So You Decided You Want to be a Funeral Director…Are You Sure About That?

Nathan Miller – February 6, 2017


Congratulations on your new career choice! You’re going to work in the death care industry. Do you really know what you’re getting yourself into? A funeral director works closely with the family and friends of the deceased, trying to ensure that the recently departed receives the honorable and memorable services he or she deserves. Let’s first take a look into what is required to become a funeral director.

The needed education and licensure requirements vary from state to state, but the basics for most states are a high school education or equivalent, an associate’s degree (or higher) in funeral service, an apprenticeship (two years are required here in South Carolina), and passing the national board exam and/or the state law licensing exam. Some states allow you to serve your apprenticeship before or during your time spent at school, while others make you wait until after you receive your education. An apprenticeship time frame varies by state, usually anywhere from one to two years. The type of license you can get also varies from state to state. Here in S.C., you can have a Funeral Director License or a Funeral Director/Embalmer Dual License. Other states may not give the option of receiving a Funeral Director License without Embalming; whereas, others may separate the roles completely. Even still, a couple other states do not even require a license.

Now, let’s talk about a typical day in the life of your friendly neighborhood funeral director. On any given day, you could meet with a family (or families) at or before a death occurs to help them create a meaningfully memorable service to honor their loved one. Contacting every person (i.e. clergy, musician, pallbearers, etc.) and organization (i.e. cemetery, military, church, masons, etc.) involved with the service is also something that falls to you. Once the day of the funeral service arrives, it is also your job to oversee everything and make sure that it all goes according to plan. And if it doesn’t all go according to plan, do not bring attention to it, but rather discretely guide everything back on track. You could also be the individual who goes to the morgue, hospice house, or residence to bring their loved one into the funeral home’s care and prepare the body according to the family’s request (i.e. embalming, ID viewing preparation for cremation, etc.). As you can see, there are no “typical” days when it comes to the funeral service industry. Your job role changes daily, sometimes hourly.

We talked about what is required to be a funeral director and what a “typical” day is like as a funeral director, but what kind of person do you need to be in order to be a truly effective funeral director? Well, there is no exactly right answer to that question, but we can talk about some traits you will need to possess in order to be good at what you do and keep your sanity. First and foremost, you should be empathetic, not sympathetic. Try putting yourself in other people’s shoes on a regular basis. Sometimes that is harder than you think; especially whenever the family is going through a horrible situation which you have never had to experience in your own life. Secondly, you will need an enormous amount of patience. You will be meeting with people at either their saddest, maddest, or craziest time of their lives. You must be ready to handle and accept whichever emotion ends up coming out at you. Be prepared for any and everything, but remember that if they blow up at you, they don’t mean it. They are in an emotional fog, and you just have to be able to let it roll off your back. Lastly, you will need to learn that the needs of the families you serve often supersede your own. You could be in the middle of supper with your family, or at your kid’s football game, or even getting a decent night’s sleep for once when your phone rings. Your day or evening is now all about a grieving family that you have never met but still must help to the best of your ability.

Along with everything I just spoke about comes a couple of pleasant additions to a funeral director’s life: stress and depression. Now, not everyone in the industry suffers from these “diseases,” but it is easy to succumb to if you are not careful. Dealing with emotional people and death day in and day out can often make one feel stretched to their limits and burnt out. You can also expect to become somewhat isolated. After you tell someone what you do for a living, you will typically get one of two responses: “Ooohh…tell me more” or “oh…” It is important to take time for yourself every day to find an outlet. If things get too stressful, seek emotional support from a counselor or therapist, support group, or, at the very least, your family and friends. Now I know that every career out there can potentially cause stress, but the death care industry has its own individual type of stress. If you let yourself get too stressed, it can often lead into depression. If it ever gets this serious, seek professional help immediately…and also maybe a different career path, if that is what it takes.

Now I know it sounds like I have been trying to convince you all not to pursue a career in the funeral industry, but that is just not true. I feel that it takes a special kind of person to be able to compose themselves professionally to finalize all the appropriate arrangements while still truly connecting with the families they serve. It isn’t something that you can fake. You have to love serving others. A major benefit to this industry is that you won’t be able to find a more stable job. People die every day and the need for funeral homes is constant. It goes with the old saying: “nothing is guaranteed but death and taxes.”

Personally speaking, being a funeral director has been the most stressful, complicated job I have experienced, but it is also the most rewarding. Knowing that I have been called upon and trusted to help families in possibly their biggest time of need is a great reward that very few professions offer. Although I have only been doing this for a little more than 5 ½ years, I already know that this industry is where I want to be for the rest of my career life.

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