What It's Like To Be An Undertaker: 'A Call To Serve'
Funeral Director Daniel Honan is busier than he'd like to be these days. As the only undertaker in Newtown, Conn., Honan is working overtime to provide funeral services to families of 11 of the 20 first-graders murdered Friday at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
To help keep pace with the demand, Honan (pictured) has hired 25 to 30 new staffers to handle the victims of the massacre, funeral services for whom began Monday and will continue in coming days, reports New York's Daily News.
Honan told the tabloid that the additional workers will help handle what he called "the week from hell."
"I've never seen anything like this, never," Honan said in an interview last weekend. "We added staff to meet the demand and do what we do."
The experiences of Honan and his staff are extreme, but they illustrate the grim challenges of working at a funeral home. You not only face heartbroken families, but may also encounter the unimaginably gruesome deaths of young children.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 29,300 people work as funeral directors (also known as morticians and undertakers) in the U.S., earning a mean annual wage of $61,460. Funeral attendants, who perform a variety of tasks, such as preparing chapels and parlors for viewings, directing and escorting mourners, and maintaining funeral equipment, number about 31,000 people nationwide, according to the BLS. They earn a mean annual wage of $24,600, or about $12 an hour.
Many people enter the field precisely because they believe that they can provide comfort to those who are grieving, no matter how tragic the circumstances.
"It's really a call to serve," said Mike Parke, owner of Parke's Magic Valley Funeral Home, with two locations in south-central Idaho.
Being a mortician typically includes long hours and calls late at night, Parke and fellow mortician Brett Buckley told the Times-News of Twin Falls in an interview last year.
Dealing frequently with death and tragedy is the toughest thing about being a mortician, Parke told the newspaper -- especially when preparing the bodies of deceased children and working with their grieving parents.
"I hate senseless death," he said, adding that old people are expected to die, but children aren't.
Both men are embalmers, which may involve reshaping or reconstructing bodies that have deteriorated or been disfigured, using materials such as clay, cotton, plaster of Paris and wax. Covering up bullet holes also requires a deft touch. Then there's applying makeup and dressing the bodies. In total, preparing bodies for showing and burial involves 20 minutes to 4 hours of work, Parke said.
The job also involves a fair number of administrative tasks, including submitting papers to state authorities to ensure that death certificates are issued promptly and distributed to heirs of the deceased.
The need for undertakers is expected to grow about as fast as any job through 2020, but not enough young people are being drawn to the profession, according to Jack Norvell, program director of the mortuary science associate degree program at the Pima Medical Institute in Seattle, which began last year.
Each year there are 1,500 new mortuary science graduates nationwide, a number insufficient to fill the growing need caused by an aging population, KOMO-TV quotes Norvell as saying in an interview last year. PMI's 18-month degree seeks to help alleviate the shortage, at least within Washington state.
It isn't an easy program, but it does prepare students in every aspect of the business.
The program's 31 courses cover everything that prospective undertakers need to know about running a funeral home, including: anatomy, physiology, microbiology, embalming, restorative art, history, law, merchandising, sales, directing, management, sociology, psychology, dynamics of grief and more, KOMO reports.
Beyond the intense curriculum, students must also accustom themselves to unusual hours and lots of down time, Norvell said.
"A lot want to work 40 hours a week, 9 to 5," he said. "That's not necessarily what this profession is about."
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David Schepp has spent more than a dozen years covering business news for the electronic and print media, including Dow Jones Newswires, BBC News, Gannett Co., and most recently at AOL's DailyFinance. Nearly 10 years ago, he started writing a weekly People@Work column, looking in depth at issues facing workers in today's workplace. The syndicated column appeared in newspapers and websites nationwide before it made its debut on DailyFinance in 2010. Schepp now continues that tradition at Aol Jobs, covering the jobs beat and providing readers insight and analysis into the nation's challenging employment scene.
Schepp holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in journalism from Metropolitan State College of Denver.
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