Working in Death

For future morticians, death doulas and others thinking about working in death– is this type of work for you?

How do I become a mortician?

First, are you sure you want to be a mortician? It is important to understand the challenges, investment of time and money, and demands of a career in death care. The job can be incredibly rewarding, but there are a bunch of downsides that are almost never discussed. For example: the long hours, the low starting pay, the emotional burden, the disappearance of stable jobs in the industry, the toll on mental health,the evidence that mortuary workers present higher rates of PTSD symptoms compared with the general population, and the impact of being a last responder during a global pandemic. While we don’t want to crush your  dreams, in order to make your death dreams come true it’s important to know if they’re really truly right for you. Knowledge equals power and we want you feeling supported, empowered, and have robust support systems in place before beginning your death care journey.

 When in doubt most of us turn toward trusted experts, so here’s an article from your favorite mortician and funeral home owner, where she answers the question, “How do I become a mortician like you?” in an article called I Can’t Encourage You to Become a Mortician — this is a great place to start in answering these questions for yourself.

Follow that up with A Magnum Opus On Whether Being A Funeral Director Is Right For You and Is Mortuary School Right For You? 

Atlanta based Funeral Director Joél Anthony also has a number of helpful resources too, including a mortuary school self study course, and a video with tips on selecting a mortuary science school program.

If after reading, you are still interested in the traditional funeral industry, it might be time to consider going to mortuary school. You can find accredited programs on the American Board Of Funeral Service Education website

Requirements to become licensed as a mortician or funeral director or embalmer vary wildly from state to state, country to country.  Montana will look different from Auckland, Toronto will look different from Brighton.  When it comes down to it, your greatest ally to find a mortuary school in your area is good ol’ Google.

Wondering what it’s like once you get into a mortuary science program? Here are a couple articles that provide insight from students, like this one who questions the gaps in their education, to a look inside the oldest mortuary science program in NY.

How do I get started in the alternative death “industry”?

Maybe you don’t want to become an embalmer, you just want to help families care for their dead.  Maybe you don’t want to sell burial vaults, you just want to bury a person three feet down in a simple shroud.  If this sounds like you, you might be a better fit for the burgeoning alternative funeral industry.

Honestly, “industry” is too strong a word.  There aren’t many jobs and careers in this space yet. Here’s an Ask a Mortician video called EASY STEPS to becoming an Alternative Mortician! that goes deeper to explain exactly what that means.

You can also help families from outside the funeral industry as a death doula or midwife, or from inside the funeral industry as a licensed funeral director. This essay from Nora Menkin, a licensed director and funeral home manager (Washing Kathryn, Touching Death), provides important insight, while this piece provides a glimpse at a day in the life of a death doula. 

We also highly encourage taking a look around your community to see what the needs are, and working with others to create much needed mutual aid and community care initiatives. From A Place To Die in Seattle, to the Muslim Free Burial Association, to Mario’s Caskets.

What you’ll see from these pieces is that there are many ways to skin a cat (good lord, no one actually skin a cat!).  That is to say, there are many ways to be an ally to the cause of family-centered death care, both in and outside the industry.

How do I know if working in death is for me?

This is an important question. You don’t want to spend two years (or more) in mortuary school if it turns out the sight of dead bodies makes you faint.

One option to see if you can handle being around the dead and dying is to volunteer at a hospice in your area.  Here is a story from one deathling who took the plunge: My Journey as a Hospice Care Volunteer

It’s not easy to find work in the death industry with zero experience, but it’s not impossible. Try doing a simple Google search with the key terms “funeral home”+”(your city)”+”jobs”, to see what is available. You may find that working in a funeral home is incredible, or you may find it just isn’t right for you.

What are the steps to become a death doula?

A death doula or midwife is a person who (much like a birth doula brings a baby into the world) accompanies a person out of the world.  They may be there for the actual dying process, or they may come in specifically to help the family care for the body at home. Providing support at the end of life has been practiced among many cultures for centuries, and it is important to understand the current struggle between these sacred traditions and the modern impulse among a growing number of people to take on this work. To lean more we suggest reading Making Death Doulas Mainstream, and How Death Doulas Ease the Final Transition

The role of home funeral guides (death midwives, death doulas, etc) is unlegislated and there is no national certifying board. Therefore there is no official “certification.”

You can learn a bit more about this work by watching this video of Death Doula, Alua Arthur of Going With Grace, help Caitlin plan her ideal death bed experience.

There are, however, trainings to understand the laws and be comfortable caring for the body.  Friend of the Order Evi Numan describes her death midwife training here: Death Brought Us Together

If you decide you are interested in trainings, here are some options.

If you can’t attend any workshop in person, Cassandra Yonder has a Virtual School for Community Deathcaring, as does our trusted colleague, Alua Arthur.

Our friends at the National Home Funeral Alliance can help you find a teacher with their Directory of Home Funeral Teachers, or check out the National End-Of-Life Doula Alliance.