CYPRESS — Before the school year ends, Bob Ingouf will have embalmed 25 to 30 bodies. He will have learned how to market caskets, comfort the bereaved and restore damaged faces using wax, makeup and old photographs.
Ingouf is learning the funeral business at Cypress College, the only California public school that trains morticians.
"I never in my wildest dreams thought I'd be doing something like this," he says. "People ask you, 'How can you do that?' "
The former cop and driver for the county coroner answers that death is not new to him: "It got in my blood, I guess."
Ingouf has spent 3 1/2 years as an apprentice embalmer and now commutes from Fullerton to Cypress, where he and 86 others are studying for their mortuary science certificates.
He says one thing that did attract him to mortuary work was "seeing all the aspects of what you can do with a body. Someone tells you, 'Dad looks better now than he did 20 years ago.' That feels good."
Victor Mesce, 34, of Laguna Beach, who "used to do hair and makeup on live people," has a similar motive, although his interest in becoming a mortician started earlier:
"I always wanted to get into this business since I was 13, when my grandfather passed away. I went to the funeral home. He'd suffered, but when I saw him laid out, he looked so good. Not good, but at peace. It mesmerized me."
But David Ortiz, 23, from Las Cruces, N.M., has a different agenda. "I'm most concerned with getting a good living and supporting my family," he says. "This job will always be around."
He has a point. Even in a recession, the students are assured of jobs when they complete their courses. Starting pay averages about $25,000 a year--less in rural areas, more in the cities. Six-figure incomes await those who can build a string of successful mortuaries.
"Nationally, there are more openings than graduates," says Gordon S. Bigelow, executive director of the American Board of Funeral Service Education, the organization that accredits the nation's 40 mortuary schools--most located east of the Mississippi.
"I don't want to be crass about it, but in a recession, people don't stop dying. The funeral industry is known as a depression-proof industry. Nationally, we're graduating 1,600 a year, and that's only marginally adequate for the demand."
Mortuary students arrive at 8 or 9 a.m. at the tiny department rooms in a corner of the health sciences building and attend classes through midafternoon. They take no classes outside the department.
Forty-five students enter the program every January and August. They complete the equivalent of three semesters in one year, attending classes during the Christmas break and summer. Their average age is 26, but some are as young as 17 or as old as 63. About 40% are women.
"A lot are in their 40s and 50s--second-career people," says Douglas G. Metz, director of the mortuary science department. Many are burned-out teachers trying something new. "Next semester, we're getting a priest."
Metz concedes he can only guess what attracts students to the profession. But a University of Minnesota survey found a common thread among its mortuary students, says Bigelow. While few had worked in the funeral business before enrolling, more than 95% had had significant personal contact with a funeral director.
"It could be anything from mowing his lawn to knowing him in church," Bigelow says. "It appears that recruiting for the industry is a grass-roots phenomenon.
"It seems obvious that until people talk about the funeral business with someone in the business, they retain the myths about it. All they focus on is dead bodies; it's all they think about. Yet over 95% of a funeral director's effort is spent with the living."
About half of Cypress College's mortuary students come from outside California, attracted by the Southern California environment, the school's reputation and the fact that California's community colleges, unlike those in other states, have open enrollment. No entrance exams are required.
Out-of-state students must pay $104 per unit, but California residents pay $50 tuition per semester. The only other mortuary school in California, the privately owned San Francisco College of Mortuary Science, charges $6,300 for a year's tuition.
The Cypress College program was once privately owned as the Los Angeles College of Anatomy, Embalming and Sanitation, founded shortly after the turn of the century. Just before World War II, it was sold to one of its instructors, the late Melvin D. Hilgenfeld, son of an Anaheim mortician.
Almost immediately, operating the school became a struggle.
Hilgenfeld's widow, Alma-Ruth, says she and her husband taught classes, then swept floors at night: "We got our loans paid back, but there was only a little while when there was any profit at all. We could not pay the price for teachers we needed to have, and we couldn't raise tuition to raise more money."