Anna DeLong, a 26-year-old from Sandy, has dealt with death in her personal life. She recognizes kindness and compassion extended at this difficult time is invaluable for grieving families and loved ones.
That led her to Mt. Hood Community College's funeral services program and a planned career in the field.
"The grief counseling part attracted me more than the science/embalming part of the program," DeLong said.
The Mt. Hood funeral service program,which started in 1970, is the only one in the state and has been around since 1970. It prepares students for myriad jobs in the funeral industry. Students take courses on a wide variety of topics, including embalming, counseling, cremation, microbiology, pathology, funeral directing and management. The program graduates between 15 and 25 students per year.
The average student is in his or her 30s, not fresh out of high school, although the college has had students as young as 19 and as old as 60, said Doug Ferrin, head of Mt. Hood's program since 2004.
"Some of our students come from families in the industry. Other students just decided they want to get into it for various reasons," Ferrin said.
Joelle Rupp, 34, is one student with that family connection. In fact, Rupp's dad was part of the first funeral services graduating class from MHCC.
Rupp, from Silverton, said she spent time with her funeral director father at the mortuary where he has worked for 41 years. "Back in the day a funeral director worked 24/7 and if I wanted to spend time with my dad, sometimes it would be at the funeral home," she said. "My friends made fun of me. They thought it was weird and creepy."
After working in various jobs for 12 years, Rupp decided that funeral services made sense for her too. "Nothing else seemed as fulfilling to me as becoming a funeral director. There is real satisfaction you get from helping a family in what is the worst time in their life."
Students Rupp and DeLong also said the variety of the work also makes the profession attractive. "Everything is always new. No family that comes in will be the same as the last. Every family's needs and wants are going to be different," Rupp said.
Because there are so few funeral services education programs, students come to Mt. Hood from all over the U.S. Only about one-third of Mt. Hood's students are from Oregon. The industry used to be primarily a man's world, but it is becoming increasingly more female oriented. Nationwide, about half of funeral service students are women.
It is a complex job. There is the counseling component. But funeral directors also have to be businesspeople and they have to be adept at legal issues such as obtaining permits for burial and burial benefits for grieving families. In a large funeral home, a director may just make arrangements or embalm bodies, but in a smaller shop, the director likely will have to perform all the duties, Ferrin said.
"Duties of the funeral service professional include being on a night call rotation and responding to the place of death to take the deceased to the funeral home or pathology laboratory," the program's materials say.
"Then the deceased is prepared according to the wishes of the family. Preparation may include embalming, disinfecting, cleaning and restoring, cosmetology, burial, entombment or cremation," the college said.
Mt. Hood teaches a curriculum required by the agency that licenses funeral professionals, but the school also keeps up with the changes in the industry.
Students may make presentations and do research on some of the topics not covered in the traditional curriculum.
For example, cremation is becoming more common and the school wants to keep up with trends in that practice. Nationally only about 26 percent of people were cremated in 2000 and just five years later, that had nearly doubled to 49 percent. At 74 percent, Oregon has the third highest rate of cremation of all states, with only Nevada and Washington residents choosing this option more often.
But Ferrin said, "we will teach embalming until cremation is 100 percent." In fact, to remain an accredited program, Mt. Hood students have to participate in 10 embalmings before graduation.
Green burials also are a new trend. In green or natural burials, bodies are not embalmed and are buried in a shroud or biodegradable casket such as a wicker basket.
More family-owned funeral homes are being bought by chains, which changes the funeral directors' jobs too.
Under Oregon law, funeral businesses, funeral service practitioners, embalmers and others in the industry must be licensed by the state. MHCC said that in most states, to get licensed, professionals must have two years' experience in the industry as interns or apprentices and get an associate's degree in the discipline. Graduates of the MHCC program are prepared to succeed on the required National Board Examination for funeral directors.
The MHCC program said some extra skills enhance employability in the industry. "For example, bilingualism, advanced counseling training, computer and management experience, cosmetology or hair dressing, among others, are desirable skills."
Pay can be good in the industry. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average national salary for morticians is $54,300 and the top 10 percent in the industry average $98,000 per year.
MHCC materials said first-year funeral services professionals earn about the same as a public school teacher in the same area. The two-year program at Mt. Hood costs about $16,000.
"We try to help students find jobs," Ferrin said. "Most do get jobs in the field." More than 90 percent of MHCC graduates land jobs in the industry.
Said DeLong: "You know it is a job you don't think about that often. But it is a job I thought I could do well. I want to help families."