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Funeral Directors

Significant Points

• Funeral directors must be licensed by their state.
• Job opportunities should be good, but mortuary science graduates may have to relocate to find jobs as funeral directors.
• Job outlook is best for those who also embalm.

Nature of the Work

Funeral practices and rites vary greatly among various cultures and religions. Among the many diverse groups in the United States, funeral practices usually share some common elements, arranged by funeral directors:
• Removal of the deceased to a mortuary
• Preparation of the remains
• Performance of a ceremony
• Burial or destruction of the remains

Funeral directors also are called morticians or undertakers. This career may not appeal to everyone, but those who work as funeral directors take great pride in their abilities to provide efficient and appropriate services.

Funeral directors arrange the details and handle the logistics of funerals. They determine the family’s desires, work with the clergy members or other persons who will officiate, and oversee the final disposition of the remains. Sometimes, the deceased leaves detailed instructions for his or her funeral. Together with the family, funeral directors establish the locations, dates and times of wakes, memorial services and burials, and arrange for a hearse to carry the body to the funeral home or mortuary.

Funeral directors also prepare and place newspaper obituaries; arrange for pallbearers and clergy; schedule the opening and closing of a grave with the cemetery; decorate and prepare the sites of all services; and provide transportation for the remains, mourners and flowers between sites. They also direct preparation and shipment of remains for out-of-state burial.

Most funeral directors are 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 elapse between death and interment, state laws usually require that the 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 services may take place in a home, house of worship, funeral home or at thegravesite or crematory. Services may be nonreligious, but often they reflect the religionof the family, so funeral directors must be familiar with the funeral and burial customsof many faiths, ethnic groups and fraternal organizations. For example, members ofsome religions seldom have the bodies of the deceased embalmed or cremated.

Burial in a casket is the most common method of disposing of remains in this country,although entombment also occurs. Cremation, which is the burning of the body in aspecial furnace, is increasingly selected because it can be more convenient and lesscostly. Cremations are appealing because the remains can be easily shipped, kept athome, buried or scattered. Memorial services can be held anywhere, and at any time,sometimes months later when all relatives and friends can get together. Even whenthe remains are cremated, many people still want a funeral service.

A funeral service followed by cremation need not be any different from a funeralservice followed by a burial. Usually, cremated remains are placed in some type ofpermanent receptacle, or urn, before being committed to a final resting place. Theurn may be buried, placed in an indoor or outdoor mausoleum or columbarium, orinterred in a special urn garden that many cemeteries provide for cremated remains.

Funeral directors handle the paperwork involved with the person’s death, such assubmitting papers to state authorities so that a formal certificate of death may beissued and copies distributed to the heirs. They may help family members apply forveterans’ burial benefits, and notify the Social Security Administration of the death.Also, funeral directors may apply for the transfer of any pensions, insurance policies,or annuities on behalf of survivors

 Funeral directors also prearrange funerals. Increasingly, they arrange funerals inadvance of need to provide peace of mind by ensuring that the client’s wishes will betaken care of in a way that is satisfying to the person and to those who will survive.

Most funeral homes are small, family-run businesses, and the funeral directors eitherare owner-operators or employees of the operation. Funeral directors, therefore, areresponsible for the success and the profitability of their businesses.

Directors keep records of 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. Funeral directors increasingly are using computers for billing, bookkeeping and marketing. Some are beginning to use the Internet to communicate with clients who are preplanning their funerals, or to assist clients by developing electronic obituaries and guest books.

Directors strive to foster a cooperative spirit and friendly attitude among employees and a compassionate demeanor toward the families. A growing number of funeral directors also are involved in helping individuals adapt to changes in their lives following a death through post-death support group activities.

Most funeral homes have a chapel, one or more viewing rooms, a casket-selection room, and a preparation room. An increasing number also have a crematory on the premises. Equipment may include a hearse, a flower car, limousines, and sometimes an ambulance. They usually stock a selection of caskets and urns for families to purchase or rent.

Working Conditions

Funeral directors often work long, irregular hours, and the occupation can be very high-stress. Many work on an on-call basis because they may be needed to remove remains in the middle of the night. Shift-work sometimes is necessary because funeral home hours include evenings and weekends. In smaller funeral homes, working hours vary, but in larger homes, employees usually work eight hours a day, five or six 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 haircuts and trim beards, if any, for men. Suits, ties and dresses are customary for a conservative look.

Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement

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 two years of formal education that includes studies in mortuary science, serve a one-year apprenticeship, and pass a qualifying examination. After becoming licensed, new funeral directors may join the staff of a funeral home. Embalmers must be licensed in all states, and some states issue a single license for both funeral directors and embalmers. In states that have separate licensing requirements for the two positions, most people in the field obtain both licenses.

College programs in mortuary science usually last from two to four years. The American Board of Funeral Service Education accredits 49 mortuary science programs. Two-year programs are offered by a small number of community and junior colleges, and a few colleges and universities offer both two- and four-year programs. Mortuary science programs include courses in anatomy, physiology, pathology, embalming techniques, restorative art, business management, accounting, 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 Funeral Service Educational Foundation and many state associations offer continuing education programs designed for licensed funeral directors. These programs address issues in communications, counseling and management. Thirty-two states have requirements that funeral directors receive continuing education credits in order to maintain their licenses.

Apprenticeships must be completed under an experienced and licensed funeral director or embalmer. Depending on state regulations, apprenticeships last from one to three years and may be served before, during or after mortuary school. Apprenticeships 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, however, some states have reciprocity arrangements and will grant licenses to funeral directors from another state without further examination.

Important personality 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 larger funeral homes — funeral 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 home businesses.

Additional Planning Resources

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