q

I to enjoyed this writers story, but I am a tattooed and pierced female that is an assistant funeral director. My families love me and I them. I have never had an issue with my tattoos or piercings and either have any of our families. I do dress conservative at work but I also bring a piece of who I am at the table. For myself it is the compassion you show the grieving families that count not the look of the person giving it.

January 25 2014 at 12:36 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Maite Garcia

Wow!!! Awful comments but sorry guys she is correct!!! I had a professor that took me under his wing while I was in the mortuary program in college. I usually ran the wake filed death certificates directed church and while I couldn't touch the body my professor let me watch. You have to dress in nice attire nothing wild conservative very polished no visible tattoos or crazy piercings . I know sounds crazy but just like any other medical field you have to cover up!! Stop bashing her out! You need to look professional you are providing a service to others and your looks represent you.

January 08 2014 at 6:49 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
John W. Evans

I really enjoyed this article. MOST OF ALL the many comments written about their funeral experiences (good or bad). THE TALK OF A LIFETIME. As a small town funeral director I appreciate the stories about our profession. I have learned so much by the "Bad Apples" in our industry and I LEARN more from the good funeral professionals out their who live their passion = funeral service. Before you die GO Visit Your Local Funeral Directors. Take A Tour when they are not busy. Ask Questions because it takes a lot of "mystery" out of death, funeral planning and embalming. I may be a small town funeral director, but I have served on our State Association Board and The Academy of Professional Funeral Service Practice (CFSP designation) Board. If they have the desire for higher "qualifications" in our profession they are a great resource for education and learning... just saying!

October 19 2013 at 10:46 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

This true what she said I am not in the funeral home business but I will say I have a young friend that just got into the business gave me a tour of the funeral home discussed a lot about death and what happen he did not talk like Mrs. Alexander but he did say it is not glamor don't be hard on the lady not 4rybody and the dress code show be a factor in the industry looks matter and I know that from all the funeral directors that I know that live in my city I know everyone of them have been left alone with a deceased person seen a real autopsy have seen them on tv but not in real life it is nothing I ever wanted to do nor will I ever do it so please don't judge

July 11 2013 at 8:02 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Kt Wager

Wow a couple of these comments on here are pretty amusing. Just goes to show most armchair warriors aren't really thinking when they pick their battle, (but then a good portion of the time their a troll on payroll, but I doubt that's the case here). I actually had to do a double take, reread the article, and come back to the comments to make sure I understood their 'offended sensibilities' correctly. The sheer magnitude of their outrage over her common-sense pointers about the misperception of the industry, clearly reveals that she was CORRECT in needing to flat-out say what anyone with an ounce of empathy and less self centered ego would already know. Maybe she should have spelled it all out with crayon instead, made it simpler to understand? Fact is, I really don't want a funeral director trying to upstage the services of my loved one, like their a one person show needing the limelight, but clearly others out there think that's acceptable behavior, going by their comments. Let's hope those folks get their wish at their own funeral, eh? Hopefully for their sake Elvis impersonators will also direct funeral services. Give their corpse the full send off, no expense spared, lol.

July 09 2013 at 4:46 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

It DOES take a special person to do this job though. I'm in mortuary school and have a student job at a funeral home and I agree with everything she says 100%. If you don't like it, don't consider being a funeral director. End of story.

February 19 2013 at 2:48 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

You have to have a serious inferiority complex to get worked up about an article like this being "arrogant."

October 15 2012 at 2:25 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

Alexandra; I am a cemeterian at a large memorial park in Masachussetts, and have enjoyed and related to our industry's trials and challenges that you have reflected on. There is a great deal of satisfaction in knowing we have made some of the worst days in a family's lives a little bit easier. I was unnerved and shocked to read some of the comments below. I'm sure some of those morons will understand what you, (and I, to a lesser extent) do at the time of need. I hope to meet you for a few moments at an upcoming ICCFA meeting. Looking forward to more contributions from you.

October 09 2012 at 6:01 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Hello, Alexandra-
Somehow it never ceases to amaze me where you are located!!
Your old pal,

October 09 2012 at 5:46 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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