The death care profession is more than just dealing with dead bodies, and we want to educate you about all the different career options in death care.
Presenting our ongoing series, Careers in Death Care: A Day in the Life, where we chat with professionals within the world of end-of-life and death care to provide first hand experience and insight on working in this field. Check out our first interview with Death Doula Jill Schock!
For our second instalment, we caught up with not one, but two funeral directors to share their wisdom and experience and tell us what a day in the life of a Funeral Director is really like.
We spoke to Tamara Bullock from Bullock Funeral Services, LLC., and funeral director Erin Salie.
Tamara Bullock was born and raised in The South Bronx. At an early age she discovered her passion for funeral service. She is a first generation funeral director who is driven by her desire to help families. She has worked in funeral service for 17 years, and has set up a small scholarship at Suny Canton College to help aspiring first time funeral directors. She also sits on the board of Suny Canton College.
Erin Salie is Licensed Funeral Director working for a 500+ call funeral firm consisting of four locations in Upstate New York. She is an advocate for green burial, home funerals, and funeral industry reform and was recently accepted into the Green Burial Council’s Practitioner Program through Mid-America College of Funeral Service. You can learn more about what she does on Instagram @millennial_mortician
Careers in Death Care: A Day in the Life of a Funeral Director
Tell us about yourself and what brought you to become a Funeral Director?
Tamara: I am a proud first generation funeral director. Meaning I am a certified weirdo in my family! To my knowledge, I am the only person in my family who has ever been interested in Mortuary Science. I don’t know if there was any one thing that triggered my passion, but there were a series of events over the years. In my high school years I lost two important members of my immediate family – my maternal grandmother and my father. After their passing, I felt the drive to lead a career in funeral service.
Erin: As a kid I loved collecting bones and reading Emily Dickinson so my mom likes to joke I was a little morbid from the start. I think I had a fascination with nature in general and I consider death to be a sacred part of that. There’s a Dutch phrase I love: “dood doet leven” “death makes life” that really sums up how I feel about death positivity.
If it weren’t for death we wouldn’t be alive and in that way death is what makes the world go round. Caitlin Doughty once wrote; “All that surrounds us comes from death, every part of every city, and every part of every person.” I think I just wanted to look that in the eye and make death a part of my everyday life.
What inspired you to become a Funeral Director?
Tamara: My dad didn’t look like himself when he passed. He had lost a lot of weight at the end of his life. At the time, I didn’t know much about how people could look different because of preexisting conditions. When he was in his casket, I remembered how good people said he looked. It was the healthiest he had appeared in a long time. It was this point when I just knew I wanted to make a difference in restoring those who [died] so their families would have closure. At my father’s funeral, the person in charge of the funeral captivated my attention, that was the go-to person, their funeral director. This person seemed compassionate and knowledgeable in catering to the family.
I have now been in the funeral service for 17 years, and I can’t tell you enough how the restorative aspect of funeral service has helped families with closure. It warms my heart when some of my families have said the person looked like they were sleeping.
Erin: I have a love hate relationship with this question because there are so many different ways to answer it. There’s the old adage that this career chooses us or that it was a calling. Those answers are true but they’re also a much cleaner version of the story—which is pretty typical for a funeral director.
When I was 20 I had my first real experience with death and I was stunned when I realized I had absolutely no idea what I was supposed to do. I had spent so much time contemplating the circle of life, but when it came time to pick an outfit to wear to my best friend’s funeral I just stood in my closet staring at my clothes trying to figure out what was expected of me.
After that particularly messy time in my life, I felt I had to do something to pull myself out of it all. I kept asking myself “What’s next?” and my mantra became “You heal, you grow, you help others.” I considered becoming a teacher or a therapist, but after realizing my ignorance to our culture’s death rituals I was left with this urge to learn about Funeral Service. It occurred to me that the place I could help people the most would be in this field.
What is the biggest misconception about Funeral Directors?
Tamara: That funeral directors are all about making money and that they make enormous amounts of money. Some of my friends and family think funeral directors “roll in dough” and they inquire about investing into funeral homes to make money. When I started in the funeral service I made minimum wage. In fact, I worked at night at the Gap to balance out my pay.
I always felt complete helping people through their grief, but believe me, the pay was not my reason for staying. Something we often don’t talk about is that minority firms often pay less than whatever the going rate is for funeral service, and in my neighborhood those were the firms I worked for. There were many times as an employed director and solo parent where I wondered how I would manage my own household.
Erin: Honestly this is something that consumes me. There’s a generally negative view of funeral directors and I hear a lot of misconceptions about what we do and why we do it. Right now there’s a shift that’s taking place going largely unnoticed by the public, but one that is completely changing who is involved in caring for your loved ones after they have passed. Deathcare is shifting from a male-dominated field running solely on money to a predominantly female field centered on compassion. The change is slow but steady.
I believe I chose a path that enables me to support people following the worst experience of their life. I do my best to use my experience and education to create a safe environment where families feel comfortable interacting with death, one that hopefully prompts open and healthy grief practices. This is easier said than done; for generations our society has relied on funeral directors to separate us from death, now I’m trying to help families to engage with it.
Ultimately my goal is to help my families process what has happened, what is happening, and how their world will be different now, regardless of what form of services they choose. Unfortunately there will always be others who view me as a car salesman, peddling caskets to the bereaved.
Run us through a typical day as a Funeral Director.
Tamara: There is no typical day as a funeral director. I serve new families every day, so each day is a new lesson. You can work overtime, late hours, weekends, all of the above depending on what services are upcoming. There are some weeks you can commit to a lighter schedule, but this is a career that requires you to be flexible time wise. If someone passes at home and it’s 3:00AM you may be required to go to receive someone’s loved one, especially when entrusted with friends and family.
A normal day may consist of directing a funeral service and then going back to the office to prepare someone’s remains. Another day may start with meeting a family to plan an Islamic service where we schedule an interment almost immediately with no embalming.
Sometimes we meet four families within the same day who all want cremations for their loved one. And then there are those rare days that you are sitting there and your phone doesn’t ring at all, which is followed by a day of you planning and picking up someone who passed at home.
Erin: We have this really cheesy saying at my funeral home: “We doze but we don’t close.” In some ways my day never really starts or ends. Being on call means I’m available 24/7 no matter what time it is. If you call me at 3:00AM, I will be at your home within the hour, and I will stay there for as long as you need me to. I’m fortunate to work for a well-staffed funeral firm so we are able to rotate our on-call schedule, but I always give families my cellphone number in case they need me. I’ve gotten calls on vacation, on my weekends off, and on holidays.
The amount of time dedicated to organizing a service and planning arrangements varies depending on what the family is looking for. For example, a graveside service requires a call to the cemetery, the vault company, and maybe clergy, but a Catholic Mass requires a lot more phone calls and a lot more work. The title Undertaker refers to what we do; we undertake tasks the family doesn’t feel up to performing.
Funeral directors are also heavily involved in their community. Before the pandemic, we attended a lot of events for local hospitals and hospices, colleges, and chapters of various charitable groups like Rotary, United Way, and Habitat for Humanity. Most of my coworkers, myself included, are involved in at least a few organizations like this so my day would often end with a meeting or fundraising event.
What was one of the hardest days you encountered as a Funeral Director?
Tamara: Every day in the height of the COVID-19 pandemic was rough. You don’t know the pain in the voices of those people who have called so many funeral homes that were filled to capacity or who were not taking on people who had passed from the virus. I was stretched so thin during that time and sometimes I didn’t think I would be able to continue. I worked non-stop, and our city was one of the hardest hit early on. I’d start my mornings in the house ordering Uber eats at 6:00AM, and by 7:00AM my assistant would show up. We would work on administrative calls and orders until around 4:00 PM and then head into the office around 5:00PM to prepare everyone for viewings and services. We often worked until 3:00AM or 4:00AM.
I helped as many people as I could, even when it felt as if I could not help I referred the families to my colleagues. When we ran short on PPE my friends who owned other funeral homes in Chicago and New Jersey, as well as my colleagues at Suny Canton College, sent us more. We were really exhausted, but we tried to help as many people as we could. At times I worried about what I could be exposing my own children to. I kept my clothes in bags by the door, and when I came home I would take them off to disinfect them and then tie them up in fresh bags to be safe.
Erin: In October of 2018 my community suffered an indescribable loss when a group of 20 people were killed in an accident.
My firm cared for 10 of the 20 victims and their families. To call it overwhelming would be an understatement. I had never seen that much trauma on that big of a scale.
We were responsible for meeting with five families who had all suffered at least one loss. There were 10 death certificates, 10 obituaries, 10 urns, and a slew of reporters calling and knocking on the door. This was the deadliest transportation accident since a plane crash in 2009, and it was receiving a lot of media attention.
When the victims were brought into our care at the funeral home we worked late into the night to restore their appearances so their families could see them again. These people were close to my age, we shared common interests and were going through similar rites of passage; graduating college and beginning careers, getting married, having children. It was difficult not to make the connection, and once a connection like that it made it’s hard to separate yourself from it. I still get what I would call flashbulb memory moments that seem to just pop into my mind.
The entire experience felt like a lifetime, but lasted just under a week ending with a service for the victims at a local church, but it still crosses my mind all the time. It’s difficult to talk about because I can never find the right words, and truthfully I don’t think I have the right to because my experience pales in comparison to the families’.
The best piece of advice I ever received came from one of my mentors long before the accident. He said “It doesn’t matter what you’re going through, if you’re having a bad day or woke up on the wrong side of the bed. Whatever you’re experiencing is nothing compared to what the family is going through.” It feels wrong to talk about the hardest day I’ve ever encountered because a good funeral director knows what we do isn’t about us; it’s about the families we serve.
What was one of the most memorable days you’ve had as a Funeral Director?
Tamara: Some of the most memorable days were the celebrations of a life well lived, and being able to become an extended part of families to the point of being invited to memorial celebrations. After you service a family, you build relationships with that family. When holidays come up, or other celebrations, you are often invited. I always go to these events unless there is a funeral service at the same time.
Erin: I do most of the cosmetics for three of the four locations in our firm. I was asked by another funeral director to cosmetize a woman who had passed away at a local nursing home. The woman’s daughter-in-law was a hair stylist who lived out of state and flew in early to do her mother-in-law’s hair one last time.
When the woman arrived I sat with her while she curled her mother-in-law’s hair and we talked for a long time about the woman who had passed away, what she went through and how much she missed her already. The daughter-in-law hadn’t seen her in a while and I could tell she felt sad that her mother-in-law’s appearance wasn’t what she remembered it being. She left me with the impression that this woman took great pride in her appearance; her eyebrows, nails, and hair were always meticulous. When the daughter-in-law left, I spent a long time on the woman’s makeup, using what we had talked about I did everything I could to make her appearance reflect what the daughter-in-law described.
The next day when the family arrived I greeted the daughter-in-law, as well as her husband, the older woman’s son and daughter. I hadn’t met the daughter, but when she approached the casket she said “Erin, that’s my mother.” She thanked and hugged me, her gratitude filled my heart.
That is the most I can hope for, and it’s what makes all the stress, late nights, and criticism melt away. A hug is what makes it worth it.
How can someone interested in becoming a Funeral Director start the process?
Tamara: Find a school that has a mortuary science program. Find a funeral home that will allow you to shadow. Shadow before you sign up. A life in funeral service is not for everyone. This will show you that your job is really about the living, and the deceased are just a small portion of what and who you are connected to. You have to be empathetic, you have to lead with compassion and often your own family takes a backseat to the families you serve.
Erin: If you’re interested in learning more about being a funeral director I recommend reading books by authors like Thomas Lynch, Caleb Wilde, and Caitlin Doughty.
I also recommend getting hands on experience. I cannot stress enough how important it is to spend some time in a funeral home, talking to directors and helping with whatever they’ll let you do.
If you’re able to find work in a funeral home, your next step would be to find an accredited school that offers a degree in Funeral Services or Mortuary Science. To do that you can go to the American Board of Funeral Service Education to search for accredited colleges in your state.
What type of education or training do you need to become a Funeral Director?
Tamara: I attended Suny Canton College immediately following High School. I received an associates degree in Applied Sciences for Mortuary Science. After my graduation I sat for the National Boards. There is a cumulative assessment of the material you learned in school from accounting, to embalming to restoration and even psychology. After successfully passing my degree, I then was mandated by the state to do a one year internship at a funeral home followed by sitting for the state law exam. I can only speak on the requirements for NYS. All states are governed by their state’s health department. As a licensed funeral director you are also required to take continued education credits, the minimum being 12 (6 classroom credits, and 6 online) to renew your Funeral Directors license.
Erin: It’s important to research your state’s requirements because every state is different. You can do this by searching for your State Funeral Director Association’s website and look up licensure requirements. Most states have similar requirements in terms of education; either an Associate’s Degree or a Bachelor’s, but many states allow licenses for either embalming or seeing families. If you want to do both you can receive what is called a dual license, but if you’re only interested in one aspect it isn’t required that you become licensed for both.
I live in New York where it is required that you study and receive your license for both practices. I graduated with my Bachelor’s Degree in Funeral Services Administration in 2016 and started working part time at a local funeral home while I prepared to take my boards. The National Board Exams are hosted by the International Conference of Funeral Service Exam Boards and are something you become very familiar with in school. They are separated into two parts: Arts and Sciences. The Arts exam tests your knowledge of things like religious traditions, law, business management, and grief counselling. The Sciences exam tests your knowledge of restorative art, anatomy, and embalming.
After passing the boards I was allowed to begin my one year residency. Some states might refer to this period as an apprenticeship or an internship, but it’s always a period ranging from one to two years where the new graduate is required to assist in a certain number of arrangements, services, removals, and embalmings. It’s sort of like a probation period that gives a soon to be licensed funeral director some time to get a good understanding of how everything works. After your residency you’re able to take your state law exam and once passed you are officially a Licensed funeral director.
What advice would you give to someone starting out as a Funeral Director, or interested in becoming a Funeral Director?
Tamara: If you came into the funeral service with the primary goal to make money, do something else.
If your heart warms up helping others, if you love to hug people and to lend an ear, we welcome you. This is a career of purpose, we create closure for families. We are friends to our families, we love them and they love us.
Erin: The best advice I can give is to pay very close attention. Notice the things funeral directors do and how it impacts their families. Not just the good things, but the bad also. Learn from everything you can by saying yes to every task asked of you because each experience will bring you closer to understanding your purpose as a funeral director and what it takes to serve families well.
It’s important to not be afraid to be yourself. Never lose sight of why you started and who you are. Being a funeral director can change you, and if you’re not careful that change may not be for the better. This field can be very bureaucratic, even industrial, and that can disrupt the sacred sense you begin this journey with. Before those burnt out funeral directors became burnt out, they were desensitized. Once you lose your compassion you lose your ability to serve families adequately.
I always say the only thing you need to become a funeral director is passion. If you’re passionate about this work, the families you serve, and how you can affect the world don’t let anyone stand in your way. School will be difficult, finding a position in a funeral home will be difficult, learning the trade will be difficult, but working so hard for something will be the proof you need to give yourself that this was what you are passionate about, and passion is all you need.
Do you currently work in the end-of-life industry? Would you like to be featured in a future Careers in Death Care; A Day in the Life article? Please contact us with your job title and tell us about your experience in the industry!