Face to Face with Death; the Funeral Industry Is Opening Up to Newcomers Who Want to Comfort Families in Mourning

Article excerpt

Byline: Vanessa Juarez

This isn't your typical college classroom. For starters, no one is snoozing in the back row. All 23 students in Jacquie Taylor's class are sitting upright on their stools, listening intently as she explains how the inner canthus, the corner of the eye where goop collects, dehydrates after a person is embalmed. This is Restorative Art, a course that's part of New England Institute's funeral service curriculum at Mount Ida College in Newton, Mass., a degree program for future funeral directors. Later, Taylor emphasizes the importance of replacing the hair on a corpse's head if, say, some of it got shaved off in the course of a trip to the trauma unit. As she draws a diagram of a head on the overhead projector, she compares reattaching hair to "shingling a roof." Her students aren't fazed by the fact that they'll eventually have to do this in the flesh.

Thirty years ago, students enrolled in mortuary schools were mostly white men for whom directing funerals was a family business. Now chains have gobbled up the independents, and the industry is open to newcomers. When Todd Van Beck graduated from the New England Institute in 1973, only six of 82 students came from families outside the business--and only one was a woman. "Today, that's almost flip-flopped," says Van Beck, president of the Commonwealth Institute of Funeral Service, a 69-year-old school in Houston. Drawn by the idea of helping people and getting a steady paycheck in an uncertain job market, most mortuary students now come from "civilian" families. Nearly 40 percent are minorities, 52 percent are women and just under a third are career changers over the age of 30.

They're people like Lynne Dewey, 45, a former receptionist who was inspired by the caring funeral director who helped her plan services for her mother and husband when they died within 11 months of each other. "He had a nice style about him," she says. "I really relied on him for holding my hand." Three years later, she's graduating from the New England Institute and hopes to give others the comfort and guidance she received.

The nation's 21,500 funeral homes will need new recruits like Dewey to handle the expected surge in deaths in the next few decades as baby boomers age (the oldest are now 59). …