Colleges specializing in funeral service education are increasing enrollment due to a shortage of workers in the funeral industry.
“The shortage is so severe right now that there is a 90% job placement rate for graduates of these programs,” said Leili McMurrough, program director at Worsham College of Mortuary Science in Wheeling, Illinois, one of the nation’s oldest mortuary schools dating back to 1911.
In 2021, nationwide enrollment of new students in accredited mortuary science programs increased 24% over 2020, according to the American Board of Funeral Service Education.
The overall percentage increase in student enrollment in the 58 accredited mortuary programs or institutions in the United States could be even higher this year, said McMurrough, who also chairs the American Board of Funeral Service Education (AFBSE) Committee on Accreditation.
Randy Anderson, president of the National Funeral Directors Association, is acutely aware of the labor crisis and says colleges can’t churn out licensed workers fast enough to meet the need for new hires.
Demand for funeral directors is particularly high, and an aging workforce has made it a race against the clock, Anderson said.
“There is an urgent need to replace those who have been in the profession for many years and are retiring,” he said. “Over 60% of funeral home owners said they want to retire in five years. That’s a lot.”
The NFDA currently has more than 20,000 members, and each state has its own apprenticeship and licensing requirements, Anderson said. Most states also require funeral directors to graduate from an accredited college or university program.
According to the latest government data, the funeral industry generates over $16 billion in annual revenue. There were more than 18,800 funeral homes in the United States in 2021, most of them privately owned small businesses, down from 19,902 in 2010, according to industry figures.
Young women, other career seekers are joining the ranks
Women currently make up as much as 72% of funeral service graduates, according to the latest AFBSE figures. Said Anderson, “Until the 1970s, men dominated. Every decade since then, the number of women entering the profession has increased.”
And they are younger too. At Worsham, McMurrough said, the typical student is a 24- to 29-year-old woman, but many are older applicants seeking a new career.
“No one plans to be a funeral director unless you have a parent in the business,” Reggie said. “But as an entry-level career, it’s generally not an expensive degree. It’s a shorter program than a full college degree, and you can earn $60,000 to $75,000 a year.”
Ellen Wynn McBrayer is a funeral director at Jones-Wynn Funeral Home and Crematorium, a third-generation family business with two locations in Georgia. Her grandmother, Shirley Drew Jones, was the first woman to be a licensed funeral director in the state.
McBrayer said her grandmother hoped more women would enter the profession.
“The new and younger people coming in are also more open to not doing things the same way, but adapting the service to what the families want,” McBrayer said. “A funeral is not just a day in the life, but a lifetime in a day.”
Several factors contribute to growing interest in the profession.
At her school, McMurrough said enrollment numbers rose after Worsham began offering her online program two years ago. “This gave those people who had another job but were also interested in the field the flexibility to be able to pursue it,” she said.
Worsham offers a one-year associate degree (tuition $22,800) and a 16-month online associate degree program (tuition $24,800). Eighty percent of the latest cohort of students in the college’s online courses were women, she said.
Rapid career development is another appeal.
These aren’t six-figure jobs — the median salary for funeral industry jobs, such as funeral directors, was $74,000 and $48,950 for morticians, funeral directors and funeral directors in 2021, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But “you have the ability to advance in just a few years from getting your college degree to becoming a funeral director or even owning your own funeral home,” McMurrough said.
Not for everyone
The pitfalls are there too.
“There are some areas of the profession that have yet to catch up with other industries in terms of competitive pay. There is still a challenge in recruiting and retaining workers,” said Anderson of the National Funeral Directors Association.
Burnout is another challenge.
“At the height of the pandemic, people across the industry were working non-stop, with no days off,” McMurrough said. “But you do it because you care.
Still, many new students said the pandemic also affected their desire to serve their communities, McMurrough said.
“So many people experienced death in the last two years in ways they didn’t expect. Families couldn’t grieve the way they wanted,” she said. “In some cases, the funeral home staff were the last to see those who had passed away instead of their own families. Those moments made an impact on people.”
Hannah Walker, who graduated from Worsham this summer, is one of them.
“I certainly never intended to graduate from this program, but my grandfather opened my eyes to it first,” said Walker, 31, who lives in Michigan. Her experience with his death from prostate cancer, before the pandemic, and his funeral helped her reframe what the experience might be for other families.
So about two and a half years ago, Walker took the first step, calling several funeral homes and asking if she could shadow one of their employees to gain first-hand experience.
“I did it for almost a year and realized this was for me. I cared enough to want to do this,” she said. Walker graduated from Worsham College on Friday and has a job waiting for her at the funeral home where she will shadow work once she completes her apprenticeship and gets her state license to practice.
“This is not a career path for everyone,” Anderson said. “You have to be attracted to that and the opportunity to help your fellow man and be satisfied with just that.”