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Funeral Director Career, Job and Employment Information

Funeral Director Career and Job Highlights

  • Funeral directors must be licensed by the state in which they operate.
  • Employment opportunities should be plentiful, especially for directors who also embalm; mortuary science graduates may need to relocate to find jobs.

Funeral Director Career Overview and Job Description

Although funeral practices differ markedly among the many diverse cultures and religions in the United States, most have important similarities—taking the deceased to a mortuary, preparing the remains, performing a ceremony to honor the deceased and address the spiritual needs of the family, and appropriately disposing of the remains. Also known as morticians or undertakers, funeral directors provide these services for the family of the deceased. While this profession is not for everyone, funeral directors take enormous satisfaction in their ability to provide well-organized, appropriate services and to console grieving family members and friends.

Funeral directors coordinate and carry out the logistics of funerals. They discuss with the family of the deceased to decide how the funeral will be performed, who will officiate (clergy members or other persons), and what options are available for final disposition of the remains. In cases where the deceased leaves detailed instructions for his or her own funeral, funeral directors and the family take care of any remaining logistical concerns (arranging for a hearse to transport the body to the funeral home or mortuary, and setting the dates, times, and location of services and burial, etc.).
Funeral directors’ other responsibilities include preparing obituary notices and distributing them to newspapers, arranging for clergy and pallbearers, scheduling the opening and closing of a grave with a representative of the cemetery, preparing and decorating the sites of all services, and ensuring transportation for the remains, mourners, and flowers between sites. Funeral directors also oversee preparation and transportation of remains for out-of-state burials.

Embalming is another task generally handled by funeral directors, most of whom are trained, licensed, and practicing embalmers. Some large funeral homes employ two or more embalmers, plus several apprentices. Refrigeration or embalming—a sanitary and cosmetic process by which a body is preserved and prepared for interment—is required by most states if more than 24 hours pass between death and interment.

Embalmers begin by cleaning the body with germicidal soap and replacing the blood with embalming fluid to preserve the tissues. In cases where there was disfiguration or maiming, an embalmer may use materials like clay, cotton, plaster of paris, and wax to reshape or reconstruct the body. To give the body a natural appearance, they also may apply cosmetics. Finally, they dress the body and place it in a casket. Funeral directors and embalmers keep embalming reports, itemized lists of clothing and valuables accompanying the body, and other relevant records.

Depending on the family’s wishes, funeral services may be held in a home, place of worship, funeral home, or at the gravesite or crematory. While some services are nonreligious, many reflect the family’s beliefs. Funeral directors must therefore be aware of funeral and burial customs for many faiths, ethnic groups, and fraternal organizations. Some religions, for instance, discourage their members from having the bodies of the deceased embalmed or cremated.
Although entombment does take place, burial in a casket is the most prevalent funeral practice in the United States. Cremation, the incineration of a body in a special furnace, has gained popularity in recent years, partially because it often costs less. Convenience is another advantage: memorial services can take place anywhere, at any time—even months later in order for all relatives and friends to be able to attend.

Even when cremation takes place, many families still choose to hold memorial services. In reality, there need not be any difference between a funeral service that precedes a cremation and one that precedes a burial. Cremated remains are generally put in an urn, a type of permanent receptacle, and then given a final resting place. The family may bury the urn, place it in a mausoleum or columbarium, or have it interred in a cemetery urn garden.
One service that funeral directors increasingly provide is that of prearranged funerals. Many people desire the peace of mind that comes with knowing that their wishes will be taken care of in a way that will satisfy the person and the family members and friends.

Aside from these types of services, funeral directors also take care of paperwork involved with a person’s death. States rely on funeral directors to file the appropriate forms so that they can issue a formal certificate of death. In some cases, funeral directors assist family members with further formalities: they may help in requesting veterans’ burial benefits, informing the Social Security Administration of the death, or applying for the transfer of any pensions, insurance policies, or annuities on behalf of survivors.

The majority of funeral homes are small, family businesses where the funeral director is either an owner-operator or an employee. Consequently, the businesses’ prosperity depends directly on funeral directors. Part of running a successful funeral home involves effective and efficient customer service, and funeral directors do their best to cultivate a friendly environment for their employees and a compassionate demeanor towards the families. More and more funeral directors are extending their traditional roles by offering aftercare services or support group activities to assist individuals adapt to life following a death.

Administrative duties of funeral directors include keeping records of expenses, purchases, and services provided; preparing and sending invoices; preparing and submitting reports for unemployment insurance; preparing Federal, State, and local tax forms; and preparing itemized bills for customers. Computers, used for billing, bookkeeping, and marketing, are becoming increasingly important for funeral directors. Some correspond through the Internet with clients who are preplanning their funerals, and many use the Internet to develop electronic obituaries and guestbooks.

As for physical facilities, most funeral homes have a chapel, at least one viewing room, a casket-selection room, and a preparation room. Many have also added a crematory. Most funeral homes offer a selection of caskets and urns for families to purchase or rent. Funeral homes generally have a hearse, a flower car, limousines, and, occasionally, an ambulance.

Funeral Director Training and Job Qualification

All states require funeral directors to have licenses. While each state has its own licensing laws, in most cases applicants must be 21 years old, have 2 years of formal education (including studies in mortuary science), fulfill a yearlong apprenticeship, and pass a qualifying assessment. After obtaining their license, many funeral directors start their careers by becoming a staff member in a funeral home. All states also require funeral directors who embalm to have special licenses, although specific details vary by state. Some issue a single, combined license for funeral directors who embalm. Others issue separate licenses, but most people in the industry get both licenses. Persons interested in becoming a funeral director should check with their state’s licensing board to get complete details.

About 50 mortuary science programs, which are typically 2 to 4 years long, have accreditation from the American Board of Funeral Service Education. Two-year programs are available at a few junior and community colleges, and some colleges and universities offer both 2-year and 4-year programs. Courses in mortuary science programs include anatomy, physiology, pathology, embalming techniques, restorative art, business management, accounting, computer technology in funeral home management, and client services. Mortuary science students also study relevant issues in the social sciences and in legal, ethical, and regulatory subjects like psychology, grief counseling, writing, public speaking, funeral service law, business law, and ethics.

Many funeral associations, both state and national, allow licensed funeral directors to take continuing education programs in which communications, counseling, and management issues are covered. In fact, at least 30 states require funeral directors to obtain a certain number of continuing education credits in order to keep their licenses.

Apprenticeships can be served before, during, or after mortuary school. Duration of apprenticeship varies according to state regulations, but they are generally 1 to 3 years long. Apprentices, who can only work with experienced and licensed funeral directors, gain practical experience in all aspects of the funeral service industry.

State board licensing examinations differ, but are usually composed of oral and written sections and require candidates to demonstrate certain practical skills. If a funeral director wants to work in another state, he or she may have to pass that state’s examination. Reciprocity arrangements do exist between some states; in such instances, funeral directors who change states will be granted a license without having to pass that state’s examinations.

Students can begin preparing for a career as a funeral director as young as high school by studying biology and chemistry and taking part in public speaking or debate clubs and competitions. Part-time or summer work in funeral homes is rarely more than maintenance and cleaning jobs like washing and polishing limousines and hearses. While a far cry from the work of an actual funeral director, such experiences can help students see how funeral homes actually operate.

Funeral directors should possess a number of important personal traits, including tact, composure, and the ability to interact comfortably and communicate well with the public. Perhaps most important, funeral directors must want and be able to comfort people during times of grief.

The best opportunities for advancement are in larger funeral homes, where funeral directors may earn promotions to better paying positions like branch or general manager. Some experienced funeral directors who can acquire enough capital choose to launch their own funeral home businesses.

Funeral Director Job and Employment Opportunities

Employment prospects for funeral directors are expected to be good, especially for those who are also embalmers, but they may need to relocate to find employment.

Through the year 2012, as the population and the number of deaths increase, employment of funeral directors should grow more slowly than the average for all occupations. More job openings will come from replacing funeral directors who leave the profession for retirement or other reasons than from employment growth. A number of mortuary science graduates normally leave the field to pursue other career interests not long after gaining licensure as funeral directors; this trend will most likely continue. Furthermore, funeral directors tend to be older than the average worker in most other occupations, and they should retire in greater numbers between 2002 and 2012.

Historic Earnings Information

In 2002, funeral directors reported median annual earnings of $43,380. Salaries for the middle 50 percent were between $33,540 and $58,140. Earnings of the lowest 10 percent were under $24,950, while earnings of the highest 10 percent exceeded $84,060.

Funeral directors’ salaries vary according to years of experience, services performed, number of facilities operated, region, size of the community, and level of formal education. Funeral directors in large cities generally have larger salaries than those in small towns and rural areas.