The spread in the lecture hall looks good enough for a junior high birthday party. A mountain of fried chicken sits in the middle of a multi-table buffet alongside a bucket of icy Pepsi, mounds of peanut M&Ms, and a festive bowl of punch with a hearty dollop of sherbet still melting on top. The centerpiece is an enormous sheet cake with "Welcome Fall Students of 2006" written in icing.
Students are dispersed throughout the large classroom's arena-style seating. Some are working adults still in office attire; a few young women with trendy, low-slung jeans could be teenagers. It's hard to believe the friendly crowd here is a sampling of the country's future funeral directors. They look like people that might pass you at the mall.
A man wearing shirtsleeves and suspenders clears his throat and greets the bright-eyed crowd with a booming voice. He looks absolutely elated to see them, and repeatedly reminds everyone to help themselves to food. The students—all enrolled at the Community College of Baltimore County's mortuary science program—quietly crunch on chips throughout the orientation, and listen intently to curriculum requirements (including courses on embalming theory and mortuary management) and the program's strict grading policies.
The man speaking is Brian Burke, program director of mortuary science here at the college's Catonsville campus. "Death is the great equalizer," he tells them, pointing out that a homeless man and the President of the United States die just the same. "One might be going in a nicer box, but they're both still dead," he says. The students let out a laugh.
Gallows humor is certainly an inevitable part of this line of work, but there's an enormous amount of reverence for the job as well.
"This is a very serious profession," Burke continues with sincerity. "We're doing sacred work." Oftentimes "you're the unsung hero" for bereaved families, he explains, restoring deceased loved ones to how they looked before a terminal illness or tragic accident. And while the work is rewarding, the hours are irregular ("people don't die from 9 to 5, Monday through Friday," he points out), it can be emotionally draining and, despite rumors to the contrary, the pay isn't that great.
Midway through the orientation, a group of students from the summer restorative art class—which teaches students how to restore the deceased to how family and friends remember them, through makeup application and even rebuilding facial structure—file in proudly holding realistic wax heads they've sculpted throughout the semester. The new students clap with admiration as the visitors grab handfuls of chips and show off their class projects.
This is feeling less and less like an orientation and more like a celebration. A line has finally formed behind the flamingo-pink punch bowl.
The first thing "Mr. Burke," as he's known around the hallways here in CCBC's School of Health Professions (everyone in the program is addressed as "Mr." or "Ms." to promote professionalism, a common practice in mortuary science programs), will do when you walk into his office is pop open his mini fridge and offer you a soda. He has mementos of the program's rich history scattered around his office, and picks up a weathered black-and-white photo of the program's first graduating class. He counts just 22 graduates in the 1974 picture.
Founded in 1972, the mortuary science program is the only one of its kind in the state of Maryland. Before its establishment, Marylanders had to travel to Pennsylvania, New York, or Ohio to study mortuary science. Today, the next-closest program to Baltimore is at the University of the District of Columbia.
Burke has a come-one-come-all approach to enrollment that requires students to have only a passion for the industry and the discipline to study a hefty dose of science, law, and business management. Beyond CCBC's general education prerequisites, the program requires courses in anatomy, thanatochemistry (the study of death and dying), cosmetology, microbiology, pathology, and funeral practices. In addition, the degree requires three embalming classes—one classroom-based and two labs. Eventually, the students will have to do an apprenticeship at a funeral home. By the time students graduate, they will have participated in at least 24 embalmings and 20 funerals.
The program's popularity has skyrocketed in recent years. This semester, there are over 100 students enrolled in classes, not including those on the waitlist. The spring 2007 semester was the first time CCBC had to create a ranking system to determine who would be accepted into the program. Burke explains this looking proud but a little deflated.
"It deeply saddened me," he says of putting students on a waitlist. "But at this point we're at full capacity."
Increased interest in the local program isn't a coincidence. For starters, Burke is a diligent recruiter, visiting local high schools and colleges to spark interest in funeral service. Needless to say, his is not the most popular table at job fairs. Many high school students have never even heard of mortuary science. By the time they figure it out, most are already halfway across the room.
The cheerful instructor tries his best to make his unassuming table appealing with a row of canopic jar replicas—used in ancient Egypt to hold mummy organs—and the obligatory program pamphlets, but initial hellos, especially at high schools, are usually brief and typically include some form of freaking out.
"Most students," he says, then corrects himself. "Most people—they hear 'mortuary science' and they get queasy. They make this funny face and walk away quietly. But we plant the seeds."
One student at a Baltimore high school literally ran away after she approached Burke at a job fair. But, like a puppy cautiously sniffing out a newcomer, she apprehensively returned to his table a few more times. Months later, she called to talk and is now enrolled in the program.
"Even though we have enough students to fill our needs, it's good to go out and let students know that there are options," he says. "Because 20 years from now, they could be doing a career change." The demographics of CCBC's mortuary science student body prove this, with many students in their 30s and 40s looking at funeral directing as their second, even third, career.
The popularity of funeral-themed programs—most notably HBO's hit series Six Feet Under and the A&E reality show Family Plots —hasn't hurt either, although Burke estimates that fictional programs such as Six Feet Under are about 10 percent fact, 90 percent fiction. Despite their frequent outlandishness, the programs "do show that we're all human beings just like everybody else," he says, and prove that funeral directing is a viable field that average, everyday people go into.
Funeral directors—also called morticians or undertakers—aren't exactly rock stars of the professional world, and mortuary science students at the college endure a never-ending slew of wisecracks ("How's business? Is it dead? People still dying to get in?"). Introductions are tough, too ("you do what?"). Turns out folks aren't too shy about expressing themselves when they find out you're studying to be a funeral director.
"'Ewww, I'm scared of dead people,'" is a common one, laughs Donita Greene over dinner in Owings Mills. "My first reaction to them is you ought to worry about people that are still alive! They're the ones you need to watch out for."
Greene's ecstatic tonight. A fresh graduate of the CCBC program, the 50-year-old Alexandria, Virginia resident recently passed her national and state boards, and became a fully licensed funeral director just weeks ago. She's dressed head-to-toe in purple—her favorite color—and absolutely beams as she recounts a funeral she conducted over the weekend, the very first on her own. It was for a longtime member of her close-knit church, she explains, and it meant a great deal to the parish that she was able to do it.
With her sparkling personality, Greene is the perfect ambassador for a vocation that's been sorely misunderstood for far too long. She's also the face of a changing profession: one that's increasingly female, minority-rich and—although Greene's husband of 10 years grew up in the funeral business—more and more populated by people without family ties to the industry.
Historically, 80 to 90 percent of United States mortuary science students were the sons of funeral directors, according to Michael Smith, executive director of the American Board of Funeral Service Education. Now those numbers have flip-flopped: less than one-third of today's mortuary science students are coming from a family funeral business, and 75 percent of new students nationwide are female. (Experts give no explanation for this spike in female students, simply noting that more women are entering all different kinds of professions.)
New graduates face a growing industry. In less than 10 years, Baby Boomers will begin turning 70 years old, and this group will demand highly personalized service. These customers—discerning and particular in life—will prove to be equally discerning and particular in death. Gone are the "cookie-cutter" funerals of yesteryear, Burke notes.
Greene's decision to join the business was a gradual process. She'd been helping out at her in-laws' Alexandria funeral home for years—carrying flowers, wheeling caskets, and greeting funeralgoers. She found this work rewarding to a point, but she longed to guide families completely through the funeral process. Despite the intimidating commute from Virginia, she decided to take the leap and enroll at CCBC in 2003.
"Had you told me 20 years ago that I'd go to school and be a funeral director, I'd have laughed at you and told you you've lost your mind," Greene says. Not everyone was supportive of her decision at first. "The first reaction is 'You're crazy.' Even [from] my mother." But soon she was surrounded by tremendous support and now, she says, "My mother is my biggest fan."
Bill King couldn't have imagined entering the business either. The 57-year-old Newark, Delaware resident received a bachelor's degree in theatre, did a stint of acting in Australia, and eventually wound up in the funeral insurance industry. That business ultimately brought him to Spicer-Mullikin Funeral Homes in New Castle, where King is manager of pre-planning services.
It's been a long road for King, but the wisecracks surrounding his second career have more to do with his age ("they're just amazed that I'm going back to school," he chuckles of friends and family) than any stigma associated with working in the funeral industry.
"I tell them I'm helping people," he says of inquiries into why he wants to be a funeral director. "It's not like I'm trying to get rich, because you're not going to get rich in this business. You have to be people-oriented and you have to have the ease of talking with people: making them feel comfortable, taking their lead to personalize the services that they want for their loved one."
There's no doubt that the funeral industry is shrouded in mystery, and oftentimes those working in a funeral home are as bewildering to onlookers as death itself.
"They think we're weird and we're strange," Burke says. "And there are some of us that are weird and strange. But there are some of us that are weird and strange no matter what profession [they're in], whether you're a doctor, or a teacher, or a reporter. We're just like everybody else. Our job is a little unique."
That uniqueness often translates into outlandish stereotypes about those in the funeral business—that they're morbid, anti-social, even creepy. In reality, they're a truly kind-hearted group, less concerned with the dead than helping the living. "A lot of students do it because they want to make a difference," explains Burke. "They want to help because we really are doing something sacred when in a family's deepest time of need, we can make things just a little bit easier for them."
As for Bill King, he has only one gripe when it comes to the public perception of funeral directors: "They think we don't do anything!" he groans. "What they only see is the [funeral director] greeting the family at the door and then driving to the church and driving to the cemetery and saying goodbye, but there's so much that goes on behind the scenes." Before the family even arrives at a funeral, he points out, there is a plethora of hurried organizing, from ordering the casket, vault, and flowers to finding a minister and church to setting up minute-by-minute schedules and deliveries.
"All of those are things they don't see, and they're all very important to get done," King explains. Many people "just see us driving to and from [the cemetery] a couple hours a day and don't understand the multiple, multiple hours of visitations from 5 to 9 at night when you're standing on you're feet for hours and then you're back the next morning before the family gets there to go to church. There is no 9 to 5 when you're talking about the funeral service industry."
Because of the irregular hours and draining work, participation in the field requires an enormous amount of commitment.
"You have to get into the funeral service because you want to help families," Burke says. "To get called out at two o'clock in the morning, to get up and crawl out of your nice, warm bed hurts. Or on a special holiday, to have to leave."
Tommy Fletcher knows about those types of sacrifices all too well. The 24-year-old CCBC mortuary science student grew up in the funeral business—his family has owned and operated Fletcher Funeral Home in Westminster since 1968—and remembers his father leaving family vacations early. "[He would leave] games when I was younger," he recounts from a shiny mahogany table in one of the funeral home's conference rooms. "In the middle of a party we'd have to leave. It's tough at times."
Just a few classes and an apprenticeship away from entering the business full-time himself, now he's the one taking "first calls" in the middle of the night and throwing on a crisp suit to rush off to comfort a newly bereaved family. "You can only plan for the moment because you never know when you're going to get a call," he says. "You never know when you're going to get busy."
"Sometimes your life is not your own," agrees Greene. "You could be planning to leave town and something happens and there's a death call and that's the end of that. No party that night. Trip either postponed or cancelled until further notice."
It's those cancelled family vacations and tearful midnight phone calls that people don't consider when joking about the local undertaker. The reason for this, as Burke sees it, is deep-rooted. In our culture no one wants to "confront the body."
"Modern Western culture is death-denying," he says. "Prior to World War II, most deaths occurred at home. Now most deaths occur in an institution, whether it's a hospice or nursing home."
Funeral directors, perhaps more than anyone, know that life is fleeting and can be taken from any of us without any warning. That's why Burke encourages all of his students to take one "super duper" vacation every year once they enter the business. "We're all going to be in that funeral home at some point," he says. "Life is too short if you die at 43, life is too short if you die at 20, and it's too short if you die at 72 or 82. There's always more that should have been done."
"I used to think that death happened to older people and occasionally a young person here or there, which was an anomaly," says Greene. "[But] it happens across the board, and there's no rhyme or reason. It happens to anyone and so you have a greater respect for life. Tomorrow's not promised to any of us."