Today’s funeral director must juggle myriad personalities, expectations, costs, logistics and special requests as they execute their responsibilities associated with honoring the memory of a loved one. Serving families with grace and empathy is at the core of funeral services education at Piedmont Technical College (PTC).
“Funeral Services is a ministry,” said Dedrick Gantt, funeral service education instructor at PTC. “We are helping people through their most difficult times. They come to us for guidance, so the grieving process can start for them.”
In the beginning, after the loss of a loved one, absolute discretion and patience are key. Family members usually are emotional and completely overwhelmed. “They can’t process much because they are trying to do so much at one time,” said David Martin, PTC funeral services program director. Graduates need a wide variety of skills.
Martin noted the funeral services curriculum is split pretty evenly between practical medical and rudimentary business courses. Required core subjects for an associate degree include anatomy and physiology, microbiology/pathology and principles of embalming as well as funeral counseling and funeral service regulatory compliance, management and directing. The program provides the foundation for graduates to obtain state licensure as both a funeral director and an embalmer.
Both Gantt and Martin are funeral directors themselves and speak from a collective depth of experience. Perhaps the two most important lessons in funeral services, Martin said, are to demonstrate respect for the dead and to apply the Golden Rule.
“If you apply the Golden Rule in anything you do, you will be right 99.9 percent of the time,” he said. “I always tell students that a funeral brings out the very best in people and the very worst in people. They can have a short fuse or come unraveled. You have to have a thick skin because they are sometimes angry at the world. You must maintain calm.”
It cannot be stated often enough that funerals are for the living. Whether they are solemn affairs or happy celebrations of life depends on what the families want. They are opportunities for people to acknowledge and accept that someone has died, to say goodbye.
‘They Felt Like My Children’
Before Julie Pendleton walked across the stage to receive her associate degree in funeral services this past December, she undoubtedly fussed to straighten caps and smooth robes of her fellow graduates, most of whom are the age of her own children.
“I’m 52. They felt like my children,” Pendleton said. “I wanted them all to finish well. And I have kept in contact with them.”
Pendleton had been working in an administrative capacity for the same funeral home for 28 years before she decided to go back to school at Piedmont Tech and get her funeral director and embalmer’s license. That goal necessitated the mother of three to complete an apprenticeship.
In South Carolina, funeral directors are required to complete a two-year apprenticeship. Pendleton completed her apprenticeship at a mighty familiar place — Hatcher Funeral Home in Graniteville — where she already had worked for nearly three decades.
Now licensed, Pendleton directs funerals and performs embalming at Hatcher, but she still also does so much more.
“We are a small family business,” she said. “Everyone pitches in and does what is needed.”
Pendleton is extremely appreciative of the training she received at Piedmont Tech.
“I feel my preparation at PTC was good by far. The faculty were all tremendous. The information they gave us was information we needed,” she said. “I believe the more streamlined the education is, and the fact that it’s taught by people who were actually funeral directors themselves, that is the best that you can get.”
A key takeaway from Mr. Martin, she added, was his advice to find her own way of dealing with families because everyone is different. He told her if she found her style and personal niche in helping customers during a difficult time, she would do well in the funeral business.
Without question, families preparing to lay a loved one to eternal rest are overwhelmed and stressed. Their recall of the experience becomes a kind of blur.
“They can’t remember everything, but it’s not the family’s job to remember anything. It’s our job to fit it all together and remember it for them.”
For more information about Piedmont Tech’s Funeral Service Education Program, visit www.ptc.edu/funeralservice.