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Since the earliest of times, most peoples have held funeral ceremonies. The dead have ritually been interred in pyramids, cremated on burning pyres, and sunk beneath the oceans' waves. Even today, funeral practices and rites vary greatly among various cultures and religions. Among the many diverse groups in the United States, funeral practices generally share some common elements: Removal of the remains of the deceased to a mortuary, preparation of the remains, performance of a ceremony that honors the deceased and addresses the spiritual needs of the living as well as the dead, and the burial or destruction of the remains. To unburden themselves of arranging and directing these tasks, grieving families turn to funeral directors.
Funeral directors are also called morticians or undertakers. Although this career does not appeal to everyone, the men and women who work as funeral directors take great pride in the fact that they provide efficient and appropriate services that give comfort to their customers.
Funeral directors interview the family to learn what they desire with regard to the nature of the funeral, the clergy members or other persons who will officiate, and the final disposition of the remains; sometimes the deceased leave detailed instructions for their own funerals. Together with the family, directors establish the location, dates, and times of wakes, memorial services, and burials. They also send a hearse to carry the body to the funeral home or mortuary.
Burial in a casket is the most common method of disposing of remains in this country, although entombments also occur. Cremation, which is the burning of a body in a special furnace, is increasingly selected. Even when remains are cremated, the ashes are often placed in an urn and buried. Funeral directors usually stock a selection of caskets and urns for families to purchase.
Directors arrange the details and handle the logistics of funerals. They prepare obituary notices and have them placed in newspapers, arrange for pallbearers and clergy, schedule with the cemetery the opening and closing of a grave, decorate and prepare the sites of all services, and provide for the transportation of the remains, mourners, and flowers between sites. They also direct preparation and shipment of remains for out-of-State burial.
Funeral services may take place in the home, a house of worship, or the funeral home and at the grave site or crematory. Services may be nonreligious, but often they reflect the religion of the family, so funeral directors must be familiar with the funeral and burial customs of many faiths, ethnic groups, and fraternal organizations. For example, members of some religions seldom have the bodies of the deceased embalmed or cremated.
Most funeral directors are also trained, licensed, and practicing embalmers. Embalming is a sanitary, cosmetic, and preservative process through which the body is prepared for interment. If more than 24 hours or so elapses between death and interment, State laws usually require that remains be refrigerated or embalmed. The embalmer washes the body with germicidal soap and replaces the blood with embalming fluid to preserve the body. Embalmers may reshape and reconstruct disfigured or maimed bodies using materials, such as clay, cotton, plaster of Paris, and wax. They also may apply cosmetics to provide a natural appearance, and then dress the body and place it in a casket. Embalmers maintain records such as embalming reports, and itemized lists of clothing or valuables delivered with the body. In large funeral homes, an embalming staff of two or more embalmers, plus several apprentices, may be employed.
Funeral directors also handle the paper work involved with the person's death. They may help family members apply for veterans' burial benefits, notify the Social Security Administration of the death, apply on behalf of survivors for the transfer of any pensions, insurance policies, or annuities, and submit papers to State authorities so that a formal certificate of death may be issued and copies distributed to heirs.
Funeral directors are also responsible for the success and the profitability of their businesses. Directors keep records on expenses, purchases, and services rendered; prepare and send invoices for services; prepare and submit reports for unemployment insurance; prepare Federal, State, and local tax forms; and prepare itemized bills for customers. Directors also strive to foster a cooperative spirit and friendly attitude among employees and a compassionate demeanor toward the families. A growing number of funeral directors are also involved in helping individuals adapt to changes in their lives following a death through post-death counseling and support group activities.
Most funeral homes have a chapel, one or more viewing rooms, a casket-selection room, and a preparation room. Some also have a crematory on the premises. Equipment may include a hearse, a flower car, limousines, and sometimes an ambulance.
Funeral directors often work long, irregular hours. Shift work is sometimes necessary because funeral home hours include evenings and weekends. In smaller funeral homes, working hours vary, but in larger homes employees generally work 8 hours a day, 5 or 6 days a week.
Funeral directors occasionally come into contact with the remains of persons who had contagious diseases, but the possibility of infection is remote if strict health regulations are followed.
To show proper respect and consideration for the families and the dead, funeral directors must dress appropriately. The profession usually requires short, neat hair cuts and trim beards if any, for men. Suits, ties, and dresses are customary for a conservative look.
Funeral directors held about 26,000 jobs in 1994. About 1 in 8 were self-employed. Nearly all worked in the funeral service and crematory industry, but a few worked for the Federal Government.
Funeral directors must be licensed in all but one State, Colorado. Licensing laws vary from State to State, but most require applicants to be 21 years old, have a high school diploma, complete some college training in mortuary science, and serve an apprenticeship. After passing a State board licensing examination, new funeral directors may join the staff of a funeral home. Embalmers are required to be licensed in all States, and some States issue a single license for both funeral directors and embalmers. In States that have separate licensing and apprenticeship requirements for the two positions, most people in the field obtain both licenses. Persons interested in a career as a funeral director should contact their state board for specific state requirements.
College programs in mortuary science usually last from 1 to 4 years, depending on the school. There were 42 mortuary science programs accredited by the American Board of Funeral Service Education in 1994. One-year mortuary science programs offered by some vocational schools emphasize basic subjects such as anatomy, physiology, embalming techniques, and restorative art. Two-year programs are offered by a small number of community and junior colleges, and a few colleges and universities offer both 2- and 4-year programs. Mortuary science programs include courses in business management, accounting, and use of computers in funeral home management and client services. They also include courses in the social sciences and legal, ethical, and regulatory subjects, such as psychology, grief counseling, oral and written communication, funeral service law, business law, and ethics.
The National Foundation of Funeral Service offers a continuing education program designed for active practitioners in the field. It is a 3-week program in communications, counseling, and management. Over 25 States have continuing education requirements that funeral directors must meet before a license can be renewed.
Apprenticeships must be completed under an experienced and licensed funeral director or embalmer. Depending on State regulations, apprenticeships last from 1 to 2 years and may be served before, during, or after mortuary school. They provide practical experience in all facets of the funeral service from embalming to transporting remains.
State board licensing examinations vary, but they usually consist of written and oral parts and include a demonstration of practical skills. Persons who want to work in another State may have to pass the examination for that State, although many States will grant licenses to funeral directors from another State without further examination.
High school students can start preparing for a career as a funeral director by taking courses in biology and chemistry and participating public speaking or debating clubs. Part-time or summer jobs in funeral homes consist mostly of maintenance and clean-up tasks, such as washing and polishing limousines and hearses, but these tasks can help students become familiar with the operation of funeral homes.
Important personal traits for funeral directors are composure, tact, and the ability to communicate easily with the public. They also should have the desire and ability to comfort people in their time of sorrow.
Advancement opportunities are best in large funeral homes at which directors may earn promotions to higher paying positions such as branch manager or general manager. Some directors eventually acquire enough money and experience to establish their own funeral businesses.
Employment opportunities for funeral directors are expected to be excellent, because the number of graduates in mortuary science is likely to continue to be less than the number of job openings in the field.
Employment of funeral directors is expected to increase about as fast as the average for all occupations through the year 2005. Demand for funeral services will rise as the population grows, and with it the number of deaths. The population is projected to become older because the number of persons age 55 and over is expected to increase significantly faster than the population as a whole.
Cremations have been increasing over the years. This trend may lessen the demand for embalming somewhat, because embalming is not required before cremation.
Salaries of funeral directors depend on the size of the establishment and the number of services performed. A survey conducted by the National Funeral Directors Association found that the average salary, including bonus, for funeral directors who were owner-managers was $62,506 in 1994; mid-level managers averaged $44,062.
The job of a funeral director requires tact, discretion, and compassion when dealing with grieving people. Others who need these qualities include members of the clergy, social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists, and other health care professionals.
For information on the funeral service profession and funeral service statistics, write to:
The National Funeral Directors Association 11121 West Oklahoma Ave., Milwaukee, WI 53227.
For information about college programs in mortuary science, scholarships, and funeral service as a career, contact:
The American Board of Funeral Service Education P.O. Box 1305, Brunswick, ME 04011.
For information on continuing education programs in funeral service, contact:
The National Foundation of Funeral Service 2250 East Devon Ave., Suite 250, Des Plaines, IL 60018.
For information on programs, publications, and statistics on cremations write to:
The Cremation Association of North America 401 N. Michigan, Chicago, IL 60611.
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