The Call to Funeral Service

Todd Van Beck's picture

People are concerned about the economy, and with true justification.  Things have been tough, and even though the “experts” are saying that there is light at the end of the tunnel, still many people, way too many people, are experiencing layoffs, terminations, lost benefits, and financial hardships.

News items are showing up that announce the seemingly unbelievable and utterly astounding observation that enrollment in mortuary science colleges across the country is increasing.  Of course that is not real news, because throughout history in the United States, when the economy tanks enrollment in most training programs which are somewhat short in duration but offer employment opportunities and security increase in numbers.  In every economic slump I have lived through, enrollment in the mortuary science programs across this county has jumped, and these times are no exception.

This trend is so predictable that it makes you wonder, why would any newspaper give one moment’s attention to the increase in mortuary science enrollments?  Even now, with the increased numbers of mortuary science students, the total number across the entire nation cannot be more than a couple of thousand out of a population of over 370 million people. There have to be more students signing up for welding college, cosmetology programs, barber school, insurance school, medical vocational technical programs etc., but I have not seen any article which singles out increases in other types of career programs as they are doing with mortuary science.  Maybe news reports about other vocations increasing in numbers are out there, but so far I have not seen any.

In reading the articles devoted to the increase in funeral service students, and reading between the lines, I was struck by the thought that the reporter’s hidden message in singling out funeral service education as being a job to seek in bad times possibly translates into this: “WOW, these really and truly must be bad times if anyone would consider becoming a funeral director.” The exaggerated idea that someone would take up mortuary science because things are so bad economically truly misses the reason why anybody would be interested in funeral service in the first place, regardless of economic conditions. The newspapers are once again wrong concerning funeral service.

In the articles about someone who is, say, 30, 40, 50 or whatever age and enrolling in mortuary science college, the primarily focus is on the bad economy as being the person’s major motivation for a career change. I just shake my head. Here is why I shake my head.  These articles fail almost universally in exploring the reasons someone of any age, regardless of good times or bad, would be drawn to becoming a funeral director.  I find it interesting and annoying that the news media insists on reducing every aspect of funeral service to an economic/money issue.

In my years I have taught a rough estimate of over 5,000 students, in good times and in bad times.  I have seen the enrollments jump and slump, in good times and in bad times.  I have seen some of the most damaged human beings that God put on this earth walk into the mortuary college and proclaim that they want to become a funeral director.  I have seen the smart ones and the not so smart ones march across the platform and receive a degree and pass the National Board examination.  I have seen many students who I predicted would not have a snowball's chance in hell out in the real world end up owning 10 funeral homes, while after a 41-year career I still own none.

In good economic times and in bad ones, I have never once had a student tell me that they wanted to become a funeral director to get steady work and make money – not once.  In all my years of operating mortuary schools, I cannot remember one person, when things were tight financially, come into my office and announce “The Dow Jones fell apart last night, so I think I will become an undertaker,” or “Things are really tough out there, so I just think I will become an embalmer – how do you do that?” 

Not once have I heard the type of reasoning now being reported as the main impetus for the increase in enrollment in funeral service programs.  My friends, the reasons are much deeper, as everyone reading this already knows. Here is what I HAVE heard during my career, in good economic times, and in bad, from future funeral directors:

“You know Mr. Van Beck, I always wanted to be a funeral director – strange isn’t it, my family thinks I am nuts, but I am 55 and if I don’t do it now I will never do it.”

Or, “Hi, Mr. Van Beck, I can get a loan from the government and I was thinking over the last year or two about when my grandfather died and how impressed I was with the funeral director who did his funeral.  I always wanted to be like that undertaker.  I mean things are ok at work but I am bored to tears. I want more out of life and I really feel the urge to do this – do you think I am nuts?”

Or, “My best friend was killed in a car accident when I was ten and ever since that experience I have been drawn to the funeral stuff, like, like ya know what I mean, like, like –  like do you think I would make like a good funeral director?” (Yes, you might make a great funeral director like, like if you like expanded your like vocabulary, like, like a little.)

Or, “I am ok with where I am at, but I want to help people, and I have been thinking about this for a long, long time, for years. I think I could really help a lot of people being a funeral director – am I nuts?”

These conversations have taken place when the economy was fat and sassy and when the economy was horrible and depressed. I know of nobody, anywhere, ever who has opened their eyes early one morning, sat on the side of their bed and out of the clear blue said, “I think I will become an undertaker.” No matter what the newspapers are reporting, IT DOES NOT WORK THAT WAY, and I suspect that if the newspaper reporters would give the people they choose to interview more time, listen to them better, and give them more print space to tell their entire story, the truth of why they are REALLY in mortuary college would come out instead of the untrue and simpleton message that, "Gee whiz, the economy must really be in the bucket for someone to be so desperate as to study to become a funeral director."

I wish I could sit down with all the new funeral directing students who the papers claim are grasping for “steady” employment and ask them this heartfelt question: “What drew you to this profession?” Then I would shut up and let them talk, and I know what the conversation would be. It would revolve around a mission, an unfulfilled life hope and dream, a calling, something they just can’t put their finger on, but they know it is there, a hounding from heaven, a ministry in life, a worthy contribution to humanity – that is what the conversation would include, not just a steady paycheck or the phony idea of tremendous job security because the death rate is 100 percent.

For many years, I have been of the conviction that the reason the funeral service profession has been able to withstand attack after attack after attack from the media is for the precise reason that people who enter this profession in the first place, are most times not, I repeat not, motivated by money, which immediately destroys the “let’s get them” mentality and strategy that most media has tried and tried again and again for years.  This is a concept which is obviously too deep and philosophical for the news media, and they seem utterly incapable or unwilling, or both, of grasping the concept, let alone understanding it, let alone printing it. They just don’t get it.

The strength of funeral service, in good and bad times, is the belief, the anchor, the conviction of purpose and mission which drew most of us to this profession in the first place.  There is strength present in the identity of the typical funeral professional in this country, and thanks to God above, this unique identity of being a funeral professional is not surrounded exclusively by the almighty dollar. In my last blog posting (I still can’t believe I am doing this) I spoke about the present day recession and funeral service and about the historical fact of funeral directors giving many funerals away during the Great Depression in order to survive economically.  My friends, I have seen this kindness, this loving spirit, this broad view of caring, compassion, and comfort throughout my entire career, and this is one of the reasons I am still proud to be called a funeral director.

Years ago, I remember a young funeral director in Nebraska who had a death call in Omaha.  This young funeral director was just starting out and did not have enough ready cash nor could the family pay the expenses to arrange for a private aircraft to fly into Omaha and transport the remains back home.  He called the funeral home I worked at and we made the removal and did the embalming. I and was told by my boss that this young funeral director would be arriving the next day to get the remains. Mid-afternoon, the young man arrived and I helped him put the deceased in his funeral vehicle.  We stood out in the parking lot for a time talking, thinking that my boss was upstairs in the funeral home when in reality he was standing in the garage listening to our every word. 

The conversation went something like this:  I said, “How are things going?”  The reply, “Not too well, things are mighty slow.” Then the young funeral director proceeded to tell me that he had handled only two services since he opened up and the bank was leaning on him, and he didn’t really know what he was going to do, but he knew he had a mission to be a funeral director.  He had a calling, he said.  Then he asked me how much he owed us, and I said I would go inside and ask my boss, at which point my boss walked around the corner of the garage.

The young funeral director seemed mighty impressed to meet my boss, who was already a funeral director icon in Nebraska.  He said, “Sir, how much do I owe you?”  My boss smiled and said these impressive words, “Son you don’t owe me anything. The embalming was a good learning experience for my young man here (meaning me) who doesn’t know a lick about embalming (that made me feel real good, I can tell you)." And my boss ended the conversation this way, “Son I would rather have your friendship than your money.  Just keep me in your prayers and let us know what more we can do to help you.”

I cannot even begin to tell you the look of appreciation on that young funeral director’s face.  After he left, I said to my boss that I thought that it was a mighty nice thing to do, and this Great American Funeral Director simply responded, “Todd, just look around at all we have here.  That young lad needed a break.”

In time, this young funeral director did become successful, and even after my boss died, every time I would see this now successful man at conventions he would relay this story of generosity of spirit to anybody who would listen.  Such is the true heart and soul of funeral service – regardless of economic trends and events.  POWERFUL STUFF, TO BE SURE!

I wish I could interview some of these “economically driven” beginning funeral directors. I would predict the results of my interview with these up and coming funeral directors would be much different than what the newspapers came up with – but that is just speculation on my part, and remember my friends, TVB and his observations are usually wrong concerning funeral service.

Anyway that is one old undertaker’s opinion.