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Mortuary (and cemetery) education

      
Todd Van Beck's picture
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The January ICCFA Magazine was devoted in not a small way to the subject of education.  I finished reading most of the issue, and while I thought it best to keep my pen shut, I thought better of that cowardly approach and decided to dive into the education pool, so to speak.

I was also inspired to write my thoughts concerning this very interesting subject because of an email I received from another educator, of whom I hold in great respect, and deference, and he was NOT pleased with the tenor and content of some of the writing.  No surprise on that one, for any suggestion, let alone a criticism or worse, a call for mortuary education reformation, is most generally headed for hurt feelings, defensiveness, and outright rejection.  This seems a touchy subject.

In my years working in mortuary education I knew full well that the vast majority of educators work with diligence and devotion, and truthfully the inner educational system has in many ways improved itself from what it was when I was a mortuary science student.  Yes, progress has been made, and as with ALL academic change it is usually done at a snail’s pace and is much like pushing a wet noodle up a hill.  The reality of education's “slows” is customarily something that business-oriented personalities, people who want rapid change, don’t understand. They usually add insult to injury and do something worse: They don’t respect this reality concerning the world of education and hence most often totally underestimate the brick walls that they encounter when they suggest change.

What does one say which hasn’t been said over, and over, and over, and hashed, rehashed, and then rerehashed again and again over the years?  

In reading the different articles in the ICCFA magazine, I was not in the least inspired or excited, nor did my creative imagination spark.  No, not at all; in fact, I read nothing new.  It was mostly all predictable stuff.  Let’s see.  There of course was the politically correct approach article, then the call for dumping this and that and replacing this or that article with changes which seemed ominously attractive to the author of the article.  Then of course was the war cry article crying out for more practical hands on stuff--you know, how to turn on a crematory, how to raise a vessel, how to cater a funeral reception, how to, how to, how to.

For a hundred years or more, most everybody has agreed that the mortuary science curriculum is lopsided.  You know the drill – too much science, not enough business courses, too much bleeding heart grief psychology, too much embalming, in fact with this “too much” logic the end result is that every mortuary science curriculum in every mortuary college is lopsided, which is NOT true.  The glaring truth, which I did not read in any articles, is this:  mortuary education, in order to expand, needs more time.  Time is the essential 21st century ingredient which mortuary education needs desperately and which the appointed critics of the system seem to ignore on a consistent basis.

Over the years, I have gotten into trouble on many fronts.  First I have never been the brightest or most insightful person, so I have made some personal and professional bonehead decisions.  There have been times I ought to have spoken, and remained silent, and to be sure there have been many, many times where I ought to have been silent, and then just opened my BIG mouth.  However, with all my foibles and inadequacies as a human being, two ideas concerning my beloved profession have held my interest for years  First is the idea of a universal requirement for a minimum of a bachelor's degree to enter any aspect of funeral service, and second is the idea of a universal license which is accepted in every state to function at any level in funeral service.  I can hear the laughter as I write this, and you who are laughing are absolutely right to do so. My idea, my dream, my hope, concerning these two ideas will go with me to my grave, unaccomplished.  I accept that sad reality, but for my own integrity (what I have left), I need to always get my commercial in somewhere.

I have mentioned that educational reform is slow, and that is not a criticism, it is just true.  Even Harvard University spends years in planning any change to any part of their curriculum, and for good reason.  The curriculum is the basic contract between the student and the academic institution, and once that is set in stone, for say a year, four-year, or a ten-year program, if the administration fiddles with the curriculum, presto, it is a breach of contract.  Because of this fact, I don’t see any quick reformation of mortuary education.  Also, I don’t see state boards reforming requirements for licensing any time soon.  I don’t see the curriculum changing quickly in order to fit any special interest demand from this group or that group.  I just don’t see this happening, but what I do see happening is the ability for our profession to embrace the idea of continuous improvement of the human being through education, not just for licensure or a set of job skills, but for living life.

I believe many people, including myself, have been and are just too hard in the criticisms of mortuary education.  I did not learn funeral service in mortuary college, and I did not learn ministry in seminary.  What I received upon both graduations was not a level of expertise (although you could not have told me that at the time) but instead I was awarded my learner’s permit.  I was given the right to enter a professional activity with the minimal knowledge of knowing “WHAT NOT TO DO.”  That was it, nothing more, nothing less.

If any profession looks to just education or quick education reform as a catch-all to solve problems, then surely that profession and those who hold such expectations are in for a fall.  Education has limits.  Education cannot do everything, and education is limited in preparing most people for the stark and inevitable realities of working and living life.

I might suggest (not seriously of course) that people who really and truly want to change the educational system, step right up to the plate get their graduate degrees and become instructors and professors themselves.  That they prepare their own lesson plans, compose examinations, monitor student honesty, look at the students and have the fleeting thought “my oh my, are we in trouble.”  Even education in adult training, seminars, in-house workshops and the like, most times is fragile, simply because adults can easily nod affirmation after affirmation to the boss, and then when they leave revert back to old habits.  It is just the way of adult education.

The University of Funeral Service is NOT in any mortuary college or found in a sales seminar; it is found on the floor of the mortuary, it is found on the grounds of the cemetery or the homes of a prospective client.  To be sure, education seminars, videos, tapes, can help, support and affirm, but there is something larger in scope that needs our attention.

What then can we say about education, not simple robotic practical education (which seems so much in vogue today), but instead a deeper, more lasting and permanent philosophy of education?  This idea of education for living life, of education for the simple sake of education.  This then is the idea of continuous education for the individual as compared to the standard continuing education for a profession.

There is a sentence from Samuel Johnson that points to a persistently important subject in all professional education and one I have found of particular interest in my personal work in education. The good Dr. Johnson said:  “Integrity without knowledge is weak and useless, knowledge without integrity is dangerous and dreadful.”

Over my years in this lovely profession, I have heard many sweeping comments, and read many sweeping words concerning education.  Many students' war cry is, “Why do we have to know this stuff?”  I always suspected they learned this from jaded and cynical funeral directors they might have encountered.  Many funeral directors' and cemeterians' war cry is, “What are you teaching those kids these days?” or “When I was a student we didn’t put up with that stuff.”  I suspect every generation of every student and mentor bemoans the state of their experience in any educational endeavor.  It seems that the discontent of students and mentors, whether it is mortuary college, cemetery university, medical school, law school or welding technical college, is much the same.  Students can’t wait to get out, and professors can’t wait to see them leave.

I believe in the worth of education simply for the sake of education.  I truly believe that most mortuary educators work diligently in a system which just paralyzes them because of lack of time.  I believe that the curriculum reflects a history of change, but a slow history of change, which annoys the speed demons addicted to rapid fire change to no end.

However, with all this said, does the ideal of “education simply for the sake of education” have worth?  Is this not truly a worthy ideal?  I believe it is.

For decades, much time, energy and money has been spent on debating the question as to whether funeral service (and today, cemetery work) ranks as a profession or a trade.  Opinions abound. Many agree this work is indeed a profession, but many take the converse attitude that this work is in reality a trade, a business.  I believe both sides of the debate are missing the core issue concerning education.

I used to think that education was an end in and of itself.  I used to think that if the colleges did not teach me everything I was confronted with in life, then it was the college’s fault.  I used to think that while I felt I was entering a profession, I also felt keenly that there were practical skills that I needed to possess, and when I was confronted after graduation with the glaring reality that I did not possess ALL the technical, business, professional and practical skills which clearly were essential, I once again blamed the college.  Blaming colleges for any deficiency is a terribly easy thing to do, particularly for people who do not teach.

Over time, for me at least, I learned that I could not expect any seminar, any curriculum, any outline, any manual, any script, any textbook, any lecture, any discussion group to fill in ALL the career blanks I encountered.  I had to fill in the blanks myself.  I had to adopt a lifelong attitude of continuous education, continuous curiosity, and continuous improvement.  I could not expect mandatory continuing education to do it, nor could I expect a magic bullet fired at me in a seminar to do it all the time.  I had to do it, and let me give you an example.

When I was in mortuary college, we had a professor named Maurice Lurensky who taught chemistry, and he was tough.  He scared me to death just by his presence.  He was intimidating, he was a bully, he used threats, he berated us daily, and he basically in my mind was a non-human.  However, and here is the point, I LEARNED CHEMISTRY.  I LEARNED ORGANIC, INORGANIC, BIO, AND EMBALMING CHEMISTRY, AND I GOT A 96% IN CHEMISTRY ON THE NATIONAL BOARD WHEN EXAMINED.

However, even with this success, I still did not get it, and I still fought the basic concept of education for the sake of education.   I thought “nobody uses chemistry when they embalm.”  I had watched hundreds of embalmers appear to me to just pour chemicals in the machine, and off they went.  I had truly missed the point about life education.

I learned chemistry, and the truth is I don’t think a day has gone by that I don’t link up some experience in living life to chemistry (even in embalming), and I am able to do this because I learned chemistry, regardless of the immediate application to the practical embalming issue.

The idea of the simple power of lifelong education for the sake of education can be as simple as this.  Several months ago I was visiting my parents in Iowa, and one evening we were watching the The Learning Channel, and the program was on the biology of life.  DNA stuff, the building blocks of what makes each of us tick.  The narrator was pumping out basic chemistry information in almost every sentence he spoke, and I could follow everything he was talking about, but my 90-year-old father could not.  My father was lost throughout the entire program, and readily admitted that he didn’t have “an idea in hell” (a direct quote) what the narrator was talking about.  However I knew precisely what was being discussed.

Now my father is not slow, not stupid. In fact, he is very sharp and very intelligent, but he never learned chemistry in his life and would not know a symbol from the atomic chart from a pipe organ.  This is an example of the power of learning and education just for the sake of learning and education.  

In the end, the power of this idea has little to do with curriculum reformation, practical robotic skill development, or getting a license, it has everything to do with the expansion of our brains, and that in the end is a terribly individual motivation. Some people get it, some people don’t.

Should we stop the debates, and protectionism of territories, and get together and expand and improve our formal professional and practical education?  Sure.  Will that happen?  Sure, someday, sometime.  But not tomorrow, not in a month – but possibly just possibly, if we stick to it and cooperate and find our unity in our diversity, maybe it will happen in a significant permanent way within a decade, maybe.  That is the way of educational reform – it is never as fast as the self-appointed reformers wish for, never – but overtime it does happen.

Based then on this simple ideal of the value of education for the sake of education, the answers to some of our pressing, seemingly insurmountable challenges can possibly be found.  Here are a few issues that come to mind:

  • Too many mortuary schools?  Yes – however select the best, not the closest.
  • Too much science in mortuary schools?  Possibly – but then any science is good; learn it for your enhancement of living life.
  • License and certify cemeterians?  Why not?  The rest of the professional world seems to get licensed and certified.
  • A minimum of a bachelor’s degree for entry?  It is a good idea, has merit. (It will never happen, but then, I can dream.)
  • Apprenticeships?  Choose the mentor very carefully.

Finally, let me close with this thought.  The simple fact of life today is that if we ignore the ideal of education for the sake of education, and simply focus on the illusion of immediate gratification from a script, training seminar, or workshop (as valuable as these can be), if we ignore the philosophy of education for the sake of education, then this and any other profession or job will stagnate in the stale pool of the paralysis of creativity, and when that happens, then the world, our clients, the consumers and our communities who right now are deeply involved in lifelong learning quickly and unfortunately will permanently pass us by.  I would suggest that as a group of people interested in working in the arena of death, we abandon territories, egos, personal biases, and personal agendas and educate simply for the sake of improving minds.

I learned this idea concerning education from a chap named Socrates.--TVB

Education ??

Todd:

When we evacuated the sacred halls of our respective Mortuary academic institutions and went into the actual phase of application of the volumous information we had learned,reality set in. We first had to learn how to correctly run a Hoover, apply Simonize to a Cadillac, and carry flowers correctly. Much of that has changed, fortunately.

My sentiments are that the curriculum is fostered by the national testing syllabus. I guess that in a perfect world the current study is maybe a good start. It might be advantageous to offer an emphasized curriculum for technical, grief, and management, at the choice of the student. Possibly leveled licenses that reflect the emphasis; embalmer, embalmer II, and embalmer Pro, with heightened schooling requirements. The same might be done for those who concentrate on funeral arrangements or funeral home management.

If laws were universally amended to allow licensing similar to the way they are currently, states could mandate an associates degree within a time frame giving a higher license designation, as well as a bachelor's degree (optional perhaps) to be "Certified". Education of the public to recognize those who go out of their way to become the best educated in their field would be a big plus for the licensee and the public.

CEU's, in my opinion, have generally been a waste of time and money. I have had CEU credits for things that I will never use and things that were totally against the mantra of my employer. I gained nothing other than exhibition of my willingness to endure the rhetoric. The system is as archaic as many of the state "Rules and Regulations" and laws coast to coast.

For many years I maintained a designation of CFSP. I was proud to hold that honor. The designation through the years got me a yearly bill, a special tag when I was able to attend a National Convention, but never a better pay rate, acknowledgment by any family member, or special recognition within my peer group. The concept was good, however it stopped short of real personal value.

A nationally recognized license level system would mean that employers would look for a particular expert/experienced/educated employee, and remunerate appropriately. Then education becomes more valuable, as it is in other "industries. Again, I am not against education, but it needs to be more universally accepted as designating a more valuable employee. For owners, a higher level of education or license designation could be a drawing card for families and employees as well.

Bob Borning