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What is Mortuary Science and What Do They Do?

A student in a mortuary science program will learn all about what funeral services workers do to prepare bodies for burial or cremation. Most states require funeral service workers to complete specific educational requirements; these requirements often include earning a two-year associate degree or bachelor’s in a college or trade school. This degree is commonly referred to as a degree in mortuary science or funeral science. States also require students aiming to become funeral service workers to be at least 21 years old by the time they earn their diploma and they may require up to two years working as an apprentice under a mortician who is already licensed in the state.

Funeral service workers will find jobs in crematories and funeral homes. They should expect to at least occasionally work evenings and weekends; they may also work more than full-time. Morticians will find themselves working regularly with people who may not be at their best. Understanding funeral service psychology and using compassion and empathy will help them to understand what family members are experiencing. Strong interpersonal and communication skills help them to communicate more clearly with their clients so that they can provide a service they will fully appreciate.

What Programs are Available for Mortuary Science?

Educational institutions teaching mortuary science are located in states across the U.S. Their mission is to prepare their students for a career in caring for the dead and preparing them for burial or cremation. Students will also prepare to help the family members, comforting them as they grieve their loss.

Mortuary science programs should be programmatically accredited by the American Board of Funeral Service Education (ABFSE) in order for students to get the most out of them. This recognition ensures the student, future employers, and the Department of Education that the program is academically sound. Students in these programs receive a funeral service education that leads to a rewarding career.

Students will be able to find a variety of programs available in this subject including pre-mortuary science and certificates, associate’s, and bachelor’s degrees in mortuary science itself. There are even online programs that will provide the majority of or all teaching in a remote-learning format. Many online programs still require in-person learning for all embalming training as this must be learned hands-on, though this is only in states that require all mortuary science students to also learn embalming.

No matter what format they choose, students will learn about working with grieving family members and part of their preparation in school means working in the embalming lab, learning how to prepare the human remains per the family’s wishes. Once they complete their degree program, they will be eligible to take the national examination for licensure.

A rigorous program prepares students to practice ethical conduct in funeral service and in dealing with human remains; it communicates the importance of funeral service professionals developing relationships with their communities and the families they will serve; it should teach them how to interpret the impact of local, state, and federal laws so they can provide services in compliance with the law; and, finally, students should learn about the challenges funeral professionals face almost daily.

By the end of their time in school, a mortuary service program should equip students with the foundation they need to be qualified morticians or funeral directors, depending on their goals.

Just a few programs available across the country include:

  • Cypress College Mortuary Science
  • San Antonio College Mortuary Science
  • University of the District of Columbia Mortuary Science AAS
  • Worsham College of Mortuary Science
  • Hudson Valley Community College

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What Will You Learn in Mortuary School?

Students are taught the basics of mortuary science in their degree programs. Schools focus on teaching their students about every type of service they will provide to families and to the deceased.

Learning outcomes should include knowing the standards of ethical conduct; knowing how to interpret laws (federal, state, and local) that affect funeral service; learning how to apply personal and public health principles and safety as they handle and work with human remains; knowing and discussing the requirements and procedures involved in burial, cremation, and other acceptable forms of final disposition of the deceased; understanding the methods used to assuage the grief and meet the needs of the family; and understanding the management skills needed to run a funeral home.

Students should also have a full understanding of the nature of the work they want to do. This includes making all arrangements for funerals and memorial services and interviewing family members to learn what they want the service to look like. Funeral directors take responsibility for scheduling the dates, times, and places for funeral services and burials, with the family’s input. They may also write the obituary and send them to the local papers, arrange for clergy and pallbearers, schedule the times the grave will be opened and closed, and decorate and prepare all sites for each service. Funeral directors or morticians may also embalm the remains and perform restorative art as needed, as well as arrange the person’s hair and apply makeup.

Skills Needed

  • Scientific:
    Morticians will need to have a general knowledge of science including anatomy, microbiology, and chemistry. If they already have a general interest in science, this will help students learn to embalm and perform restorative arts on remains.
  • Business:
    Morticians and funeral directors must be skilled in several fields, including business. They will be responsible for handling the business functions of a funeral home. Small-business management, computer, and bookkeeping skills may all be necessary.
  • Interpersonal:
    Funeral directors work with people who are grieving at the loss of a loved one or family friend. It takes considerable interpersonal skills to help the bereaved person address their sadness or anger and still be able to discuss with them the various funeral options. Morticians, especially those who also work as funeral directors, have to have compassion and patience, as well as empathy.
  • Service Orientation:
    Having a heart for service to others will help morticians who interact with families find ways to help those who are grieving.
  • Active Listening:
    This skill requires that you be able to pay full attention to what others are saying and understand what they are saying without putting your own spin on it. Morticians may need to do this if there are specific requests for an open-casket funeral, and they need to be willing to ask questions as needed to verify what the person has said.

Financing and Scholarships

Students planning to enter a trade school mortuary science program may end up needing scholarship help. To qualify, they must be enrolled in programs that have been accredited by the American Board of Funeral Service Education (ABFSE). Trade schools and two-year colleges usually charge lower tuition than four-year schools—but it can still be costly. Here are some scholarship options for those who are looking to boost their funding without taking out student loans.

  • ABFSE National Undergraduate Scholarships

    Every two years, ABSFE awards National Undergraduate Scholarships to 10 students. Awards range from $1,500 to $2,500. To qualify, students must be U.S. citizens or permanent residents pursuing accredited degree programs in Mortuary Science. The deadline is March 1 or September 1.

  • Bill Martin Scholarship Award

    This scholarship is awarded to high school graduates or students completing their GED who are enrolling in an ABFSE-accredited Mortuary Science Program within 18 months following their graduations. Applications must be supported by three letters of recommendation.

  • Tribute Foundation Scholarship Program

    The New York State Funeral Directors Association (NYSFDA) sponsors this program, which was founded in 2008; its intent is to give financial assistance to students earning either an Associate or Bachelor of Science degree from ABFSE-accredited Mortuary Science Schools. The deadline is June 30.

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Choosing a Mortuary Science Program

Online vs. On-Campus

From the outset, an online degree program is different from an on-campus program. Some online degree programs may even offer different classes. Some students may choose an online degree program as opposed to an on-campus program because of reasons unique to their situation. They may be the sole wage earner for their family and need to continue to work while they learn, or they may have to take care of children.

Online programs are often more flexible as they are available to the student when it is convenient for them. In an a-synchronous program, lectures have been recorded and are available whenever the student has time to watch them. Online discussions and forums may be even more valuable for learning because they allow students to actively participate in their learning instead of simply watching a lecture.

However, an on-campus mortuary science degree program may be more comprehensive than its online alternative, offering practical scientific and technical experiences for students. Students will also benefit from the generous lab time and hands-on experiences that are available from these programs, whereas an online student may find this hard to duplicate. Those students who learn better in a hands-on environment, where it is easy to ask questions, may prefer to learn in an on-campus environment.

Job Placement Assistance

Trade schools and community colleges often offer job placement assistance via their job placement offices. They are careful to remind students that no guarantee of success is implied, but they do their best to provide them with access to entry-level jobs into the careers they have trained for.

It can be difficult for new graduates of mortuary science programs to find a position, successfully apply, and receive a job offer. Funeral homes are sometimes small, with limited staffing, and an opening may not develop until an employee either leaves or is discharged. This is what college job placement offices are for. They help students write up attractive resumes that highlight the strong areas of their education and any previous positions they have held. They also guide students on writing cover letters that are tailored specifically to the job announcement and employer so that they can have the best chance possible to find employment in their field.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How long does it take to complete a mortuary sciences program?

    Most mortuary science degree programs offer associate degrees; it may take up to two years for students to complete their degree program and graduate. One school has a 68-credit Mortuary Science program, while the majority of these degrees are around 60 credits. However, it can depend on your state. Ohio requires that morticians complete a bachelor’s degree, which means 120 credit hours and up to four years completing your degree.

    Students may be able to complete these degrees more quickly but, if they choose to attend a part-time program, their time in school will extend even longer.

  • How much does a mortuary sciences program cost?

    Some mortuary science schools have a “one year at one price” tuition program. This, along with financial aid and scholarships, may be more affordable for students. Students should look for mortuary science schools that offer the most benefits at the lowest cost.

    However, the eventual cost will rely on a variety of pieces of information. Specifically, are you required to get an associate or bachelor’s degree? The average associate degree costs from $3,500 to $14,600 per year. However, the average bachelor’s degree costs between $8,900 and $30,100 per year. On top of this, students may work hard to earn scholarships and grants, or they may rely on student loans. Much of your own decisions, and the requirements of your state, will affect how much this degree costs you.

  • Is there specific accreditation for mortuary sciences?

    Mortuary science schools carrying programmatic accreditation are often accredited by the American Board of Funeral Service Education (ABFSE). This is the national accrediting organization for college and university Mortuary Science Education and Funeral Service degree programs.

    Schools that have met the high standards of ABFSE offer high-quality education and experiences to their students. They have rigorous educational standards; they are even required to apply a Campus Effectiveness Plan. This is why practically every state requires this educational accreditation in order for a graduate to obtain licensure.

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