The local undertaker was walking down the street one warm, spring morning. The friendly letter carrier greeted him with a “Good morning, Mr. Voss. How is business?” Mr. Voss, smiled and said, “Oh business is great. People are just dying to get in.”
F. Walter “Bud” Voss,
Voss and Sons Funeral home
So, You Want to be a Mortician
What does it take to be a mortician? Dealing with people who have lost a loved one is emotional, to say the least, and daunting in many, many situations. Undertakers see people at the worst time of their lives, dealing with the inevitable unknown of death, which no truly one understands, yet we all have to deal with, sometimes without warning. It takes a very special person to deal with all the facets of someone dying and the needs and emotions the death causes in those left behind.
What Characteristics and Skills Does a Good Mortician Need?
Anyone who deals with people has to have well developed interpersonal skills. Being able to work with people, making sure they are included and feel empowered and part of the process is paramount to being a good mortician. However, a mortician must also have a well-developed intrapersonal component to his or her personality. The old saying, “Know thyself” is important if you are to be the one who deals with people as they deal with death.
The old saying patience is a virtue is true, especially when it comes to dealing with all the levels of grief people have during the planning of a funeral. Working with them to make the process inclusive takes an infinite amount of patience. The funeral is for those left behind. Because the undertaker meets the family for the first time is such a crisis situation, he or she has to let all parties take part until a consensus can be made.
For example, I wanted a mass for my mother’s end of life celebration, but my sister was adamant there be no mass. I wanted to be in a church, and she wanted to be in the funeral parlor. We bickered, the undertaker listened, never interpreting until we paused, both of us weary, and we asked, “What do you think?” She had a great idea for a compromise that worked for us both. She heard both our needs, never decided one was right and the other foolish, and when asked offered a solution, which satisfied us both. Her years of experience gave her the knowledge to when to share and what to offer.
How does one really ever understand how another feels when losing a loved one? Each situation is highly personal and is the result of a lifetime of experiences the mortician knows nothing about. Though it made no difference if my father had a bigger casket or not, the undertaker did not try to explain to my mother he would have no comfort level in the larger casket since he was no longer alive to sense comfort. He understood that to my mother his comfort was paramount because she knew though out his life he liked big and roomy.
Listening to hear is central to working with those who are grieving. Unless directly asked for the details about burial, initially the undertaker is there to listen. Once the stories and/or emotions one might want to share have been given time, the questions about the particulars of the service will start coming out.
Many people have no idea what to do when someone dies. The first question many ask is what am I going to do? Mostly, this is initially a rhetorical question, but we will all need to answer it sooner or later. Knowing this, the undertaker will not answer do this and do that, but with the question he or she will start the process. When you feel ready, you will sit down and begin to talk about what needs to be done, based on what you and your family need.
Being a friend is also important, even though the friendship is created in a less than normal situation. Having a comfort level allows the process to move forward with less stress and emotion. We all work better with friends than we do with strangers.
People know in their heads what they want for funeral, but they have no idea how to plan for it. And, of course, emotion does not allow for a focus on what is needed to pull together the life celebration you want.
Often financial situations arise, and it is not the time to have to worry about money. If you do not have funeral insurance or a prepaid funeral plan, the mortician will figure out what to do, help create a plan that fits your budget, and organize a payment plan, if needed. He or she will figure out timing based on family needs as well as coordination of services and locations.
Trust is paramount when it comes to leaving the preparation of a loved one’s body and his or her funeral to another. The mortician will be your confidant. Whatever the reason, people often share intimate parts of their relationship with the mortician and he or she must be the listener who can be trusted to listen and keep whatever is said confidential. Grief makes us all do things we may find contrary to our usual nature.
“Often people come in and have decided to have a lavish funeral they cannot afford to show their love. After listening, I begin to counsel them to help them come to the place of understanding that the funeral does not have to be out of the budget to show love.”
F. Walter, “Bud” Voss
Voss and Sons Funeral Home
The details of a funeral include where to put the flowers, what kind of flowers, who are the best vendors, singers, if desired, what prayers, who gives the eulogy, what about a limo, cars, gravesite service if desired, after funeral events? And, what about extended family members and their needs? What about timing, asking others to talk and limiting time to make sure the service does drag on? The fine-tuning of the life celebration desired by a family takes an eye for detail, to say the least.
Official Education and Training
Requirements vary from state to state.
It is important to find out what your state’s requirements are when it comes to training to become a mortician. The National Funeral Director’s Association is a great resource to contact to find out just what you have to do in your state. Once you find out your state’s requirements, The American Board of Funeral Education is the resource to use to find the list of accredited program. Most mortuary science programs offer a two-year associate degree, usually through a community college. However, some schools offer a four-year bachelor’s degree. The associate degree requires full-time study for two years; the bachelor’s degree required four years of full time study.
Regardless of whether you choose an associate degree of a bachelor’s degree, the following courses will be part of the program:
- Human Anatomy
- Restorative Art
- Funeral Home Management
Of course other courses are part of the curriculum but these courses are in any program you would select.
If you decide to attend school on campus, the face-to-face contact with faculty as well as the connections with other students is a definite plus. The traditional program is set up to accommodate the traditional student who can rearrange his or her schedule to fit the program as it is structured and offered. It does not have a flexible component.
The advantages of an on campus programs are it is highly structured and follows a progression of classes in a chronological order. Great resources are available throughout the program as well as face-to-face interaction with instructors, which is a great help to students.
The disadvantages of an on campus program are you must commute to the site because there is no on line time. All courses are taken at the college you choose to attend. As stated before, there is no flexibility in scheduling, so you must be prepared to follows the progression of classes as they are offered and rearrange your schedule to accommodate this. You will also have to take time away from your daily obligations. If you have class on Monday night, you have class on Monday night and that means no attending that dance recital. If class is Thursday afternoon, you cannot play that basketball game or attend the workshop at work that will train you in skills that will probably get you a pay raise. Work has to be scheduled around the classes, which may preclude you from having a full time job.
On Line Programs
First and foremost, do your research and make sure the program you select is from an accredited college. Do not fall for some advertised program that offers the sky because nine out of ten times these programs are not accredited, and they do not honor their marketing promises. Going to school costs money, so you must make sure you are in an accredited situation. When the time comes you want to be sure you will have your credentials and not just the amount of your student loan to repay.
Many students are now selecting the option to take on line programs because these fit into busy lifestyles and no one has to rearrange any schedules to fit an on campus structure. This allows you to have family time as well as work full-time because you can take the classes when they work for you. All classes except embalming labs, restorative art and clinicals can be taken on line. The three aforementioned classes must be taken on campus or in an approved facility off campus. The point being you cannot take them on line, period.
The advantages of an on line program are all you need is Internet access and you can be anywhere and take the class. Scheduling is very flexible, and you set your own schedule. Also, you have access to technology and online resources, and
classes can be completed while you are maintaining family life and work life.
The disadvantages of on line programs are limited face-to-face time with instructors. Regardless of how technologically we advance, research continues to show that face-to-face contact with instructors is a component of educational success. To do an on line program, you must be very organized and motivated. You have to set the time aside to take the class in an environment that is conducive to learning. And you must stay organized to maintain the schedule you have created. Often those who take on line programs find it is too easy to say, oh I will do it later. You cannot put off the work for another time. This is a trap that can lead to failure. You have to be your own monitor and stay committed to the program.
Remember, you can never take all your courses on line, so you will need to make arrangements to take your embalming labs, restorative arts classes and clinical on campus or in an agreed upon facility. When selecting a program check to see where these courses are offered, so you are not traveling a great distance to complete them.
Some people want the freedom of an online program, but they are not comfortable with a complete on line program. In a Hybrid Program, students complete some courses on line and some on campus. Hybrids are more flexible than the traditional on campus programs, but they do have a part that is traditional in its a structure and a time commitment.
The advantages of a hybrid program are it offers flexibility as well as time for face-to-face interaction. On line resources are offered and commuting time is limited.
The disadvantages of a hybrid program are the lack of flexibility offered by a complete on line program as well as requiring self-motivation and organization.
Most states require an apprenticeship before licensure as a funeral director, so you will need to start working with a mortician who is willing to be your sponsor. He or she has to be willing to take on an apprentice, following your state’s requirements. Check to see what your state requires in regards to the apprenticeship. You may have to get an apprentice license, in which case you will have to appear before the State Board of Morticians and Funeral Directors with your sponsor to sign a written agreement to the conditions of the apprenticeship. If you are required by your state to assist in funerals and embalmings as part of the apprenticeship, you and your sponsor will have to submit complete documentation for each completed task.
Most states require you to be licensed to become a mortician. Though the licensure requirements vary from state to state, usually candidates must complete at least a two-year ABFSE accredited program in mortuary science. In addition, most states require the applicants for licensure be at least 21 years old and require they have service at least a 1 to 3 year apprenticeship before they sit for the licensing exam.
Certification is not required for morticians; however, becoming certified looks good on your resume. It demonstrates your skills, and it shows you are dedicated to the field of funeral science. Certification is the extra step, which leads to better job opportunities as well as better salaries. You can be certified in a number of areas, the following three are examples:
- Certified Crematory Operator
- Certified PrePlanning Consultant
- Certified Funeral Science Practitioner
Unofficial Education and Training
If you live in a state that does not require a college education to become a mortician, you can look for a funeral home that offers on-site training. This may seem like a great way to go because you do not have to spend at least two years in school; however, there really is no fast route to becoming a licensed mortician. Also, since this option is not very common, you will have to do a lot of research to find a funeral home that offers training and is willing to take you on.
High School Diploma or GED
Regardless of your decision between official and unofficial mortuary science education, you must have a high school diploma or an equivalent, like a GED. It is important to know that if two candidates apply, all qualifications being equal except one has a high school diploma and one has a GED, the high school diploma candidate will always be hired over the person with a GED.
Funeral Home Training
Most funeral homes will choose applicants with formal training; however, you might find a funeral home that does on the job training. If you go this route, you will need to be ready to do whatever tasks your licensed supervisor asks of you.
Communities need funeral directors, so you can be sure job opportunities exist, if not in your local community, then be willing relocate to an area where you are needed.
Funeral directors with embalming expertise and experience are more marketable than those without, so it is a good idea to be sure you are trained in the art of embalming.
Often the funeral business is a family owned business, such as Mr. Voss’, which was started by his grandfather, handed down to his father and then to him and his brother. However, with experience, it is not out of the question to start your own business. If this is your goal, be sure to educate yourself in the ins and outs of a small business.
When deciding whether or not to become a mortician, do not only check out the educational needs. Check out who you are as a person to be sure you have the characteristics it will take to work in a very emotional business. Mr. Voss stated,” I see people in their most painful and vulnerable times. Death comes at any age, from infants, to teenagers to grandparents. Death takes spouses, children, sisters whenever it wants. People need me, not only for the organization of a service, but also for listening. I am their friend, their confidant, their strength to lean on.”
It takes a special person, so look into yourself and then decide because good morticians are not a dime a dozen, and they are very much needed in our communities today.