Learning how to die

Jeffrey Stephenson

Photo By Larry Dalton

When the 73-year-old San Francisco College of Mortuary Science lost its lease in a historic building in that city’s Noe Valley neighborhood in 2002, the funeral-service-education program was transplanted to Sacramento’s American River College. In 2003, ARC began accepting students for the associate’s-degree program, in which students learn how to properly handle a casket, counsel grieving families and reconstruct facial features with wax. It’s one of just two accredited programs in California. Jeffrey Stephenson is its coordinator and one of its teachers.

What kinds of students want to study funeral service?

The majority of students that we see—and this is nationwide also—are usually over the age of 30. So, we see more second- and third-career people coming into our program. It’s not something that, you know, most people will just say, “Oh, I want to be a funeral director.” Usually, they have had an experience with a funeral home or with the death of a loved one, and they say, “Oh, that’s something I’d like to do.” Or they might be in a related field—a health-care field—and they decide they want to have a change in their career and come into funeral service. The majority of our students—even nationwide—the majority of our students are female now. That’s changed, because if you look at funeral service overall, it’s always been a male-dominated business. … One of our classes was 80 percent women here.

What are the kinds of classes students take?

They take classes in embalming, of course; restorative art, where they’re learning the face and the features of the face and musculation—facial marking, so if someone has trauma to their face, they can restore those areas and bring back that natural appearance of the body. They also take a course in death and dying—the psychology of death and dying—and in counseling. What else? Pathology, microbiology, diseases.

Are there students who don’t know what they’re getting into?

In order for them to start the program … they take an FSC 100 course, which is an introduction-to-funeral-service course. … We try to give a general overview of funeral service. … We try to get the students to really see that it’s not always driving the big cars and wearing the nice suits and ties. … We try to be forward and up-front with them. But we do usually see attrition; we do see students drop out.

All mortuary colleges see students drop for several reasons—personal reasons. They decide this isn’t the field for them. They see that it is hard work. You know, death doesn’t take a time-off; it doesn’t take a holiday. In the five years that I was full time in the funeral home, I was called out every Christmas, every Thanksgiving. Someone died, you know.

So, you have worked in the business?

Yes, I practiced five years at a funeral home in my hometown. … My hometown [in Ohio] was 30,000, and there were about seven to eight funeral homes. So, we were inundated with funeral homes compared to the number of people there. But we were one of the larger ones. … I did work part time at Nicoletti Culjis & Herberger here in Sacramento last summer, to see California—you know, the different trends here and how things work here. And I would like to continue to work part time at funeral homes.

Why did you choose this career path?

My dad was an ambulance driver for a funeral home, back when funeral homes had ambulance service back in the early ‘70s. So, I kinda grew up around it. My uncle was an ambulance driver. So, it was something I didn’t see any different. … If I didn’t grow up around it, I don’t know if I would have chosen the field.

Are there jobs out there for your students when they graduate?

Now, it’s just—students, are they willing to move to find those jobs? There are areas of the country that are starting to see demands for funeral directors and embalmers. … The average age of a funeral director now is over 55 years of age. So, they’re wanting to retire. … But one of the downfalls, sometimes, are our pay scales are not where they should be at. Average nationwide, looking at a student coming out of mortuary college, you’re looking probably at $25,000-$35,000 a year.

What do you think about TV shows about the funeral industry?

As I see Six Feet Under, they do really hit some really great points. But, of course, it’s drama. So, you know, the dead bodies talk—and those things don’t happen. Family Plots is—I think it’s more reality TV, so they have to create interest in it.

I wonder if you have a unique perspective on dying.

Americans are very death-denying. We’re a very death-denying society, so we really don’t want to talk about it. … What I try to do is educate people about what we do. … When they find out what we actually do, they’re amazed. … Probably 85 percent to 90 percent of our time is really dealing with living. Ten percent, 15 percent of our time is preparation of the dead. So, most of it is dealing with the living.