Mortuary college is not the expected.
There aren’t dead bodies lying around. The students aren’t a mixture of Lurch lookalikes and Gothic youth obsessed with “The Tell-Tale Heart.” The students aren’t even mostly men.
The typical Mid-America College of Funeral Service student is young, more likely than not female, and in most cases isn’t going into the business because of family ties.
“There is this image of doom and gloom, and that’s not true,” said Jill Karn, chief operating officer for Mid-America College, located along Hamburg Pike in Jeffersonville, Ind. The students are “vibrant and happy people.”
Karn also serves as COO for the college’s sister schools Dallas Institute of Funeral Service and Gupton-Jones College of Funeral Service in Atlanta.
Mid-America College has the “same sleepy-eyed students with their Monster (energy drinks) in front of them,” said admissions representative Michael Moeller.
The mortuary college was created as the result of a merger between the mortuary science schools in Indianapolis and Louisville. It is one of only 59 accredited programs in the United States and draws students from all around the country.
Mid-America College offers a certificate program, an associate degree in applied sciences and a Bachelor of Science degree in Funeral Service. The associate degree program takes 18 months to complete, and graduates must also pass a national board test to become certified.
This quarter, 14 people will graduate from Mid-America College, and 25 more are expected to graduate the following quarter.
The college employs 10 teachers and is housed in an unassuming brick building mixed into a Jeffersonville business park. It has a handful of classrooms and a small library.
Most of the classes are lecture format similar to traditional college courses, but one room houses its restoration arts course, which teaches students how to accurately reshape the face to make the departed look more like themselves before their bodies went through the dying process. Students can use whatever face they want, including those of celebrities.
Mid-America College doesn’t keep any bodies on site. Students instead travel to funeral homes to practice embalming under the supervision of a licensed embalmer. Each student completes 10 to 12 embalmings before they graduate.
Although students take some classes specific to mortuary services, many courses are related to business management, finance, psychology and liberal arts.
“What people don’t realize about funeral service is it’s everything,” said Mid-America College president Lauren Budrow. “We work more with the living than the dead.”
Funeral directors need to know how to run a business and how the human body works; they need to be event planners, salespeople, marketers, grief counselors and sometimes mediators.
It takes a special kind of person to go into the funeral business, multiple sources said.
“Funeral director is a very difficult job,” said Poul Lemasters, owner of Cincinnati-based Lemasters Consulting, a legal firm that works with cemeterians, crematory operators, funeral homes and funeral directors. Lemasters was at Mid-America College this week for a student training day hosted by the International Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association.
Lemasters was a funeral director prior to becoming a lawyer, he said, but the profession has a high burnout rate because with each client, funeral directors give a little bit of their heart.
“Lawyer seemed to be the right fit since I didn’t have a heart anymore,” he said jokingly, adding: “Good funeral directors do put themselves in the family’s shoes.”
While business can dry up in other industries, people will never stop dying. Death care is an estimated $20 billion industry in the United States, and the number of U.S. citizens 60 and older is growing. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that there will be 75.8 million people age 60 and older in 2020.
Schools such as Mid-America College are now making a more concerted effort to let pre-college-aged youth know the funeral business is another career option.
“There’s a need for good people,” Lamasters said. “Now, we are out there. We are at job fairs.”
Lamasters got into the funeral business after being encouraged to do so by his college roommate’s father who was a funeral director.
Budrow said she never thought about funeral directing either until her mother-in-law married a funeral director.
“He was the inspiration for me,” she said.
Today, more and more Mid-America College students are independents, meaning they don’t have any ties to a funeral home or the business before coming to college. In recent years, the industry has opened up more, Budrow said.
“We were a closed system for a long time,” she said, noting that the funeral business still relies heavily on recommendations, and it’s important for students to cultivate relationships so they have references once they graduate.
To attract students, Mid-America College is working to be more transparent in the community and making an effort to let people know what exactly they do, Budrow said. Recently, the college hosted a group of Girl Scouts who learned about the job from female funeral directors.
The goal is to make death and the funeral business less of a taboo topic.
“What we do here is not a secret,” she said. “We do an admirable thing.”
Mid-America College is hosting an open house from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday, March 5, for anyone interested in learning more about the college and the profession.