Once upon a time, a young woman walked into a funeral home in Queens, New York. She needed an after-school job to earn some money, while she worked her way through college, and the funeral home was hiring. She had dreams of one day becoming a great writer. Well, if not a great one, at least a good one. Her byline would appear in newspapers everywhere, though she would settle for it appearing in her local paper.
In the meantime, she answered the phone for the funeral home and took on first calls –death call information about a death that just occurred. During visitations, she sat at the front desk and directed people to the correct chapel –A, B, or C.
During lulls in business she did her homework. The funeral home was the perfect place –nice and quiet – for a college student to study. Sometimes she even snuck a peak at her books during visiting hours. She also read the industry trade magazines, and helped out more and more around the funeral home as time went on. Much to her surprise, she began to envision a career as a funeral director. Her career goals had changed.
About the same time, over in Brooklyn, another young woman was contemplating her future career. Would she become a dentist like her dad, she wondered, or maybe a lab tech, because she really really liked science. As she pondered those career possibilities, she attended college and majored in science just in case. Along the way, she met the man who would become her husband. He was studying to become a funeral director, and as she helped him cram for his national board exams, a thought came to her.
“I can do this,” she thought. And so she enrolled in the next class. At the time, female faces were rare in funeral service, and both girls were discouraged. But they prevailed and paved the way for other women.
Today, both women have thriving careers, and are well-known in the business. The Brooklyn girl owns a busy funeral home, and is a favorite of reporters and videographers. The Queens girl, who is me, runs a small funeral business in Queens, and continues to pursue her writing ambitions, mining the rich material that funeral service has to offer.
These days many women explore a career in funeral service. But instead of walking into a funeral home, they declare their career intentions on social media, with screen names such as millennial mortician, mortician in the making, and lady undertaker. Many seem more enchanted with the mystique of death, rather than the actual career. Others are starry-eyed, and full of big dreams about a career that cannot be fully grasped until put into practice. All appear eager and optimistic about their future in funeral service.
Then I realize that no one has told them about the end of funeral service as we’ve known it. They are not aware that funeral homes around the city have closed –the real estate has become more valuable than the business. They don’t know, or don’t want to know, that there are not enough jobs to go around. The fringe element speaks to them of the green burial wave, and a holy host of other inane ways to dispose of the “inconvenient” body. They do not understand that these “alternatives” are little more than media hype.
At one time, funeral homes were reluctant to hire women. Now they do, but the irony is that few places are in a position to hire. In New York, word is that there are a mere 1,700 registered firms (bear in mind that some funeral homes have more than one registered firm). Mortuary schools certainly won’t tell anyone this truth, and seasoned funeral directors seem reluctant, as well. They don’t want to discourage the dreams of the young. Some say they want to help keep those dreams alive. But, don’t we help most by telling the truth? And don’t we have a moral duty to do so?
Here is the truth: Funeral service has literally become a dying business.
How in the world did we get here?