IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Funeral science: One business that's still alive

It's not an easy or particularly lucrative way to make a living, but students of mortuary science say the promise of a stable job is worth it.
Meltdown Funeral Science
Alan Willoughby poses outside the shop of his new employer, the J.T. Morriss & Son, Inc. Funeral Directors in Petersburg, Va. After years in the manufacturing sector, Willoughby decided to change careers. Steve Helber / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Facing layoffs at his manufacturing plant, Alan Willoughby left to seek financial security selling automobiles at a used-car lot. Then the economy hit the skids, and he struggled to make ends meet.

Finally, he turned to the one field he knew would provide him a steady income: funeral sciences.

At age 50, Willoughby is returning to college, joining a surge in student interest at the nation's schools that provide an education in the business and science of death, a field that historically garners greater interest as the job market worsens.

"It just got to the point where your big players, your Honeywells, your DuPonts, everybody was laying off. So I said, 'I can't do this anymore. It's just too much of a roller-coaster ride'" said Willoughby, of Dinwiddie, Va. "Funeral services, for lack of a better phrase, it's kind of a recession-proof industry."

It's not an easy or particularly lucrative way to make a living: daily tasks of morticians and their assistants include removing bodily fluids, filling in crow's feet on cadavers and fluffing hair on balding corpses.

They must have the skills to counsel grieving families and prepare the bodies of children.

And for that, U.S. funeral directors earned an average of $58,810, according to the latest estimates in May 2008 from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Still, for Willoughby, whose interest in mortuary sciences stems partly from years on a volunteer rescue squad, the promise of a stable job is worth it. He started classes this summer at John Tyler Community College, where his 20-year-old daughter will study accounting this fall.

"It's not Hollywood. They're not going to jump up. They're not zombies. They're not going to chew your flesh off," he said. "That's someone's loved one."

Stephanie Kann, program director at the Worsham College of Mortuary Science in Illinois, said interest in mortuary science historically has spiked when the unemployment rate hits 8 percent. It saw a 20 percent increase this year over last.

"Well, you don't have to pay your taxes, but I don't know anybody who has gotten away from the death part," said Kevin Davis, the funeral sciences director at St. Petersburg College in Florida.

Still, there are some who criticize those going into mortuary science just for a paycheck.

"This career is something that you can't go into hoping for a lot of money," said 22-year-old Mandy Domeier, a funeral science student in Minneapolis. "It is stressful, you're on call all the time ... You have to actually love this job."

It's a job that's not always easy to love. A young mortician's firsts in funeral science - first embalming, first car-crash victim - can be terrifying.

"I can still remember just being completely nervous my first time that I was going to cut too deep and sever the artery or the vein," said John Jacobson, a 22-year-old working at a funeral home in DeKalb, Ill., a small city west of Chicago. "It was not exactly a pleasant experience."

Jacobson's father is a funeral director and he was familiar with the business, but the economy is quelling any second thoughts and making him thankful for 70-hour work weeks.

"I've got some friends who are engineers who are contemplating working construction just because the job market's so bad," Jacobson said. "No matter what the job outlook is, the funeral industry never slows down."

Entry-level positions can require new morticians to be available 24 hours a day to coordinate with clergy, meet families, organize memorial books and sort out death certificates.

Those new to the industry say it can be difficult for older funeral directors to adapt to the call for technological advances like video memorial services, online guestbooks and live webcasting.

"We're changing the field," said Sadie Swan, a 29-year-old funeral science student at the University of Minnesota. "It's not gonna be a bunch of old, middle-class white men doing it anymore."