I got a message from a nice young man asking what he needed to do to become a funeral director. At least, I assume he was nice.

He wanted to know, “What classes should I be focusing on in school?”

I, however, am not nice. I gave him a terse “mortuary science classes” and cut him loose.

If I were nice, I would have told him something helpful, something like, “I would get your basics out of the way; the Writing 121 and Accounting 101, and then focus heavily on math and organic chemistry. Maybe a few courses in technical writing and business communications; then see if you can move past the introductory computer science courses into the more advanced ones. Then, apply to universities and see if you can get accepted into an Engineering program and forget about funeral stuff.”

You don’t want this job. You don’t choose the job. The job chooses you. It chose me, and I want the job, but YOU don’t want the job.

A statistic often heard in the funeral profession is that ten years after beginning a career in funeral service, only ten percent of those people will still work in funeral service.

I am just starting my tenth year. I am a minority. My first day on the job I almost passed out and had to leave the room.

Much of my graduating class are no longer employed in funeral service. Some got married and stayed home with the kids. Some found they had no aptitude for the work (which is why I believe everyone should try to find employment in a funeral home before beginning the college program…you may find it’s not for you, and then you will have a useless Mortuary Science degree). Some are in jail. At least one is dead (and was jobless at the time of his death, after managing a funeral home for a few years). Some are strippers and some work in coffeeshops and a very small number are working in funeral homes, usually those owned by their families.

Maybe you will be one of those people who finds her calling and could not imagine doing any other type of work. Statistics say you have a much greater chance of ending up divorced and with a substance abuse problem, but why not take a chance and see if you just love putting peoples’ heads together that much?

More than you love Christmas morning with your kids…more than you love vacations with your spouse…because you WILL be asked to choose.

My graduating class was about half men and half women, and ranged in age from 19 to 60. Thirty students. If you are a twenty-year-old girl and this is what you want to do with your life, consider that at some point you may wish to have a husband and children and an onion farm where your dog can run around.

Especially of note to you single ladies, this is not a job that can be done by a single mom or a pregnant woman, at least not to start. You will be on call on short notice; it doesn’t matter how many babysitters you have or if you have family nearby. There is heavy lifting. There are chemicals. And, you will sometimes have to meet with a mother who has just delivered a stillborn infant or who has just learned the baby she is carrying will die shortly after birth, and she does not want to discuss caskets with another pregnant woman.

There is no “balance.” No “moderation.” Husbands/wives like to have husbands/wives who do things with them, who accompany them on vacations and go to the movies and have Thanksgiving with them.

I’d rather be at work.

Today, a memory popped up of a man who lost his daughter two years ago. I handled the arrangements and it was a very sad case; his daughter was my age and it was one of those deaths where I just knew he would never be okay. Some people eventually become sort of okay again. He will not be one of them. It is Saturday and I’ve spent the entire day thinking about this family, and reading, and writing, and crunching numbers and looking at contracts. Funeral stuff. I have not spoken to my own children today.

I’d rather be at work.

It’s often useless to reason with 20-year-olds; to tell them what’s going to happen to them in the future if they don’t stop eating junk food and smoking and staying out all night. Just let it happen. Let them burn out and grow up when they turn 40. But I will tell you anyway, young people who think they want to be morticians:

– If you are right for the job, the job will change your life, your personality and everything about you, over and over again.
– If you are not right for the job, you won’t be any good at it and will end up frustrated and will have wasted time you could have put toward a more lucrative career path.

What’ll it be?

For every “cool” thing you will do at work, you can expect to do several more less cool things. So if you’re looking forward to the crime scenes and newsworthy funerals and “You won’t believe what I saw today” type days, be ready for the days devoted to urn inventory, carpet shampooing and flowerbed maintenance.

I’ve had months where I sat at my desk for eight hours a day, waiting for the phone to ring, organizing the floral catalogs and going through the cemetery records from the 1920s to make sure they were all paid up. In the beginning of my career, this was done under the stare of a disapproving woman who was adamant that I had to be “working” at all times or I had to go home without pay. “Working” meant “constantly moving.” I had to either dust things that were not dusty and clean floors that were already clean, or I had to go without a day’s pay. After I had been on the job for several years, I could at least read a book or swap recipes with my secretary on the slow days.

You have to find the right balance between caring for the families you serve as though they were your own family and…actually I’m not certain there is a balance. When you’re just the embalmer, you can later forget about who was on your table that day. As long as you do your job well, it’s over when the body is buried. But if you end up meeting with his family, and planning a funeral to showcase who he was and allow everyone who knew him to say a meaningful goodbye, there is no balance. That family is yours. They will turn up in your dreams and the next time you are shopping for soda you will remember that was his favorite soda too. You may get Christmas cards from them. You may get phone calls years after the funeral, and you will allow it to happen.

Was this what you wanted?

You will not make very good money. I do, but I’ve been doing this for ten years, and you most likely will not. I made twelve dollars an hour when I first started embalming, and only nine dollars an hour picking up bodies. You won’t even be able to afford an apartment. If you’re not already married you will have to live with roommates who probably won’t like your odd hours of coming and going, your day sleeping, and the weird smells and stains you will bring home with you.

You will ruin your clothes nearly every day, the suit jackets and nylons you will be required to wear in 100-degree weather. And forget about your “right” to free expression…no tattoos, no piercings, no pink ombre hair. Go be an individual somewhere else. I got a written warning once for having visible roots. I have several tattoos, but keep them covered with clothes and sometimes heavy-duty makeup. I can’t wear skin-tone nylons because the tattoos would show through; I always wear solid opaque black. And I would LOVE pink ombre hair.

If you work for a corporate funeral home you may be allotted two weeks of paid vacation a year, and you may be able to take it. Most likely, you will not. Most new funeral directors find their offices can’t do without their services so they are denied their vacations, or they are told they can take the vacation if they stay in town – essentially, remaining on call; AKA being at work and not on vacation. Others simply do not earn enough to go on any real vacations, so they use their paid time off to stay home and drink. A former supervisor of mine spent his paid vacation cleaning the prep room. That was also how he spent Christmas, and he was getting holiday pay for that day, a day when we had no deaths. He chose to be at work rather than with his family because he had become…a funeral director. Even when you have the time and money to get away, you can’t stop thinking about work.

A few on-call embalmers make a lot of money by stepping in for someone whose wife is threatening to leave him if he blows off one more family vacation. He promises this time he can get away, and then someone dies, so he can either pay someone else to prep a body for him or he can risk losing his wife and home and probably getting worse with his drinking.

If you don’t drink, you will start. From what I’ve seen, the only people in this business who do not drink are the extremely religious or those in some sort of rehab program. Alcoholism is very common among us, and was the reason for my classmate’s license suspension, job loss and early death. You will begin your career thinking you are a strong enough person to be immune to the stresses experienced by everyone else, and you will learn you are just like the rest of us. And, like the rest of us, you will seek an outlet. Alcohol is affordable, legal, and it works. Your employer will probably put up with it. Most educational seminars are really just excuses for other funeral directors to get together and drink on the company’s dollar. Most of us are drinking in the office and in the hearse and in the back of the church.

I had my first drink at age 28. It seemed to work for everyone else.

There are not enough words to explain what a mistake this career is for someone who is looking for merely a job. A way to earn money. Something to do until he can go back to school. If you are okay with something that will change everything in your life – your family relationships, your friendships, your worldview, your spirituality, your health, your views on your own mortality – this profession will find you.

After this discouraging piece, the advice I can give young people interested in funeral service is:

– Try to secure temporary employment in a funeral home before enrolling in a mortuary college program. If no funeral homes are willing to train you, body transport companies are a good place to start.
– Stay out of trouble – no arrests, no bad driving records, no restraining orders. The state professional board will look at all that.
– If you do not already have a college degree, get your basic courses like math and writing out of the way, which you will need for any other degree you may pursue.
– If you are not married, I strongly suggest working in another field for several years first and coming back to the idea of funeral service after having a family, unless you are absolutely certain you do not want a family or are maybe not marriage material and not likely to be snapped up by anyone who will change your mind.
– If you are still at a place in life where your buddies and your entertainment are the most important things to you, well, you’re probably not reading this, but please just go away.

It’s been a great ten years and I would not change a thing.