Our good friend and Order of the Good Death member Jeff Jorgenson gives us some real talk about getting started in the funeral industry. Visit his amazing Seattle-based green cremation/natural burial funeral home, Elemental.
Over the years I’ve found that a career as a funeral director is usually nothing like people think it is.
I’m not saying that it’s bad; I want to praise and encourage anyone that is looking to get into the business. 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.
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.
I want to be a funeral director. I think it would be amazing to work with and prepare the dead.
Truth is, most 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.
I want 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. Funeral directors are not the social worker’s creepy cousin that has some martyr function. It’s as if they think funeral directors 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 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 mostly want someone who can get them death certificates in a hurry and take care of cremating their 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. The degree covers the sciences, body prep, funeral arts, and business and marketing. 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. I had eight years of business education and couldn’t justify going back to get an AA/BA degree for something that I don’t want do–embalm. I spent five 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 ordering (casket, vault urn) needs to happen. Coordinating with the cemetery and crematory are critical too. In short: project management. Oftentimes, 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.
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 would hire entry level funeral directors without a license. They will hire removal techs, admin positions, and sales people and this may be a good entry point for you to 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.
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.
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.
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 a job in the funeral business is one of the most wonderful jobs/careers that you can have. If you do your job properly, people feel better. 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, it should be one major piece of homework: Identify WHY you want to be in the funeral business. There are no right or wrong answers, but the answers that you give may shock you and illustrate why the funeral industry isn’t for you.
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. Maybe you just want to be a psychologist and really need to buckle down and do the schooling.
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 be a good fit for you. Are you into home funerals? 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 just read that paragraph and had the thought, “Oh no, removals/odd jobs/volunteering is beneath me.” Or felt your heart sink because there wasn’t anything interesting, you may not be cut out for this.
However, 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.
I had planned to release a new Ask a Mortician this week, but given what happened in Connecticut and China, I thought it better to release a video about talking to your children about death. This is especially important when there is a violent death that makes them feel threatened.
Interview I did on Girl Meets Geek on death talk with children
Mr. Roger’s piece on talking to children after a tragedy
Sweden, I have to say, you’re really on a roll lately with the human remains desecration accusations.
First, last month, there was the 37-year-old woman charged with necrophilia after investigators found a full human skeleton in her home (along with various other skulls and bones) that she allegedly used for sexual purposes.
They also discovered CD-ROMs titled “my necrophilia” and “my first experience,” and photographs of the woman engaging in various sexual activities with a skeleton, a court document on the prosecutor’s website showed.
Then, just yesterday a story appeared about Swedish artist Carl Michael von Hausswolff, who has used the ashes of Jewish Holocaust victims for a new painting.
Mr Von Hausswolff took the ashes during a 1989 visit to Majdanek, which, during its 34 months in operation from 1941 to 1944, claimed around 79,000 lives, the vast majority of them Polish Jews.
The painting was created by mixing the ashes with water to create a “series of grey streaks.”
I feel about human remains much the same way I feel about sex: It is all about consent.
We can’t determine what is right and wrong about handling human remains from our narrow cultural perspective. For example, I posted a few weeks ago about the Bolivian festival of the skulls, where members of the group (an offshoot of the Catholic Church) revere the skulls of more than 300 of their dead.
From the Western perspective, the thought of having your skull removed and given cigarettes and wreathed with flowers and paraded through the streets once a year might seem disrespectful. But to the people of this group, Western ideas about embalming or burial might be equally disrespectful. The people who died probably felt very comfortable with the idea that their skull was going to be revered in this way.
There, again, is the idea of consent. The bones the Swedish woman used for sexual pleasure and the ashes of the Holocaust victims were not intended to be used for those purposes. Neither the dead nor their families would be happy with that outcome, especially since Jews were incredibly uncomfortable with the idea of cremation in the first place, another reason the Holocaust was so psychologically traumatizing.
While I find the process of plasticized bodies fascinating, I am wary of Body Worlds and its creator Gunther von Hagens because of his use of executed Chinese prisoners in his work (which he was eventually made to return to China). There is a difference between donating your body for public display and having your body stolen for public display, against your wishes and culture.
That said, I am 100 percent for creative ways of dealing with human remains–with consent. Say that someone donated their cremated remains to me because it was their last wish that I should roll around in them and jump into the Pacific Ocean and make an “art video.” Well, you know, if that’s what makes you feel good about your death, bro, let’s do it.
But what if I stole some random person’s ashes from my crematory and did that because, you know, this is my art, people! There is a HUGE difference there. And that’s the difference we should be using when talking about artistic uses for human remains.
The fourth installment from awesome Austin-based funeral director Sarah Wambold documenting the process of opening her own funeral home.
(Catch up: American Funeral Home Revolution #1, #2, #3)
Thanks for checking back. Here’s more of what’s been up since my last post more than a month ago! Oy vey!
A few weeks ago, my phone buzzed at 8 a.m. Still in bed, I answered it. On the line, an imposing voice began, “This is the Texas Department of Vital Statistics regarding your registration for access to the Texas Electronic Registry (TER).”
“Uh-huh,” I uttered, the feelings of frustration beginning to collect in my head.
“On the application, you have listed as the funeral home’s name ‘Self.’”
“Uh, yeah,” I stammered, “I am going to be self-employed.”
“You cannot –” said the voice, this time with a sharper degree of indignation “– register without submitting the name of a facility licensed by the state of Texas.”
“OK,” I said. Since I already expected as much, I decided to go for all the bad news at once. I asked, “So, when I get that, what will this (TER) registration cost?”
“Oh,” the voice suddenly softened. “Nothing. Registration is free.”
Back to bed, pillow over my head.
Local funeral home owners’ patronizing laughs filling my dreams.
I woke up back at square one: No money. No licensed funeral home.
The formality of playing by the rules is what gets me down the most. Right now, I simply cannot afford it. Remember when Obama said small businesses didn’t get to where they are on their own? Remember how pissed people got? Do you know how true that statement is? You have to have money to make money — to get a loan, to open a funeral home, or to legally file death certificates for families who don’t even want a traditional funeral.
Texas does not require a family to work with a funeral director after a death. However, it does (like all states) require that a death certificate be filed. In order to do so, you must either work with the Office of Vital Statistics directly, or with a funeral director with access to the TER. Let’s just say that your loved one dies and you happen to live in a county that doesn’t like non-licensed people filing death certificates. Actually, they make it crazy hard/confusing. (Fact: My county, bless them, is totally fine with this. The county right next door, however, where potential customers live, is not.) So to avoid the hassle of dealing with bureaucracy, you decide to have someone else do the unsatisfying job of filing the paperwork while you focus on planning a lovely home funeral. You decide to call a funeral director just for help with paperwork. That director is legally required to be connected to a funeral home in order to file the death certificate.
Here is what getting a funeral home licensed in Texas requires: access to rolling stock (hearses/vans), a prep room for embalming, two full-size caskets on display, and a place where people can gather to hold a service. Just a tad more than simply getting my DBA licensed. I get why things have to be official and why licenses matter. We all want accurate records. But I am pretty sure I can do all that without a big chunk of real estate.
I Had It All Once and Lost It: Or, how the funeral industry wants me to feel.
In reality, what I had access to was an outdated prep room that was so disorganized and crammed with junk that I wouldn’t waste a match to burn it. Tacky caskets that went for $5000. Flashy Cadillacs. Shop talk: “We can stop this cremation craze!”
When I left my last position as a funeral director, I did so to start something that would give people an alternative to that model. But to access the TER, I “need” it.
There are ways around each of these issues. The quickest may be just getting hired by a local firm — if only it were that simple. Did I mention that there are no funeral jobs in Austin? Wait, that’s not quite true. There are, they’re just filed under “Only apply if you’re into brainwashing” or “Non-family need not apply.”
Another less compromising way around the requirements is to just contract with a mortuary service for access to vehicles and prep facilities — if they will call you back with a price list. (Not to get in too deep on this point, but it is a problem.) This would just leave me looking for some space and some caskets.
I will say that I am relieved to have no choice but to do my own thing. I look at the train wreck that the funeral industry is today and feel a mix of repulsion/joy. It’s so bad, it’s funny. But going up against it feels a bit like taking on the world, particularly if you start with nothing.
In the past year, I have applied for five grants. I have gotten zero. I know this is how it goes; professional grant writers tell me that for every ten grants you apply for you might get one. So, while I am frustrated, I keep at it. Many people bring up crowd-funding sites as a way to raise funds. Of course I have thought about this, but to get the money I need I would have to offer some substantial returns, i.e., gifts. But maybe not — maybe 16,000 people would donate $5 each and I’d send everyone a customized puffy-painted funeral flag to put on their car during processions. (Seriously, if 16,000 of you want those, I’ll do it.) So I’m not giving up on that idea altogether.
I am also lucky to have made some great connections within the alternative funeral community in Austin and so, despite the tone of this post, I do feel like I am getting somewhere, however slowly.
With the end of the year upon us, I may not be back here until early 2013. Before I sign off, I wanted to tell you all one more thing — my funeral home has a name! I have decided on Continuum, a word that brings together our past, present and future.
I hope everyone has a terrific New Year!
Since I’m holed up in my remote writer’s cabin slowly going MAD (mad, I say) this December, there is no chance to record a traditional Ask a Mortician. My apologies.
In an attempt to make it up to you, I am going to film an episode out here in the wilderness. Instead of focusing on one topic, let’s make it rapid-fire questions because I like to live dangerously — on the Internet where there is no actual danger, of course. Any topic is fair game, but it has to be able to be answered quickly (ex. “Tell me how the process of embalming works” is not a good question this time around).
You can Facebook your question at The Order of the Good Death, tweet your question to @TheGoodDeath, or leave a comment here.