Ivy Tech to offer mortuary science degree

Ivy Tech Community College will train students for a profession that's, well, to die for.

No, not another degree in technology or biosciences. Try mortuary sciences.

As this and other postsecondary schools trip over themselves to create curriculum tailored to the latest economic development initiative, the state's two-year college sees a growing shortage of professionals in the Old Economy.

"This is the world's oldest profession … well, probably No. 2. It's an old profession and it's very necessary," said Brian Miller, program chairman for mortuary science at Ivy Tech's Lawrence campus.

The two-year mortuary science degree program to start this fall will fill a void left when Indiana College of Mortuary Science kicked the bucket several years ago.

"We've just had a need for a school here in Indianapolis for a long time," said Jerrit Clayton, executive vice president of Flanner & Buchanan Funeral Centers, who serves on Ivy Tech's mortuary science advisory board.

Miller said the degree program at the Lawrence campus has not yet received accreditation, but he expects it to before the first class graduates.

Funeral directors may have one of the world's most diverse and difficult jobs. They do embalming and event planning, but also must be adept at accounting and grief counseling.

"I've seen people come in under the weather from too much alcohol. I've seen a family get into a fistfight at the cemetery," Clayton said.

Miller, who also runs the small contract firm American Embalming, said one reason Ivy Tech saw a niche for the degree program is that many of today's funeral directors are aging. Soon, many of them will be fitted for a casket.

The industry doesn't face a grave labor shortage, with employment needs in the funeral director occupation expected to rise a modest 7 percent in 2004-2014, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

But the projected need for funeral attendants, who do a lot of the same tasks, is expected to grow 21 percent over the period, according to the department's Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Median annual earnings for funeral directors in 2004 was nearly $46,000, with overall pay in the profession ranging from $30,000 to $65,000, according to Ivy Tech.

The BLS said job opportunities should be good, especially for those who embalm, "but mortuary science graduates may have to relocate to find jobs."

The downside is "it's a 24-7 business. Holidays. Weekends. Late nights," Miller said.

And this business is not for the weak of stomach or of emotion.

Indiana law requires funeral directors to have at least a basic knowledge of embalming. Ivy Tech plans to bring in an instructor who used to work for Exxon to teach embalming chemistry. Some local funeral homes have agreed to let students learn embalming at their facilities.

Embalming involves washing a body and replacing blood with embalming fluid that preserves tissues. Disfigured bodies might have to be rebuilt with materials such as clay or plaster of Paris.

For some prospective students, though, the most difficult part of the profession will be dealing with relatives of the deceased who'd rather deal with an IRS agent than a funeral home employee.

"I know when they walk through the front door they don't want to see me," Clayton said. "They're [often] angry at me. They know what I represent."

Though the degree program will include psychology and grief courses, it's often not until students get in the field that their emotional stamina is tested. The state requires a minimum one-year internship.

Ultimately, though, "I don't know that you can teach sensitivity and compassion," Miller said. "I don't hide the fact that this business isn't for everyone."

Savanah Light thinks the funeral business is for her, from what she's learned while helping out at Flanner & Buchanan's downtown crematory. She plans to begin the Ivy Tech program this fall.

A friend of the Monrovia High School graduate died several months ago, giving her an appreciation for the kind of care family and friends need. Light saw that potential after she gave a tribute about her friend.

"It inspired me to deal with families," said Light, who on this day had just learned about a dizzying array of urns. Cari Johnson, funeral director at Flanner & Buchanan's Broad Ripple mortuary, shared a nervous chuckle with Light over an urn designed to fit inside a stuffed animal.

If you can't laugh behind the scenes in this field, the business at hand can really get to you. As in many high-stress occupations, Clayton said, teamwork helps ease the burden and make for better service to families. A positive trend he sees is more women entering the funeral business. They make up roughly half of those in mortuary science schools. There were perhaps two or three in the entire school when Clayton studied 40 years ago. Four of Flanner & Buchanan's funeral directors are women.

Another trend in the business: visitors to the funeral home wearing cutoffs and flip-flops. When Clayton was a young man, "Nobody ever came into a funeral home without a suit and tie on."

But the basics haven't changed.

"If a person sincerely wants to help people at a time of need, I don't think it's a big stretch to go into this [profession]," Miller said.

He was around 12 years old when he got the bug after talking with a funeral home director. Most–as in Light's case–enter the profession as the result of a personal experience, he added.

"It's kind of like a called ministry," Clayton said, "that you really have to want to help people."

Please enable JavaScript to view this content.

Story Continues Below

Editor's note: You can comment on IBJ stories by signing in to your IBJ account. If you have not registered, please sign up for a free account now. Please note our updated comment policy that will govern how comments are moderated.