I’ve been sitting on a lot of half-written posts. I’ve got one about a local teen suicide, one about how pre-need is a ripoff and a few more random pieces. So I decided to write a whole new one about something comparatively less interesting: why people quit the business.
I was following a woman online who described herself as a “first generation funeral director and embalmer,” most likely meaning a woman who had just gotten her first job out of college, most likely at Service Corporation International, the largest funeral conglomerate in the world, for which nearly everyone in the business has worked at some point.
She posted a little bit about funeral prices; the value of viewing and the importance of respecting an individual’s right to grieve on her own timetable, much like I have. And then one day, she quit. She decided the job was not for her. She didn’t like the price gouging and how the corporate executives went on company-paid cruises while the funeral directors were making $15 an hour.
I reached out to her, as did a lot of her followers. I told her some of my experiences and why I work only for myself now, aside from managing a couple of start-ups. I suggested that she hang onto her license in case she ever wants to come back. People do it all the time; leave the field for a bit and do some other kind of work. One of my co-workers once drove trucks for five years following a nasty divorce, but paid the fee to keep his license the whole time.
One of the industry’s leading publications, American Funeral Director, once published a piece outlining the most common reasons people left the funeral industry after working for less than ten years, and the most common reason listed was poor treatment by employers.
I think when you are young and starting your first job, especially a job like an intern funeral director which you are basically handed with absolutely no experience, you can have some unrealistic expectations. You see the BMWs in the parking lot and the boss’ gold pens and pictures of his last vacation and think all that will be yours in a few months…but you’re earning $12 an hour. Twelve dollars an hour to clean up human waste and get splashed with embalming fluid and mop up blood, while other people sit in clean offices and answer phones for $16 an hour.
I’ve worked full time since I was sixteen, but it took me ten years to realize that my employers did not exist for my benefit, nor were they here to do me any favors. As the newest person at a company, anyone can expect to work the hardest, be paid the least, and be constantly reminded they are expendable. It took one supervisor verbally telling me, “I’m not here to do you any favors,” before it sank in.
However, I am also aware that the funeral industry is home to a lot of cantankerous old men who are very set in their ways, in addition to being sick of the funeral industry, and they will often treat interns extremely unfairly. I once asked a group of several funeral directors to describe the most degrading thing they had to as an intern – often an unpaid intern – and most people listed various boring or disgusting jobs around the funeral home that had been put off until an intern was found. Others described unsafe conditions, such as one high school student – whose religion restricted her to wearing dresses – being ordered on top of the roof to replace shingles, despite having no training in manual labor and no protective equipment. Nearly all said their employers did not provide safety gear for embalming procedures, and they also reported having to work with dull tools, which can cause repetitive stress injuries. One said his supervisor actually threw a scalpel at him. For me, it was being told to plant flowers during a rainstorm when I did not have rain gear. I was wearing a light-colored silk suit and was told, “I don’t care.”
One of my favorite parts of the job is teaching it to others. I have two interns and I try to treat them as valued employees and not a source of cheap labor for the things I don’t feel like doing.
Perhaps the worst thing an intern’s supervisor can do, aside from throwing a scalpel, is use the intern merely for janitorial duties and not allow her to become fully immersed in everything the funeral service profession is. Interns should pick up bodies, cremate, embalm, clean the prep room, file death certificates, arrange funerals and show up at the services.
Interns should be expected to remain available on holidays, weekends and on short notice, but should not be expected to work themselves into the ground as though work is the only thing in their lives. If you have one of those weeks where you’re up at 3am every night and then arranging a funeral at 8am the next morning, day after day, maybe give the intern a day off when it slows down. Remember, in addition to learning the trade, she also needs to study for the board exams and become familiar with state mortuary law.
The intern should have an on-call schedule, so she knows when she can make plans of her own. She should of course learn how to clean a prep room according to OSHA standards, but should not be expected to clean up after everyone else. Ideally, she should not be responsible for any janitorial duties other than keeping her own workspace presentable.
Another slightly demeaning thing about my internship was being expected to use a computer to complete certain tasks, but not being given the login for that computer. Every day – sometimes several times a day – I had to ask my supervisor to log me on, and he would immediately log me off after I was done. Employees should be given everything they need to do their jobs, rather than having to ask permission. Some work computers also have the internet disabled, but funeral directors often need to be able to search for various things for certain families – for example, contact info for churches; floral design ideas; or catering menus.
Personally, I don’t care how my interns manage their time between cases. They can play computer games and goof off all they like as long as the work gets done and we maintain a professional appearance in case a family suddenly walks in. I don’t care how they spend their time off work and have no interest in looking for their social media profiles or finding out who their friends are. Just don’t get arrested and practice strict adherence to the rules of the state board, and we won’t have any problems.
But for many interns, this is not the case, and you should be prepared for the possibility that your employer will be very interested in what you do and say online when you are not at work. You may have to choose between free expression and your job. And it may remain this way as long as you work for someone else.
I think many of us will see that actually working in this industry is nothing like what we expected. We are of a helpful nature and expect this kind of work will allow us to meet others’ needs, and we often feel unwanted or unappreciated. Regardless of how well we do our jobs, we are still the last people anyone wants to meet, and we will most often not receive any kind of recognition or appreciation for a job well done.
We are unprepared for the weeks of mind-numbing boredom we will experience when it seems that no one dies for a long time…and we will rapidly tire of explaining to outsiders that just because “people die every day” does not mean we are always busy. In many cities, the number of funeral homes far exceeds the death rate, meaning that when someone dies, one funeral home gets that case while nineteen sit around with nothing to do.
We receive extensive training in restoration of the most difficult cases for viewing, only to find that when we get a body like that, their family hasn’t spoken to them in years and it will be a direct cremation. We’re anxious to show off our skill, and no one wants to see it.
We all enter the profession with an idea of how funeral service is to be practiced and years later, most of us are not practicing in that manner. We all say we’ll go above and beyond for all of our families, or do services at cost for people who can’t afford it, but then end up working for someone else who cannot afford for us to work that way.
So if you’re done after a year; if you never want to spend another day working in a funeral home and wish you had majored in something else, is it you or is it the industry? Is the industry driving away its own future workforce somehow, or are you simply not cut out for the job? Are we losing good people, or are we keeping out the bad ones?