As America’s industry struggles to fill numerous vacancies in a tight job market, there’s at least one type of job interest seems to be burgeoning in: funeral services.
Colleges specializing in funeral services education are on the rise amid a labor shortage in the funeral industry.
“The shortage is so severe right now that there’s a 90 percent placement rate for graduates from these programs,” said Leili McMurrough, program director at Worsham College of Mortuary Science in Wheeling, Illinois, one of the nation’s oldest mortuary schools in 1911.
Statewide enrollment of new students in accredited cadaver research programs increased 24% in 2021 from 2020, according to the American Board of Funeral Service Education.
The overall percentage increase in student enrollments in the 58 accredited funeral 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’s (AFBSE) Accreditation Committee.
Randy Anderson, president of the National Funeral Directors Association, is acutely aware of the labor shortage and says colleges cannot produce licensed workers fast enough to meet the need for new hires.
Demand for funeral homes 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 this profession for many years and are retiring,” he said. “Over 60% of funeral home owners said they will retire in five years. That is much.”
The NFDA currently has more than 20,000 members, and each state has its own training and licensing requirements, Anderson said. Most states also require funeral directors to have a degree from an accredited college or university program.
According to the latest government data, the funeral industry generates over $16 billion in annual revenue. According to industry figures, there were more than 18,800 funeral homes, most of them privately owned small businesses, in the US in 2021, up from 19,902 in 2010.
Young women, those looking for a second career, are queuing up
According to the latest AFBSE figures, women currently account for up to 72% of recent mortuary education graduates. Said Anderson, “Up until the 1970s, men dominated.
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 looking for a new career.
“There is a lot of interest from women in this area and it makes sense. Women absolutely have an empathic bent and may be better prepared to help families navigate a very difficult life event,” said Ed Michael Reggie, CEO of Funeralocity.com. an online resource to help families find a funeral home or crematorium provider that best meets their needs.
“Nobody plans on becoming a funeral director unless you have a parent in the business,” Reggie said. “But as a beginner, it’s generally not an expensive degree. It’s a shorter program than a full college degree, and you can make $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 undertaker in the state.
McBrayer said her grandmother hoped more women would enter the profession.
“The new and younger people that are coming in are also more receptive to not doing things the same way but adapting the service to what families want,” McBrayer said. “A funeral isn’t just a day in the life, it’s a whole life in a day.”
Several factors fuel the growing interest in the profession.
At her school, McMurrough said enrollment increased after Worsham began offering its online program two years ago. “This gave those who had another job but were also interested in the field the flexibility to do it,” she said.
Worsham offers a one-year associate degree program (tuition $22,800) and a 16-month online associate degree program (tuition $24,800). Eighty percent of the youngest cohort of students in the college’s online course were women, she said.
Another attraction is the rapid professional advancement.
These aren’t six-figure jobs — the average wages for jobs in the funeral industry, such as But “You have the opportunity to go from college to funeral home, or even own your own funeral home, in just a few short years,” McMurrough said.
Not for everyone
The pitfalls are there too.
“There are some areas of the profession that haven’t caught up with other industries in terms of competitive salaries. That remains a challenge in recruiting and retaining employees,” 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’re doing it because it’s important to you.
However, many new students said the pandemic has also impacted their desire to serve their communities, McMurrough said.
“So many people have experienced death in ways they didn’t expect in the last two years. Families couldn’t grieve the way they wanted to,” she said. “In some cases, funeral home staff were the last to see the deceased rather than their own families. Those moments influenced people.”
Hannah Walker, who graduated from Worsham over the summer, is one of them.
“I certainly never intended to do this program, but my grandfather opened my eyes to it first,” said Walker, 31, who lives in Michigan. Her experience of his death from prostate cancer before the pandemic and his funeral helped her reconsider what the experience might be like for other families.
About two and a half years ago, Walker took the first step, calling several funeral homes and asking if she could accompany one of their employees to get first-hand experience.
“I did it for almost a year and realized that this was for me. I cared enough to do that,” she said. Walker graduated from Worsham College on Friday and has a job at the funeral home, shadowing her job once she finishes her education and gets her state license to practice.
“This isn’t a career path for everyone,” Anderson said. “You have to be attracted to and content with that and the opportunity to help those around you.”
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