Procession to funeral degree

November 24, 1995

Rain pours from the night sky on to the secluded campus in the dark New England woods. Three empty caskets line the hallway and a skeleton stands sentinel over shelves that sag beneath wax casts of lifeless faces.

It is evening at the School of Funeral Service Education at Mount Ida College, and while the scene is something like a Gothic novel, the field is a contemporary bestseller.

Enrolment in United States mortuary science programmes is the highest in history, with more than 3,150 students in the nation's 42 funeral service programmes, up from 2,200 as recently as 1991, according to the American Board of Funeral Service Education. Four new programmes are seeking accreditation this year, an unusually high number.

Students, many of whom left earlier careers in the shrinking defence and health-care industries, say they are drawn by the job security and relatively high salaries of the funeral profession. After all, they say, the demand for funerals remains constant in spite of economic fluctuations. There are two million funerals a year in the US.

"There is always going to be death, guaranteed," said Carol Perry, a student who entered the two-year Mount Ida programme after being laid off from her job at the defence contractor, GTE.

In fact, the death rate is projected to increase during the next several decades as the so-called baby boom generation starts to age, said Gordon Bigelow, president of the American Board of Funeral Service Education. And huge numbers of funeral directors who entered the profession after world war two have started to retire, leaving more openings than graduates, according to Jaqueline Taylor, director of the San Francisco College of Mortuary Science.

In general, US education programmes that can promise employment are enjoying popularity, said Louis Misanton, director of the National Center for Death Education.

"This generation coming up now is very results-oriented and so they want an education that's going to have a job at the end," Mr Misanton said.

On the other hand, learning the basics of embalming is not to get a funeral degree. Mortuary science students are required to master microbiology, pathology, chemistry, small business management, bereavement psychology and legal and ethical issues.

The University of Minnesota's mortuary science programme lasts four years yet it had two and a half times as many applicants as places this year and raised admission standards to avoid crowding.

John Kroshus, the programme's director, said: "You don't hear of funeral homes shutting down for lack of business and you don't hear of funeral directors being laid off."

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