How Caitlin Doughty came to a career in death is unusual.
At the University of Chicago, she studied medieval history and crafted plays from Victorian poems and obscure Edgar Allan Poe stories. After graduation, she moved to San Francisco and produced theater.
“That’s what I thought I wanted to do,” said Doughty. “Then I thought, ‘you know what I have also wanted to do,’ work in a funeral home.”
Funerals No Longer All in the Family
Mortuary science was once a stiff calling, a trade passed from grandfather to father to son. Non-white morticians were rare, as were women. In 1971, 95 percent of students entering mortuary schools were male, and the majority of them were sons of funeral home directors, according to statistics from the American Board of Funeral Service Education (ABFSE). Now, nearly 60 percent of enrollees are female. At Cypress College of Mortuary Science in Los Angeles, where Doughty is in her first semester, three-quarters of the students are women and not one is from a traditional funeral family. This year a new demographic has emerged: laid-off workers looking for a second career.
“Now that they have been let go from the financial industry or the mortgage industry they have the time to seek retraining and go into funeral service,” said Jolena Grande, a professor at Cypress, which will accept 50 percent more students this fall to accommodate for new interest.
But many newcomers arrive deluded about the profession that lies ahead and unprepared for the rigors of mortuary science itself. Some believe a job in the funeral industry will bring instant wealth. Goths with tongue rings and bodies decorated in tattoos are drawn to the profession’s dark subject but must be reminded that the bereaved want a friendly face, not a pierced one. The heavy science curriculum sends other students packing. “I figured it was just going to be some learnin’,” said Doughty. “It’s actually incredibly difficult.”
There are 56 accredited funeral service schools across the country and in 2007 they graduated 1340 students, according to ABFSE figures. The road ahead for graduates is difficult. Death comes at all hours, which means directors are always on call, and constantly caring for the bereaved can be emotionally draining. Only 5-10 percent of graduates will still be in the field ten years out, notes a popular funeral directing textbook.
Corporate Death Care
Jolena Grande’s career has tracked another trend in the industry, corporate ownership. In the early 1990s, Grande left a family funeral home in California to work at one in Oklahoma, which was bought by Service Corporation International (SCI) while she was there. By the time she returned to her former funeral home in Los Angeles a few years later that too was under SCI. Now one in ten homes is owned by either SCI or Stewart Enterprises, Inc. Across the Desert Southwest and Southeast that number can be much higher, Grande says.
But families usually keep the home’s family name; often all that changes is bodies are taken to a central facility for cremation or embalming, rather than prepped at each individual funeral home. “Most people don’t know that the family-run funeral home across the street is no longer family-run,” says Grande.
Geographic differences exist from home to home, said Dr. Michael Smith, Executive Director of ABFSE, but overall the industry remains relatively uniform. “As the baby boomers die off there may be slightly more demand,” said Smith, “but I think the future will be pretty stable.”
But as a new generation of mortuary students, with diverse backgrounds and no family funeral roots, enters the profession, the industry may begin to change. “What is interesting about America now is that we are sort of in a post-death culture,” said Doughty. “It’s an exciting opportunity to create new rituals.”