Undertaker U: Where Funeral Directors Learn their Stuff

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By Evan MacDonald and Audrey Yoo

For many, college is a chance to meet new people while living away from home for the first time. Students at American Academy McAllister Institute meet new people, too. Many of them just happen to be dead.

McAllister, located in Midtown Manhattan, is one of five schools in New York State that feature mortuary science programs designed for people who want to become funeral directors.

At McAllister, students learn from a curriculum that follows guidelines set by the American Board of Funeral Service Education. They take courses in such subjects as anatomy, microbiology, embalming, grief counseling, accounting, and the history of the funeral service.

Students also spend one semester in a clinical rotation at Bellevue Hospital, practicing embalming on unclaimed cadavers under the supervision of an instructor. Their practicum includes learning how to clean corpses with germicidal soap, injecting bodies with embalming fluids (a combination of formaldehyde, ethanol, and methanol) for preservation, applying cosmetics for appearance, dressing the body, and putting it in the coffin.

Regina Smith, a dean in McAllister’s sociology department, said the two-year program has 110 on-campus students and 253 online students. The online students come to New York for two weeks at the conclusion of the program for an embalming capstone.

She said about 40 percent of students at the school have relatives who are also in the business.

McAllister’s enrollment, she added, had been slowly declining over the 10 years preceding 2009. But in the past two years, enrollment has been up. Smith was hesitant to attribute this to the state of the economy. People typically enter the profession, she said, because they feel called to it.

“Clearly it’s a vocation,” she said. “People just understand somehow or other that they’re able to be around people in a time of crisis or in a time of need, and to facilitate that process to recovery.”

Roslyn Riggins, a Brooklyn native, graduated from McAllister in 1992. She now owns Roslyn Riggins Howard Funeral Services, Inc. and Madison Monuments, Inc., which sells monuments, grave markers, and mausoleums.

Riggins has been in the funeral service business for 19 years. Many funeral directors enter the business because they followed in the footsteps of a family member, but Riggins was drawn to it for other reasons.

“I was exposed to attending funerals as a child because I come from a large family,” she said. “I had a sense of looking at it from two sides. I was dealing with certain fears, and not being able to share those fears with adults, as well as the finality of death.”

After graduating from mortuary school, students are required to complete a one-year training program at a funeral home. Then they take the National Board Examination to obtain licensure through the state’s health department. Licenses have to be renewed every two years. State law allows an individual to own a funeral parlor without a license, but not to take part in any day-to-day business outside of accounting.

“You need a license to make funeral arrangements,” said Peter Constantakes, a spokesman for the New York Department of Public Health. “You can do the books and the background info, but nothing else.”

Currently, there are 3,820 licensed funeral directors in the state of New York, and 261 living in Kings County. Last July, there were only 3,409 licensed directors in New York, and the Department of Labor expects jobs to grow by 12 percent nationally between 2008 and 2018.

John Nieman, who owns John’s Funeral Home in Cypress Hills , has been a practicing funeral director since the early 1960s. When he started in the business, going to school was not a requirement for practice, as long as he received two years of training at a funeral home, he said. Nieman opted for school.

“School training is very important,” he said. “No question. When you come into the funeral profession, it’s all needed.”

Even after 48 years, Nieman said he couldn’t imagine himself in any other profession.

“I could not have chosen anything better to do in my life,” he said. “The only other thing I would want to do is to be the president of the United States.”

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