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?
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.