Every day in communities throughout Northwest Indiana and beyond, funeral directors provide a vital service to grieving families, offering comfort and support to the living while caring for their dead.
A funeral director’s steadfast commitment to providing professional service, compassionate care and assistance to families in a time of need is rarely forgotten.
Funeral service is more than a job - it's a calling, according to Nhemya Ward who has been Program Chair of the region’s only accredited Mortuary Science Program at Ivy Tech Community College’s De La Garza campus in East Chicago for the past four years.
“I knew I wanted to go into funeral service since the third grade,” she said. “My family has a very strong church background. My grandmother was an usher, and I accompanied her when she attended funerals. I had the unofficial role of passing out the Kleenex. Growing up, everyone thought it was morbid – and they still do now – but in reality, a lot of what we do - probably 90 percent – involves working with living people, helping them create a meaningful experience to remember and honor their loved one.”
Ivy Tech’s Mortuary Science Program prepares students for the challenges they will encounter as a funeral service professional. The curriculum addresses the changing needs and expectations associated with funeral services and accreditation standards. This two-year, part-time program is designed as a cohort or supportive learning environment where the goal is for all 30 students who start in a given fall semester to complete the program and graduate together.
Currently, Ivy Tech offers a day cohort on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 9am to 3pm and an evening cohort with one class daily on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays from 6 to 8:45pm.
“Because the Mortuary Science Program accepts a limited number of students each year, we are most concerned about retention and there is a separate application process in the spring,” Ward, who is also full-time teacher in the program, explained. “We will be holding an orientation for students in April, and this year’s application deadline is May 9th. If you are not already an Ivy Tech student, you need to first apply to the college and complete the required pre-requisite courses with at least a 2.0 GPA.”
Another great benefit of the Ivy Tech program is that students have the opportunity to interact with instructors who maintain an active life in the field from day one. In many cases, they have been licensed for up to 30 years so the wealth of knowledge and experience is very broad.
Then, students are given the opportunity to work side-by-side with professionals in the field, fostering relationships with local funeral directors.
“The lab portion of the program is very proactive,” Ward said. “Students spend two semesters assigned to work 10 hours a week with a local partner. This time is divided between gaining hands-on experience in funeral directing and embalming.”
Throughout the program, students learn about the many aspects of funeral directing, which include dealing with family dynamics and community relations as well as financials, insurance, florists and obituaries. In addition, they are well prepared for other careers in the field such as crematory operators, merchandisers, cemetery management, funeral home management and pathologist assistant.
Like Ward, second year student Kelly Valdez is looking forward to pursuing a career as an embalmer when she graduates in May.
“I always wanted to be an embalmer, but people would look at me like women aren’t supposed to do that,” she said. “I pursued nursing but discovered it wasn’t for me, The Mortuary Science Program has been wonderful, and I have had amazing hands-on learning experiences.”
Valdez, who will be moving to Hawaii to join her husband who serves in the military, has no worries about her credentials transferring with her.
“Ivy Tech’s Mortuary Science program is accredited by the American Board of Funeral Service Education (ABFSE). Once students complete the courses for an Associate of Applied Science degree, they must also take the National Board Examination as part of the graduation requirements,” Ward added. “This licensing is valid in all states. That’s why we often see students from Illinois or even Michigan at Ivy Tech. Our program is the most affordable in the Chicagoland area, and we work hard to offer students a work/life balance with our cohort system.”
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, job opportunities within funeral service are expected to continue to grow, with job growth between now and 2018 predicted to increase by 12 percent.
As baby boomers age, and the population as a whole becomes older, the demand for funeral services will continue to increase. In addition to the anticipated greater demand, it is predicted that because those currently employed in the field may be close to retirement themselves, there will be even greater opportunity for employment and advancement in the coming years.
Statistics show the median annual wage for funeral directors is $52,210, with the middle 50 percent earning between $38,980 and $69,680. (Salaries are dependent on a number of factors, but as in most professions they are most directly related to amount of experience and level of education achieved. Geographic location in the country in addition to an urban or rural setting also impact salary expectations.)