What is it like to work as a funeral director?
It would take days for us to fully explain the intricacies of this career. Suffice it to say, this work is not for everyone. It takes enormous commitment and dedication. The hours are long and –contrary to public opinion — the pay is low.
Do you actually embalm bodies?
Alexandra has embalmed hundreds, if not thousands of bodies over the course of her career, and Doris has made a similar number of removals. At present, we primarily arrange funerals with families and guide them through the funeral process. We are there for them throughout the visitation period and with them the day of the funeral. However, Alexandra was called out of embalming retirement two years ago, by special request. That was quite a story which she will eventually write about.
Do you ever get squeamish?
Not at this stage in our careers. We’ve just about seen it all.
What do you think is the best way to help people at the time of mourning? How can one best help them through it?
Listen to them. We’ve learned that people who have just lost a loved one need to talk about that person and what he or she meant. They often talk about the last experience they had together, as well as the details of the death and sometimes the illness that preceded it. They often tell these stories again and again to work through and try to make sense of what has happened. As funeral directors and friends, we need to be an available and caring ear.
How did you get into the profession? What attracted you?
Alexandra: By accident! I took a job in a funeral home the summer between high school and college. Working there piqued my interest. My plan was to get licensed as a funeral director, but continue with my dream of becoming a writer.
Doris: For me, it was becoming engaged to a budding funeral director.
How did you make the transition from funeral director to writer?
As I mentioned, my life plan was always to be a writer and that’s what I was educated for. Still, it was my work as a funeral director and within the industry that gave me so much to write about.
Would you recommend this field to other women?
In good conscience, we would not. That said, we firmly believe that if someone is determined to forge a career in a certain field (even one in which job opportunities are extremely limited), they will find a way.
How can those interested in a career as a funeral director learn more about what to expect?
In addition to reading Alexandra’s memoir –Grave Undertakings– they can talk to established funeral directors in their area about the job market and what to expect.
Should they also contact the mortuary schools?
Only to find out the cost of tuition! The schools need to turn a profit in order to operate and so may paint a rosier picture of funeral service than what exists.
How Can I Become a Funeral Director?
A number of the emails we receive are from those seeking advice about how to forge a career in funeral service. “How can I become a funeral director?’ and “Do you recommend it?” many ask.
A career as a funeral director is not for everyone. It takes enormous commitment and dedication. Funeral directors deal with issues of mortality — our own as well as those of our clients — on a daily basis. The hours are long and –contrary to public perception — the pay is relatively low. What’s more, job opportunities are few and far between, as smaller family owned funeral homes have closed around the country close and the existing ones are often bought up by corporations and then consolidated. Still, the intangible rewards are many in a career we see as a ministry.
Do it for the Right Reasons
If you decide to pursue a career as a funeral director, do it because you genuinely want to make a terrible time a bit easier for others. Do it because you believe in ceremony and ritual – and because you possess an empathetic nature. Don’t do it because you want to be a YouTube star. A good funeral director works quietly and efficiently in the background.
And one more do: do know your business environment. When one woman, newly graduated from mortuary school and looking for an internship, went on interviews, she enthusiastically expressed an interest in doing green burials. As green burials are not a happening thing in New York City (there’s little to no interest), her interests did not square with those of the funeral home owners. After investing time and money in school, she never worked in funeral service.
On that note….
Funeral Service is a Traditional and that Tradition Continues
Despite the media’s focus on alternative, and often outlandish, funeral “alternatives,” not much has changed. Sure, a growing percentage of funerals end in cremation, but cremation is nothing more than a final disposition choice, like burial or entombment. In no way does cremation preclude a traditional funeral with open-casket visitation. So, you will be spending a lot of time embalming and making removals.
A Word About Mortuary Schools
Mortuary schools need to turn a profit in order to stay in business. For that reason, they may paint a rosier picture of potential job opportunities than what actually exists. And while licensing requirements vary from state to state, at the least, a year or two in an accredited mortuary school will be required, and that does not come cheap.
Speak to the Established
When we were students at American Academy- McAllister Institute in New York City, we each had several classmates who had never even seen a dead body or, for that matter, been inside a funeral home. Needless to say, they did not make it through the program. Before you invest your time and money, if possible, shadow a funeral director.
Also, talk to established (emphasis on “established”) funeral directors in your area about the job market, and what to expect. Those with a modicum of experience, claiming to be “experts” and hawking merchandise on YouTube and Instagram, often paint a false picture. Better yet, get a part time job in a funeral home if you can.