“I can still remember just being completely nervous my first time that I was going to cut too deep and sever the artery or the vein,” said John Jacobson, a 22-year-old working at a funeral home in DeKalb, Ill., a small city west of Chicago. “It was not exactly a pleasant experience.”
Mr. Jacobson didn’t go into funeral science just for the job security: his father is a funeral director and he was familiar with the business. But now the economy is quelling his second thoughts and making him thankful for his 70-hour workweeks.
“I’ve got some friends who are engineers who are contemplating working construction just because the job market’s so bad,” Mr. Jacobson said. “That’s the one thing. No matter what the job outlook is, the funeral industry never slows down.”
Entry-level positions can require new morticians to be available 24 hours a day to coordinate with clergy, meet families, organize memorial books and sort out death certificates.
Add in stereotypes of pale, creepy undertakers dressed in bad suits — it’s not a job for everyone.
“Working with the dead is nothing you can put a glamour on and make it stick,” said Eugene Ogrodnik, president of the Pittsburgh Institute of Mortuary Science.
Some say the influx of those who don’t come from generations of morticians is changing the face of funeral science.
Those who are new are willing to cater to more personalized — and sometimes bizarre — requests, including storing ashes in cookie jars and Jack Daniel’s whiskey bottles.
“You can have your ashes shot into space. You can have your ashes turned into a diamond ring,” said Mr. Jacobson, the funeral worker in Illinois.
Even the eco-friendly movement is reflected in modern-day funerals, as green burials — when a body is buried without any chemicals and placed in the ground with almost no marker — are gaining traction.
Those new to the industry say it can be difficult for the older generation of funeral directors to adapt to the times that call for technological advances like video memorial services, online guest books and live webcasting.
“We’re changing the field,” said Sadie Swan, a 29-year-old funeral science student at the University of Minnesota. “It’s not going to be a bunch of old, middle-class white men doing it anymore.”