Enrollment in mortuary science and funeral service programs is up—thanks to the popularity of HBO’s Six Feet Under. “We saw a definite spike in interest,” says George P. Connick, executive director of the American Board of Funeral Service Education. “Suddenly, Americans were seeing that funeral service is a multi-faceted profession.”
Students of mortuary science take biology, pathology, chemistry, and anatomy, but as might be expected, study embalming (firsthand experience is not optional) and the restorative arts as well. The history of funeral service and the psychology of grief are other areas of mandatory study, and coursework in ethics and law (both mortuary and business) are standard in all programs. Approximately half of all students are women, a decided aberration from statistics even a decade ago.
Prospective students can choose from 54 accredited institutions nationwide, which generally bestow an associate degree; currently, only four offer a baccalaureate. Upon graduation, candidates must sit for the National Board Examination (NBE) and pass a state exam, then intern for one year before being granted a funeral service license.
After graduation, employment opportunities are significant. According to SUNY-Canton, salaries range from $18,200 to $28,000 for apprentices, and $41,000 to $85,000 for licensed directors with experience. About 90 percent of graduates who seek work find employment within six months.
But does a degree prepare you for what lies ahead? According to Alison Ohde River, a mortuary science student about to become a fourth-generation funeral director-embalmer, the answer is mixed. “The academic scenario doesn’t account for the complexity of day-to-day practice. You have to be flexible and informed—and responsive. People are coming to you at an emotional and vulnerable time. They aren’t predictable.” According to River, subjects that seem distinct in the classroom aren’t so in practice. “When a family is grieving, they have questions,” she says. “Extremely technical questions. And you have to be able to answer them in detail.”
If mortuary science interests you, you can choose from five accredited institutions in New York State, and dozens more out of state. Most are community colleges, but some are traditional institutions, which, until about 40 years ago, were the only places at which a student could study funeral service. A high school diploma or equivalent, ideally with strong grades in science and math, is required.
The State University of New York College of Technology at Canton (canton.edu) offers an associate degree in applied science (68 credit hours). The school has an embalming facility, lab space, and an informal chapel. Students work in a funeral home for five weeks during a summer practicum. By the end of the second semester, students will have performed 10 embalmings and conducted 10 funeral services. In-state tuition is $4,350 a year. A distance-learning course is offered.
SUNY-Nassau Community College (ncc.edu) offers an associate in applied science, with a concentration in mortuary science. The Garden City, New York, institution will allow students to complete some liberal arts credits by distance learning. Students pay $2,650 per academic year.
If you want to study in the city, the American Academy McAllister Institute (a-a-m-I.org) is now located at its new facility at 619 West 54th Street. Founded in 1926, the institute offers an associate degree in occupational studies for $4,300 a semester and a separate 12-month diploma program in funeral service for the same fees. The school has a dress code (“No jeans, sweatpants, sweatshirts, T-shirts, or spandex”) and is affiliated with St. John’s University, St. Joseph’s College, and LaGuardia Community College.
Hudson Valley Community College (hvcc.edu) in Troy, New York, has a mortuary science department and offers an associate degree in applied science (60 credit hours) for $2,500 per academic year to in-state students. Following graduation and after passing the National Board Exam, students serve as registered residents for one year before becoming licensed funeral directors.
The only school in the U.S. to offer classes on weekends as well as weekdays, Simmons Institute of Funeral Service (simmonsinstitute.com) in Syracuse, New York, offers a 62-credit-hour associate degree in occupational science. Practicum credit begins the first semester. Tuition is $9,400 per academic year. Students are expected to complete a minimum of 10 case calls prior to graduation. The institute offers a full graduate placement service.