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How do I become a mortician?

Black and White photo of young Black men carrying a casket into a funeral hearse.

First, are you sure you want to be a mortician? It is important to understand the challenges, investment of time and money, and emotional demands of a career in death care. Death work can be incredibly rewarding, but there are 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, it’s important to know if this work is really, truly right for you. We want you feeling informed, confident, and to have robust support systems in place before beginning your death care journey.

To start, here’s an article penned by a mortician and funeral home owner called “I Can’t Encourage You to Become a Mortician.” Harsh title perhaps, but we hope this gets you started honestly answering these questions for yourself. Follow that up with A Magnum Opus On Whether Being A Funeral Director Is Right For You.

Atlanta based Funeral Director Joél Anthony also has a number of helpful resources including a mortuary school self study course, and a video with tips on selecting a Mortuary Science school program that’s right for you.

If after reading you’re 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, and from 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 dot com.

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 student who questions the gaps in their education and a look inside the oldest Mortuary Science program in NY.

You probably already anticipate learning a lot of science to get your mortuary science degree, but you should also expect to spend a lot of time learning business, management, accounting, and merchandising too.

Another consideration that sometimes gets left out of the conversation is that funeral directors can also act as cultural preservationists. When enacting death rituals specific to a community important ties to homeland,  history, and  beliefs are made, enriching and reinforcing a culture. Such rituals are often a necessity for achieving a good death. This vital legacy work can be seen in funeral homes like Fukui Mortuary,  Aloha Mortuary, All People’s Funeral Home and countless others.

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

A pair of hands arranges some flowers on a body

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. You’re more of a composter than a cremator. If this sounds like you, you might be a better fit for the burgeoning alternative funeral industry.

Honestly, “industry” is too strong a word, as there aren’t many jobs and careers in this space yet. At first your position may be more volunteer or community based than a realistic full time career. Here’s a video called EASY STEPS to becoming an Alternative Mortician! that goes deeper to explain exactly what that means. Spoiler: it’s not that easy.

You can also help families from outside the funeral industry as a death doula or midwife, this piece provides a glimpse at a day in the life of a death doula. And keep in mind that real change can also come from inside the more traditional funeral industry, working from within to expand environmental and family-led options. The fact is there’s more than one way to be a funeral director, as you’ll discover in our interview series “Meet the Morticians”. This essay, “Washing Kathryn, Touching Death” from Nora Menkin, a licensed director and funeral home manager, also provides important insight.

We also highly encourage you to take a look around your community to see what needs there are and work with others to create much needed mutual aid and community care initiatives. Some great examples are A Place To Die in Seattle, the Muslim Free Burial Association in NY, or Mario’s Caskets in LA.

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 someone 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. Jobs as a removal tech are solid way to discover if family and body interaction are comfortable for you. You may find that working in a funeral home is incredible, or you may find it just isn’t right for you.

What is a death doula and how do you become one?

A brown bowl of water with yellow flowers floating in it, sits on top of a wooden table

What is a death doula, aka death midwife, or end-of-life guide? This is a person who (much like a birth doula brings a baby into the world) accompanies a person out of the world. Death doulas provide non-medical support, education, and guidance to dying individuals and their families.

There are many different ways that doulas offer support. They may be there for the actual dying process, or they may come in specifically to help inform the family how to care for the body at home. Doulas may act as advocates for the patient and family, take care of practical tasks, or help the family create meaningful rituals.

Providing this type of support at the end-of-life has been practiced among many cultures for centuries, and it’s important to understand the current struggle between these ancient traditions and the modern impulse among a growing number of people to take on this work.

How do people become death doulas? The role of end-of-life guides (death midwives, death doulas, etc) is unregulated and there is no national certifying board. Therefore there is no official “certification.”

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

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

Not only are an increasing number of people interested in becoming death doulas, but demand for end-of life support and education also seems to be increasing. According to this Time Magazine article, “Organizations that support and train U.S. death doulas have seen significant spikes in membership and enrollment” post 2020 Covid-19 pandemic.