Becoming a mortician isn't one of those glamorous career paths everyone daydreams about. It is, however, one of the jobs that fascinates many. Morticians, also known as undertakers, funeral directors or "death service" professionals, work with the dead. They prepare bodies for burial or cremation, and they arrange the details of the funeral service and other end-of-life matters. It's an important job that takes some of the burden off grief-stricken survivors, but it has a ghoulish overtone that gets undertakers written into countless horror movies. It's a small wonder that so many people are curious enough to ask: What does a mortician do?
What Does a Mortician Do?
Death is not only tragic and painful for survivors, it's complicated. Along with the physical necessity of burying the body, there are services to schedule, announcements to make and countless little details to arrange. The duties of a funeral director involve handling those tasks for the grieving family. If the deceased made clear what they wanted - cremation or burial, a wake or a solemn service - that can simplify a lot of decisions. If not, the family may value and rely on the mortician's input. The mortician's job duties are many:
- If the family hasn't made a decision how to dispose of the body, the undertaker can help them decide between burial and cremation.
- Preparing the body for burial or cremation. That may include removing pacemakers and artificial joints, which can explode or melt when the body gets cremated.
- Preparing obituary notices announcing the death and the time of any viewing, funeral or burial.
- Arranging for pallbearers and clergy.
- Scheduling the opening and closing of the grave if the body is to be buried.
- Embalming the body, a cosmetic process to prepare the body for viewing by family and friends.
- Arranging for cremation, if the deceased preferred that option.
- Finding and preparing the sites for the viewing, the service, the wake and any other events.
- Providing transportation for the mourners and the deceased to the burial site.
- Providing transportation for the corpse if it has to be shipped out of state or out of the country.
- Helping with administrative problems such as transferring pensions, insurance or annuities to survivors.
- Filing death certificates and other legal documents.
- Offering counseling to family and friends of the deceased.
- Providing information on grief-support groups for the mourning family.
- Setting the time and location of the funeral, burial, cremation or wake.
- Some funeral homes provide emotional-support dogs to comfort the bereaved.
Figuring Death Out
If the deceased's religion or culture requires a particular ritual or mandates how the body should be treated, the funeral director has to work within those restrictions. For instance, if the deceased was Muslim or an Orthodox Jew, their faith forbids cremation. So does Christianity's Eastern Orthodox Church. Mormons can choose cremation, but the LDS Church itself prefers burial. In contrast, Hindu tradition says the dead should always be burned, not buried. Other decisions are more about aesthetics and feeling than faith. If the deceased is going to be buried, that involves decisions about the design, materials and cost of the coffin.
These decisions don't have to be made at the last minute. Funeral directors often work with clients who plan their funerals in advance. That eases the time pressure on their survivors and ensures the deceased's wishes will be met. It also makes it easier to price services than when survivors are shopping for coffins in the midst of their grief.
Calm advance planning isn't always possible because a lot of death comes unexpectedly. A mortician may get called out in the middle of the night because an elderly person has finally passed on. Worse, it may be a child. Being a mortician means being on call, 24/7. In some cases, they may only have two or three days to plan a funeral, or multiple funerals to arrange on the same day. Friends and family of a funeral director have to get used to them breaking dinner dates or leaving a birthday party because dealing with death takes precedence.
Morticians Stress Out
Even if they're not in a time crunch, morticians have to deal with death on a daily basis. If the death was tragic and unexpected that can shake them up; dealing with a child's death is a horrible thing, even if they didn't know the family.
Undertakers also have to deal with survivors, people who may almost numb from grief or livid with anger. In any given family, the survivors may have different expectations about how to deal with death. Why didn't the obituary mention Bob's charity work? Why did the obit list my spouse's ex as one of the surviving family members? With emotions so raw, even basic questions such as where to bury the deceased or how to honor them may turn into firefights. Funeral directors have to negotiate these situations, calm the waters and get the family to reach a decision.
All of that places a heavy emotional load on the funeral director. If it becomes too much, they may lash out at friends of family, self-medicate with alcohol or simply grow callous about the job. Some directors simply quit. It can take a lot of effort to keep it together in the midst of death and grief.
Taking Classes In Death
If despite the demands of the job you find yourself asking how can I become a mortician, you should know it's not something you can do overnight. You'll need a college degree, experience and a license, even if you're simply an embalmer rather than funeral director.
Usually the minimum requirement to find a job in the field is an associate's degree in funeral service or in mortuary science. Most of the programs accredited by the American Board of Funeral Service Education deliver a two-year associate's degree, which is what the majority of funeral homes require. Some programs offer four year degrees.
If you've decided in high school that funeral service is the career for you, courses in biology, chemistry and business give you a good grounding. Participating in public speaking courses doesn't hurt. A part-time job at a funeral home can give you a taste of what the work is really like.
The topics taught in mortuary science include ethics, grief counseling, communication, funeral service and business law. You'll also cover actual science, such as anatomy, pathology, and physiology. While you may eventually rise to management, for the early years of your career you'll be doing hands-on work with corpses. The anatomy training teaches you the major systems of the human body, particularly blood and muscles. You also learn how to dissect a cadaver.
Embalming courses teach how to preserve and position bodies, raise veins and posing facial features. Preparing and restoring the corpse for viewing is one of the most important jobs in funeral service. The goal is "setting the features," giving them a peaceful, smiling expression. That involves stuffing the throat and nose with cotton, suturing the mouth shut and inserting spiked cups under the eyelids to keep them closed. Restoration courses include anatomical modeling, bone structure, facial muscles, wax treatments, eye and mouth modeling, the use of cosmetics, and restorative arts.
Embalming involves toxic chemicals and other potential health risks. Your courses will teach you to use the chemicals safely, drain blood from the course and avoid infection.
Training and Licensing
Along with finishing your associate's or bachelor's degree, you must complete an apprenticeship under a licensed funeral director. This internship can last anywhere from one to three years. You can complete your training before, during or after your college studies and before or after passing your licensing exam.
Every state except Colorado requires funeral service workers take out a license at the end of their internship. The license requirements are set by the state, but typically, they include being 21 years old; having your associate's or bachelor's degree; completing your internship and passing the exam. Working in multiple states requires multiple licenses.
The International Conference of Funeral Service Examining Boards administers the national exam. The test covers several different topics:
- Funeral directing.
- Marketing and merchandising.
- Funeral service counseling.
- Legal compliance.
- Cemetery and crematory operations.
- Restorative art.
- Preparation for disposition.
- Funeral service sciences.
You can take the test up to three times a year, but the ICFSEB doesn't make it easy for you to learn from your mistakes. The test is pass/fail and if you fail, you'll learn which sections you did poorly on, but not which questions you got wrong. If you pass, the conference will send it to whichever states you want licensing for, as indicated on your application. If you want to add more states, you give ICFSEB $50 per extra state. The cost for the test is $570. Keeping your license requires continuing education credits in most states.
Once you're licensed as a full funeral service worker, you can stick with in embalming or other staff positions or you can work your way up to funeral director. Some morticians open their own funeral homes and become strictly management. They handle the business end and the paperwork matters and no longer deal directly with the bodies.
If you run a crematorium many states require you get an additional certification. There are several different groups offering certification so check with your state whether it prefers one over the others. The Cremation Association of North America (CANA) is one of the certifying groups. CANA certification starts with several hours of online coursework covering key topics:
- An overview of cremation.
- Equipment and operations.
- Details of the cremation process.
- Chain of custody for bodies and cremains.
- Environmental issues.
- Reducing legal risk.
Once you complete the course, you take the exam. An 80 percent score gets you certified for five years. Before it expires, you'll have to take the class again. The cost is $595, with a $100 off if you're a CANA member.
Character is as important as your degree and your license. A good mortician treats customers with care and sympathy. Morticians also need good interpersonal and speaking skills. When dealing with stressed-out survivors, they have to discuss everything, point out problems and do it calmly, without losing it even if the client does. Good time management skills are important to see that every necessary step is done in time. If you're at the management level, a good understanding of business is essential, too.
Most morticians work for funeral homes rather than run their own business. With the boomer population aging, job prospects for licensed funeral directors are good; growth is expected at about 5 percent annually through 2026. Prospects are particularly good if:
- You're qualified at both embalming and funeral directing.
- You're willing to relocate.
- You're certified to run a crematorium.
The median pay for morticians is $51,850 at time of writing. Median isn't the average; it means half of all morticians earn more, half less.