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Licensing and education

      
Todd Van Beck's picture
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I just finished reading an article in Ron Hast’s “Mortuary Management” concerning the state of the state of mortuary education.  Over these many years I have had high admiration for Ron Hast, albeit it at a distance, simply because I think he has guts and anybody who writes or investigates the state of the state of mortuary education and the licensing structures in this county has to have guts. 

The article basically interviewed people who are in teachers mortuary education and who are students – no one seemed to want their names published in the article and with good reason – to criticize state boards or mortuary education can be professional suicide.  The article basically painted a profile that all is not well in our ancient system of licensing and education – and an ancient out-dated system is it not?

Words like disconnect, frustration, anonymity were used in the article.  I have never read or written an article where these words show up and the result is an article with good news.

For years, I mean years, the issues of uniform national licensing, and requiring a minimum of an accredited Bachelor’s degree has been bantered around, debated around, argued around, fiddled around and just gone around and around in an endless circle of defenses, endless explanations, endless damaged feelings, endless reasons, endless “proof” of why our profession seems utterly incapable of creating a uniform license which every state recognizes and accepts, and a system that requires that if you want to be a professional then the minimum academic entry level attainment must be a Bachelor’s degree – or beyond.  I can see the beads of perspiration forming on many a brow as I write these sentiments

I wrote a chapter in a dual textbook entitled “Handbook of Death & Dying, by Clifton D. Bryant, Editor in Chief.”  My assignment was to write a history of and explain the education and licensing system for our profession from the beginning to the present.

My chapter was titled “The Legal Regulation of Mortuary Science Education.”  It is in volume two starting on page 934 to 940.  I was depressed when I finished the project.

The history is clear.  Acrimony seems to be the watchword in the history of education and licensing of funeral directors.  In other words, this group does not like that group and so on.  But what captured my attention was the undeniable fact that the basic core academic funeral/embalming curriculum, the overall time spent in actual funeral/embalming study for the up and coming funeral directors in this country has not changed in its essence since 1927!  Basically the core curriculum was taught in a 12 month period in 1927 and can be taught in 12 months today.  To be sure the Associate's degree adds another year of credit hours in general education and possibly some electives, but the core work, the required work, comes out to an average of one calendar year.

The Cincinnati College of Embalming adopted the 12-month program in 1927.

I am well prepared to be taken to task on these introductory remarks, but they are true.  The uniform licensing system has failed at every attempt, and only a smattering of Bachelor’s level funeral service education programs exist.  I guess it is best to let sleeping dogs lie – right?

However it is NOT that simple is it?  Licensing and education in our profession is important – or it is not?  And if it is important, then improvements, reformations, and contemporary changes need to be made now.  It is my opinion that if the licensing structures and systems and the formal academic mortuary science systems had simply kept up with the changing times in the real world, as has the medical profession, the law profession, the teaching profession, then articles such as the one Ron Hast published would not be necessary – BUT THEY ARE NECESSARY AS A WAKE UP CALL, and again I applaud Hast for his guts.

My associates and friends in Great Britain look aghast and have a good laugh at our system of training and licensing.  In a nutshell, there are voluntary training programs in the United Kingdom, but nothing required – no license.  It seems clearly to work very well because there are thousands of outstanding funeral establishments in the United Kingdom.  In many conversations with my buddies across the Atlantic I am hard-pressed to defend the American system – I mean, do people really die that much differently in the United Kingdom than in the United States?  I think not.

Now add to this situation that under the bushel basket lurks the unspeakable subject of unlicensed work in our country, or in the State of Colorado, or in the State of California where in both places many really nice people are funeral directors and do their work extremely well without a license, and some sensitive, probing questions immediately come to the forefront.

The issue of unlicensed work basically makes a mockery of the entire licensing process and frankly who in funeral service can pretend that unlicensed work does not happen?  I have seen this first hand, and it used to make me mad as hell.

When I was a young boy growing up in Iowa the local funeral home was right across the street from our home.  There were basically two men who worked at the funeral home, the owner and his unlicensed assistant.  Everybody knew the assistant did not have a license, had never gone to mortuary college, had never taken let alone passed the National Board or any state law examination.  However this man had worked for many funeral homes, over many years, in Iowa.

One summer the owner of the funeral home went up to Minnesota to go hunting.  Usually this firm had one funeral, possibly two at a time, never more than two services.  However over the week end while the licensed owner was out of town five people died in our little town on the same day.  The owner did not return from his hunting trip, and amazingly all the bodies were embalmed, all the funeral arrangements were completed by Sunday evening.  All five bodies were lying in state, and we went over to the funeral home and they all looked wonderful.  The owner returned to town on Monday to help work the services.  No out of town licensed embalmer came in to do the work, no out of town licensed funeral director made the arrangements no not at all.  Everything was done by the unlicensed associate, and here is the kicker – the unlicensed man was a better embalmer than his licensed boss was.  

I remember as a young man dreaming and wanting to be a funeral director/embalmer. I resented like hell that this “clown” could embalm without a license, and no one in town reported him, and it seemed to me that no one in town cared, and in truth they didn’t – the dead bodies looked great!

I have mellowed over the years, and have taken a deep breath and accepted that yes, unlicensed work continues, and even these days I get fuzzy as to when licensed work ends and unlicensed work begins. I observe the State Boards and inspectors do the absolute best job they can concerning investigating and getting these unlicensed people, but it still goes on.  What does this perpetual unlicensed work which we all know goes on however say about the power and authority of a valid license?

Uniform, universal licensing – it is the impossible dream, isn’t it?  I am just dreaming an old man’s dream to visualize a uniform universal license, a traveling card which will be accepted everyplace in the United States.  Here are some sarcastic questions which are designed to magnify this state-by-state myriad of regulations into a humorous perspective:  Do people die so much differently in Iowa than they do in Ohio?  Are the causes and modes of death in Utah differ so much from those in New Jersey? And people in Oregon just don’t die the way other folks do.  Can there be so many differences as to warrant in 2009 such an outdated and antiquated licensing system?  I think not.  

As a result our profession is stalemated in a myriad of ancient, out-dated, and provincial laws which make uniform and universal licensing basically impossible.  Even endorsements and reciprocity seem needlessly complicated.  Of course Colorado said to hell with it this stuff and I have not personally witnessed the crumbling of the infrastructure of funeral service in that great state.

To be sure state laws will vary, and people in our profession need to know the individual laws of the states which employment and licensing is sought – however taking a state law exam is much different than jumping through unnecessary hoops to get the license.  Here is a case in point.

Several years ago I decided to make a career change and moved to another state.  This should not have been anything big or earth shattering just my private decision in my attempts to improve my stock in life.  The man who hired me was a great human being and I was excited about the prospects – I have always looked for improvement in my life, and that is nobody's business but my own.  

I made the move, moved in, started the position and applied to the state for a funeral director's and embalmer's license.  I had been licensed in other states, and totally had been licensed for over 30-plus years and not once had any charges been brought against any license which I had been issued.  I have made hundreds of funeral arrangements, conducted even more funerals, and embalmed even more bodies.  On top of that I taught embalming to students for 20 years, and taught funeral home management at a major University campus for just as many years.  No brag, just the facts.

I did not want any special consideration, however what I got was totally unexpected and yes, looking back, utterly humiliating.  I was required to serve an 18-month apprenticeship.  My past apprenticeship periods, which totaled 24 months in two states and  which were served respectively 30 and 25 years before, were rejected out of hand, and I was instructed that no apprenticeship now meant no license.  Even my employer, who was highly respected in funeral service, wrote a personal letter on my behalf, and sadly and hurtfully the state board did not even respond to his overture.  I believe it unnecessarily damaged his feelings – which left a sour taste in many peoples' mouths. He was 85 years old, just a simple letter in return – was that too much to expect?  It appeared clearly from the snub that it was too much to expect, but in the end who does the state board work for?

The state board just ruled and shrugged their shoulders, and I never once was given an opportunity to present my situation.  In the end I did get the license, but what an experience.  In fact right in the middle of my “apprenticeship” I was asked to present an embalming seminar to a prestigious organization of licensed graduate embalmers.  I had to maintain a sense of humor to battle my humiliation; I mean folks, I had served as a mentor over the years to over a dozen apprentices.

I started this seminar with this line:  “I suspect that this will be the first time that this august body of embalmers will be given a seminar by a really old apprentice.”  Most of the group did not even understand the joke, but when they did many were embarrassed and offered understanding and support.  

Here is the vintage Van Beck luck.  Three weeks after I got my licenses after serving my apprenticeship, they changed the state law.  I told my friends about the timing and honestly we all got a real chuckle out of this roller coaster.  However, my mother, when I told her that I was having to serve an apprenticeship, said without hesitation, “This is good for you Todd, you have been acting a little full of yourself lately!”  Good ole Mom, I love her dearly.

Can we lobby for a uniform, universal license, can we lobby for increased mortuary science academic degrees, can we reform the curriculum, and can we change things?  I want to suggest that work begin on a universal license which makes it possible that individuals who are licensed for a period of time in any state and want to move to another state and pass that state’s law exam ought to simply be able to do it, without any entanglements or hoops to jump through.  The labor situation in funeral service simply requires a reforming of the current state of affairs so funeral directors can with ease hire and get licensed the people they want to hire – even if that person is from out of state.

We need a minimum of a Bachelor’s degree for initial licensure, and as a minimum credential for funeral service professionals.  I well remember during the FTC hearings Howard Raether proclaimed in the way only Howard could proclaim anything that funeral directors were “professionals” and did not need federal regulation.  In a New York second one of the FTC commissioners jumped on Howard and asked him point blank “What are the average educational requirements to become a funeral director?”  Howard’s response was honestly all over the map, because the requirements state by state were and are all over the map.  In the end, however, the FTC commissioner had made his point which was: how can you claim professional status when someone in the United States can graduate from high school, attend one year of mortuary college and get licensed?  The point was a sobering experience and this happened in 1977.  We need a minimum of a Bachelor’s degree universally in this country to become a funeral service professional.

My hope for all of this dreaming is optimistic, my experience and knowledge however concerning these subject is pessimistic.  It will certainly take someone much more skilled and insightful than I to accomplish such a monumental task – but it can be done.  However, in the meantime, please read Ron Hast’s article – it is disturbing, and does not bode well for our future, but as always the future of funeral service is going to be precisely what you and I make of it.

Anyway that is one old undertaker’s opinion.  TVB

Double header?

Well, two postings in one day.....and another set of cogent thoughts from the "Arch Duke of Death" As the owner of two, funeral businesses, this has become a nagging thorn in my side. As a result of poor and ancient formation, the quality of many of those entering the field is "somewhat less than stellar". Reminds of a phase I heard over twenty years ago, "Funeral Service...150 years of tradition, unaffected by progress" We have an apprentice at the funeral home and he was studying yesterday for a cellular biology test...something I have not thought about, even once, since I took my national boards in 1983. I remember our class motto at CCMS..."It just doesn't matter". We didn't realize how prophetic those words were. Maybe now that JD has retired, the schools will get a little common sense. As usual, you nailed it.......RJV