up an apprentice…
what’s crazy? If I were to ask 100 funeral directors
from different firms how to train a student or apprentice,
they would give me 100 different answers. Those answers
would vary greatly in scope and level of intensity, some
focused on arrangements and some focused on embalming, some
looking into paperwork and some looking at professional
The best part is, none of these are wrong. The worst part is, all of them are not given equal focus. So I’d like to propose a set of specific steps for standardized training within any facility for students, apprentices, or new funeral directors in your organization. And please know, these are only suggestions.
Let’s begin with the obvious “Rule Number One” for all funeral professionals: the family is in charge. Every new member to your team should know this, but one thing we need to do as leaders is never assume that someone knows something. Yes, their mortuary college should’ve taught them this truism, and yes, they should have an innate understanding of it even without that instruction. But the simple rule to apply to everything that ever happens is (in my words when I teach it) as follows… if you had someone die in your family this week, then you get to be in charge; if you did not have someone die in your family this week, then you do not get to be in charge.
I’m here to tell you, I’ve been around directors in more than one state who have said to me, “I’m the funeral director… I’ll TELL the family what to do.” I’ve also heard them instruct students and apprentices in these same attitudes, because, “I’m the funeral director.” This is bad. We certainly have inside knowledge, and we absolutely have the information the family needs, but if we don’t come into every day with an awareness that the family is in charge of what will happen… then our days will be numbered. Never forget, the family is in charge.
Now that our first rule is established, we need to move on to practical things. And since most of us started in the prep room, we need to talk about the big deal in the embalming area… keeping it clean! Cleanliness matters, and all you need is an annual inspection to remind yourself of that. Especially if it fails. But see, if you take the time as a seasoned director to walk your new teammate through the proper steps more than once, they might actually retain it. Further, if they see you DOING what you’re always SAYING, then the chances that it will become habit increase exponentially.
This leads me to another solid truism, and we’ll call it “Rule Number Two” for all funeral professionals: more is caught than taught. Basically, people are going to do what they see you do, regardless of what you tell them to do. If they see you cut corners, they will grow up in the business to cut corners. If they see you clean meticulously during and after every embalming, they will pick up those patterns of behavior. It will be seen as the expectation, the standard, the guide post, and it will be the norm. But if you don’t walk the walk, there’s a massive chance the person(s) you’re teaching will never adopt positive habits. Nope, they’ll do what you do.
For our next practical thing, we’ll look into the arrangement conference. There needs to be a process, a flow, a pattern that begins with the first call and how to properly gather initial information. That process needs to move into how to dispatch your removal team, how to speak to the family to set an appointment, how to prepare the file and/or electronic systems for the family’s arrival, and how to move through the conference itself. I’m not going to dig too deeply into those, because we all have our own tried and true methods. However, I will say that if you aren’t seeking out your best arranging director and modeling your conferences after him/her, you’re missing the boat in a huge way.
This brings me to “Rule Number Three” for everyone in our profession: practice, practice, practice. It sounds silly, but simply sitting and role playing the scenario with a student or apprentice will ease the difficulty of facing a family for the first time. I am one of countless directors who watched the arrangement conference from a corner, and then one day had to conduct one under the scrutiny of a licensed director. It’s not the best system to throw someone to the wolves, as it were, when our profession deals with extremely sensitive material and emotional states. So practice! Role play with your team. Serve in the capacity of the family that is easy to serve, and then serve in the role of a family that is challenging. Throw the curve balls, prepare your up and coming directors for the worst, and then hope for the very best. As a dear friend of mine says all the time, proper preparation prohibits poor performance. So prepare and practice. Practice a lot. And then practice some more.
Now on to another wonderful thing that I was once taught, something that I wish I had been taught sooner. It revolves around how to serve all of the families in the building, all at the same time. I’ll never forget that night that we had a rosary in both chapels, another rosary in our largest state room, and the other three state rooms all had visitations… all in one night. I was a fresh-faced apprentice, straight out of the restaurant business, wearing a suit for the first time, and the coffee pot wouldn’t stay full. Trash needed to be taken out, people needed temperatures adjusted, flowers were still arriving, and three different deacons needed to start their rosary services.
Then my apprenticeship supervisor walked slowly to me as I blazed through the corridors, and he delivered to me our “Rule Number Four”: never let them see you sweat. My head was in serve mode, move fast and get things done to stay ahead of the curve. And don’t misunderstand, I wasn’t being told to stop that. What I was being told revolved more around the poise and finesse that are necessary for the professionals who serve families in their darkest hour. We need to be calm. We need to be collected. And we need to never appear flustered in front of the families we serve. Our calm will translate (in most situations) over to them, and the confidence they have in us will grow as they see us handle obstacles and keep moving forward. That’s what professionals do. That’s what funeral professionals do. We keep going, we tackle each task as it comes, and we never stop striving to exceed the expectations of every family we are privileged to serve. And we never let people see us sweat.
Finally, I’d like to point out the one thing that must exist in any training and development program at any level. It’s one of those things that people cannot underestimate, and they cannot leave out or play down to a lower level. This is likely the most important part of the entire idea, over and above the practical stuff and the theory stuff.
Our “Rule Number Five” for this set of thoughts is fairly simple: accountability matters. You see, as the licensee in the room with an apprentice, whether we are embalming or arranging or serving in a chapel or church, I am accountable. The mistakes are mine, even if they’re not. That’s the purpose of an apprenticeship… to learn, to make mistakes with a safety net, to grow out of the simple errors and become competent to serve families as a licensed director. So yes, the accountability is real, and it will hit the licensed person first.
The key there is to take the time to explain to the apprentice what happened, why, how it was wrong, and what steps could’ve been taken to avoid the error. If your students and apprentices don’t learn from every possible scenario, they’ll never be ready to face the challenges of carrying all the weight on their shoulders. You’re there to protect them, yes, but you need to educate them in the entire spectrum of occurrences. Otherwise, we are the ones who fail.
Never misunderstand the importance of training. It is at the core of the competent funeral professional, and it is vital for the growth of any apprentice. If we don’t teach them, and if they fail, it is actually not them that fail… it’s us.
About the author:
Dylan Stopher is a licensed funeral director and embalmer in the states of Texas and Louisiana, and currently serves with Wilbert Vaults of Houston, LLC. He is an active member of the SETFDA and the TFDA, and a regular contributor to both the Texas Director Magazine and the Millennial Director blog.
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