By David Chilton
Special to the Toronto Sun
Kristen Sniderman and Rob Swartz are bright, affable and just old enough to buy a drink in a bar. She's 20, he's 19, and they want to be funeral directors.
That's a career choice many would find difficult to fathom, much less to pursue, but Sniderman and Swartz are certain they've made the right decision and are looking forward to their one-year internships in Oshawa and Hamilton, respectively, starting this summer.
| Michael Fitzgerald
"I decided I wanted to be a funeral director when I was very young, about 13 or 14," says Sniderman. "When I was 17, I knew it was for me. It's a very, very valuable contribution to the community."
Swartz offers a similar reason for wanting to become a funeral director.
"It is very rewarding," he says. "If I can help a family get through one of the most difficult times of their lives I will."
Neither Sniderman nor Swartz have any family history in funeral directing. That makes them typical these days as the profession is moving on from the family-based model that existed for so many years and which still dominates our mental imagery of the "undertaker."
Jeff Caldwell, the Funeral Service Education co-ordinator at Humber -- the only English college in the province to teach the subject -- says student selection starts well before papers are signed or tuition fees handed over.
Caldwell says there's an English test, a science test and an "observation experience" would-be applicants undergo. That means they spend 40 to 50 hours -- unpaid -- observing certain tasks at a funeral home and being assessed by one of its directors.
Training to become a funeral director at Humber College isn't for the faint hearted, says Michael Fitzgerald, an instructor in the program and a funeral director himself for 25 years.
He says the program starts with about 120 students, but that's whittled down to about 80 for the second semester, with another 10 to 20 failing a review and their provincial exams. Classes start in September and tend to be more female than male with an age range from high school graduate to career changers in their 40s. Tuition and incidental fees were $2,400 last year.
Fitzgerald says the first year at Humber concentrates on anatomy, physiology, grief counselling, embalming theory, the legal aspects of death and provincial regulation. But there's also some practical instruction, too, including a requirement for students to embalm three bodies in the lab Humber has on campus.
The only funeral services program in English in Ontario is at Humber College.
Humber can accept up to 130 students a year from Ontario and five from out of province.
Applicants need a high school diploma or mature student status.
More women than men enter the program at Humber.
Starting salaries range from $30,000 to $40,000 a year.
The second year of the program is a paid internship at a funeral home. Students work full time for about $30,000 a year, but also have assignments from Humber to complete. Once that's done there are the extensive provincial examinations.
"We are immensely regulated by the province, which is actually a wonderful thing to say," Caldwell remarks. "We're very accountable to our regulator."
Once past the provincial exams new students can start looking for a job and their prospects are excellent. Caldwell says about 95 per cent of his students are employed in the profession within six months.
One reason for that enviable employment rate is, of course, that we all die and will all need a funeral director -- unless we go down in a light plane over the Amazon.
Another reason is demographics. Fitzgerald points out that in 10 years the leading edge of the boomers will be pushing 70 and starting to die off, producing "the largest death rates ever."
Still, expiring boomers or not, funeral directors shouldn't expect to get rich. Beginners earn about $30,000 to $40,000 a year with the best salaries topping out at about $80,000.
That's not much considering how necessary funeral directors are. Sniderman and Swartz will deserve every penny they get.
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