Colleges specializing in funeral services education are seeing an increase in enrollment amid a scarcity of personnel in the funeral service industry.
Lily McCmore, director of programs at Worsham College of Mortuary Sciences in Wheeling, Illinois, one of the oldest mortuary schools in the country dating back to 1911, said.
In 2021, new student enrollment nationwide in accredited mortuary science programs jumped 24% compared to 2020, according to the American Council on Funeral Services Education.
McMorrow, who is also chair of the American Board of Funeral Services Education (AFBSE) accreditation committee, said the overall percentage increase in student enrollment at 58 accredited funeral programs or institutions in the United States could be higher this year.
Randy Anderson, president of the National Association of Funeral Directors, is acutely aware of the employment crisis and says colleges cannot recruit licensed workers quickly enough to meet the need for new staff.
Anderson said the demand for funeral directors is particularly high, and an aging workforce has made it a race against time.
“There is an urgent need to replace those who have worked in the profession for many years and are retiring,” he said. “More than 60% of funeral home owners said they would retire within five years. That’s a lot.”
Anderson said the NFDA currently has more than 20,000 members, and each state has its own professional training and licensing requirements. Most states also require funeral directors to graduate from an accredited college or university.
According to the latest government data, the funeral industry generates more than $16 billion in annual revenue. There were more than 18,800 funeral homes in the United States in 2021, most of them small, privately owned businesses, down from 19902 in 2010, according to industry figures.
Young women, second job seekers join the ranks
Women currently make up 72% of recent graduates in funeral services education, according to the latest AFBSE figures. Anderson said, “Until the 1970s, men dominated. And in every decade since then, the number of women entering the profession has increased.”
And they’re younger too. The typical student in Warsham is 24 to 29 years old, McMurrow said, but many of the older applicants are seeking a new job.
“No one plans to be a funeral director, unless one of your parents is in the business,” Reggie said. “But as a first-time career, it’s general and not an expensive degree. It’s a shorter program than a full college degree and you can make $60,000 to $75,000 per year.”
Elaine Wynn McBrair is the funeral director for Jones-Wynn Funeral Home and Crematorium, a third-generation family business with two locations in Georgia. Her grandmother, Shirley Drew Jones, was the first woman to serve as a licensed funeral director in the state.
McBrier said her grandmother had hoped for more women to enter the profession.
“The new people and the young people who are also coming in are also more open about not doing things the same way, but tailoring the service to what families want,” McBrair said. “A funeral is not just a day in life, but a lifetime in one day.”
Several factors fuel the growing interest in the profession.
At her school, McMurrow said enrollment numbers soared after Worsham began offering her program online two years ago. “This has given people who have another job but are also interested in the field the flexibility to be able to pursue it,” she said.
Worsham offers a one-year associate’s degree (tuition fee $22,800) and a 16-month online associate’s degree program (tuition fee $24,800). She said eighty percent of the most recent group of students in the college’s online course were women.
Rapid career advancement is another appeal.
Those aren’t six-digit jobs — median wages for funeral industry jobs, such as funeral home managers were $74,000 and $48,950 for funeral operators, undertakers and funeral organizers in 2021, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But “you have the opportunity to advance in just a few years from earning your college degree to becoming a funeral director or even owning your own funeral home,” McCmore said.
Not for everyone
There are also pitfalls.
“There are some areas of the profession that have not yet caught up with other industries in terms of competitive salaries,” said Anderson of the National Association of Funeral Directors. “This remains a challenge in hiring and retaining workers.”
Exhaustion is another challenge.
“At the height of the pandemic, people across the industry were working non-stop, without days off,” McMurrow said. “But you do it because you care.
However, many of the new students said the pandemic has also affected their desire to serve their communities, McCmore said.
“A lot of people have suffered death in the past two years in ways they weren’t expecting. Families couldn’t grieve the way they wanted,” she said. “In some cases, funeral staff became the last to see those who died instead of their families. These moments had an impact on people.”
Hannah Walker, who graduated from Warsham in the summer, is one of them.
“I never planned to graduate from this program, but my grandfather opened my eyes to it,” said Walker, 31, who lives in Michigan. Her experience with his death from prostate cancer, before the pandemic, and her funeral assistance reframed the experience for other families.
About two and a half years ago, Walker took the first step, contacting several funeral homes and asking if she could work under one of their employees to get first-hand experience.
“I did it for about a year and realized this was for me. I cared enough to want to do it,” she said. Walker graduated from Wesham College on Friday and has a job waiting for her at the funeral home where she kept her job once she finished her apprenticeship and received her government’s license to practice.
“This is not a career path for everyone,” Anderson said. “You should be drawn to her and to the opportunity to help your fellow men and be content with it.”
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