Two young women from Redmond, Randi Cloud and Christina Graylee, are enthusiastic enrollees in a unusual associate’s degree program at Lake Washington Technical College (LWTC) in Kirkland. LWTC is the only school in the state of Washington and one of few on the West Coast offering a funeral service education curriculum.
Funeral service is not a career that appeals to everyone. But for those with such a calling, the employment prospects are good. Dying is an inevitable fact of life.
Cloud and Graylee see the program at LWTC as an opportunity for both job security and personal fulfillment.
“I feel like I’ve been drawn to this for a while,” said Cloud. “I’ve attended many funerals, have volunteered at Harborview (Medical Center in Seattle) and saw how stressful it was for doctors and nurses in life-and-death situations. I didn’t want to be involved in that way but still wanted to be able to care for families on the worst days of their lives, when they’ve lost a loved one, to be able to comfort them and memorialize their loved one. Other people in this program are also drawn to social service as a calling.”
However, Cloud added, “Most people are turned off to this kind of work. They fear what they don’t understand, don’t know.”
Graylee agreed, “I feel like this is something I can do. I know it’s rare. I was raised by my grandparents when I was a teen. I was with my grandmother when she was passed. It was a pivotal moment, of trying to accept what was happening and what it meant as a connection to my past.”
LWTC’s funeral service education program covers every facet of the industry, including restoration, embalming, cremation, interaction with bereaved families, public health responsibilities of handling human remains, business management and the legal, sociological, psychological and religious issues associated with death.
“As a funeral director, you’re not a psychologist, but you’re a helper,” Graylee pointed out. “I think funeral directors sometimes have had a bad rap. I want to change that, gain trust, show compassion and respect. … This is somebody’s most precious last moment with their loved one. Our professor tells us, ‘You have to learn to read people and understand their needs, what they need at that moment and what you can do to give them their last chance to say goodbye.'”
Guest speakers with experience in the funeral industry have offered unique perspectives on the benefits of this job, said Cloud.
“A speaker from Evergreen Washelli said being in this profession makes you really appreciate moments with your family. You see a lot of sadness and know that life is short. So it makes you aware to enjoy every moment that you have,” said Cloud.
The funeral service program instructor at LWTC, Jack Norvell, is a graduate of the Indiana College of Mortuary Science and has more than 35 years of experience in the field. Graylee said he often talks about “old school traditions back East,” the differences in this region and the need to be flexible, depending on a family’s background or circumstances.
Here in the Northwest, the trend is toward cremation or immediate disposition, Cloud noted.
In other parts of the country, funerals commonly include a wake or viewing of the deceased, a religious service, processional to a grave site and reception or luncheon.
“We’re trying to learn all aspects of funeral services as they apply to all faiths and styles,” said Graylee. “You’re not a salesperson, not trying to sell them ‘bigger and better’ but explain traditions that have been done for thousands of years and why they’ve been done, to give people a chance to say goodbye.”
Cloud interjected, “But you must always be aware of current trends, too. Baby Boomers want more green burials and more personalized funerals.”
Funeral directors must wear numerous hats, the women concurred.
“When you’re embalming, in a way, you’re like a scientist or a doctor,” said Graylee. “You may also be called upon to act like a priest or clergy. A lot of people don’t think they want anything spiritual when they die or a family member dies, but at the last minute, they may change their minds. We’re taught to have appropriate readings or sayings to honor these requests.”
Said Cloud, “And it’s so diverse here in the Seattle area and the West Coast. We’re learning Hindu or Chinese funeral traditions — it’s not just what Caucasian or Christian people do.”
Cloud and Graylee have helped to form a co-ed fraternity called Sigma Phi Sigma at LWTC, to raise awareness of the funeral service education program and create fellowship among participating students.
IS THIS JOB FOR YOU?
We asked Norvell what qualities or skills are vital for someone who wants to enter the field of funeral service.
“The qualities or skills a person should have are compassion, interest in science and business, ability to work long hours and weekends and being able to get along with various types of people, ethnic groups and cultures,” said Norvell.
“In addition, the funeral service program requires a significant amount of study and scholastic self-discipline. All students must pass the National Board and State Law exam and serve one year internship for a funeral director’s license and two years’ internship for an embalmer’s license. This is not an easy program, you see,” Norvell noted.
What about the demand and compensation?
Norvell stated, “The demand is similar to many professions in that a person who is willing to learn, grow, listen and be the best possible professional will be able to find an employment opportunity. Many funeral directors will be retiring in the next decade and these positions need to be filled. Across the United States, the need for fully licensed directors and embalmers is significant.”
He added, “The income, starting out, is roughly what a first-year teacher would make, which depends on the geographic area. As the person becomes completely licensed and is able to function independently, their income will increase, with top funeral directors earning well over $50,000 per year. Of course, this all depends on the person and their desire to work hard and earn their qualifications.”
For more information about the funeral service education program at LWTC, visit www.lwtc.edu or call (425) 739-8300.