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Career Make-Over

She Hopes to Undertake Her Own Home

Mortician should gain experience in the industry before opening a facility.


Last week, Tracy Claudio graduated from the San Francisco College of Mortuary Science. She's one step closer to fulfilling a decade-long goal: becoming a funeral director and embalmer.

"I'm generally a very upbeat person, and that's why people find it hard to believe when I tell them I'm a mortician," Claudio said.

"But I look at it like, I'm helping people heal. Everyone has to deal with death. I'm helping them through this difficult time."

Originally from Boston, Claudio, 28, first received exposure to the funeral trade in high school, when she worked as a hairstylist for a local funeral parlor. She liked the work, and wanted to one day become a funeral director. After taking classes at a Boston mortuary academy, Claudio served as a hospital corpsman in the U.S. Navy, and also cared for elderly patients as a certified nurse's assistant.

She graduated at the top of her class in mortuary school, where she was also class president.

Now, however, she must complete an apprenticeship at a funeral home before she can become a full-fledged funeral director. And she's entering an industry that's in great flux.

For the last 10 years, large funeral service corporations have been gobbling up independent funeral homes, inflating funeral service prices to cover mounting debt and launching aggressive marketing campaigns that, for the most part, have repelled consumers and strained the industry's already fragile reputation, according to the Director, the official publication of the National Funeral Directors Assn.

Meanwhile, funeral merchandise discounters, low-cost funeral service companies and online casket and urn retailers have entered the industry, to vie for business with traditional funeral homes.

Baby boomers, who are showing distinct preferences for nontraditional ceremonies and "express funerals" (industry slang for ceremony-less cremations) are hurting funeral homes' bottom lines, too, since caskets (which generally are sold at a 200% to 250% markup) account for nearly 50% of funeral service charges, and viewing room and chapel fees total about 18% of the total.

These factors have caused many in the industry to broaden their offerings to the public to stay afloat.

A growing number are offering personalized services (such as New Orleans jazz funerals), "theme" wakes, bereavement counseling, family archiving and even memorial Web sites.

Adding to the industry's turbulence is a dire employee shortage that will become more evident over the next few years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Employed mortuary workers, whose average age is 55, are starting to retire. And enrollment in the nation's 52 mortuary programs has declined. Meanwhile, industry profit margins, which have been falling for two decades, now hover at about 10%, and median compensation for funeral directors--about $35,000 annually--remains less than enticing.

"If [those entering the profession] think they will make a lot of money in this field, they are sadly mistaken," said David Walkinshaw, owner of Arlington, Mass.-based Saville & Grannan and a spokesman for the NFDA. "You don't get rich in the funeral business."

For guidance about her career, Claudio consulted Thomas Lynch, a well-known Milford, Mich.-based funeral director, and the author of "The Undertaking: Life Studies From the Dismal Trade" (Penguin, 1998) and "Bodies in Motion and at Rest: On Metaphor and Mortality" (W.W. Norton & Co., 2000). Other industry professionals offered Claudio tips, too.

"I really want to get my license as fast as I can," Claudio said. "I want to start my own business but realize I need to develop a reputation."

She said she was considering finding a partner for her first venture. She added that she intends to move back East, where the cremation rate is lower, and larger percentages of families opt for formal funeral services.

"Destination" states with highly mobile populations, including Florida, Hawaii, Nevada and the West Coast states, have the highest cremation rates in the country--more than twice the national average of about 21%.

Lynch and Claudio discussed the industry's challenges.

Lynch reassured her that, despite the challenges, there will be plenty of opportunities for her to succeed as a funeral director.

"You'll have no trouble finding work," Lynch said. "There's a great demand for funeral directors right now."

But Walkinshaw suggested that newly graduated funeral directors like Claudio take business courses and, when ready, draft "strong business plans" before they consider running funeral homes, which can cost $500,000 to $1 million, prices untenable for most industry newcomers.

Lisa Baue, a funeral director for 22 years, and the owner of four funeral homes in St. Louis, said that new funeral directors like Claudio should work for several years as funeral home employees, and observe the businesses, before trying to operate their own facilities.

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