Shortage of funeral directors in Vermont spurs action

VERMONT — Struggling with a nationwide shortage of funeral directors, the industry in Vermont has teamed up with the Community College of Vermont and state officials to streamline the path to the profession.
The state’s Office of Professional Regulation has created a proposed path aimed at reducing the time and money now required for funeral director training.
The path is aimed at young people and at workers who are seeking a career change. Lawmakers are expected to consider the rule change in the coming legislative session.
Under existing regulations, would-be funeral directors must earn an associate degree. With the nearest schools of funeral service in Boston and New York, the cost for the degree needed to be a funeral director and embalmer is about $64,000, said Chris Palermo, president of the Vermont Funeral Directors Association. Online, the coursework still costs about $35,000, he said.
“Finding people who want to come and work in Vermont after they spent $64,000 is really difficult,” Palermo said. “This would allow home-grow people to become qualified to become a funeral director in Vermont.”
The streamlined license would not be recognized outside of Vermont. And it only applies to the practice of being a funeral director, not embalming.
“If this proves to be successful, I’d like to see the embalming piece added to it, but that’s a whole different conversation,” said Palermo, who owns Perkins-Parker Funeral Home in Waterbury.
The proposed state rule would remove the associate degree requirement, but would require would-be funeral home directors to complete college-level coursework in several areas, including the psychology of death and dying, human biology, introductory ethics, comparative religion, financial accounting, conflict resolution or mediation, business law and public speaking.
Under the new system, the funeral-directors-in-training would earn online education credits while working in an apprentice-like role with approved and licensed funeral directors, according to the association.
The OPR drafted the proposed rule this fall with help from the former Board of Funeral Service, Palermo and others at the Vermont Funeral Directors Association, and with Candace Lewis, an associate academic dean at CCV. Lewis said she knows some people are already enrolled in classes at CCV in anticipation of a certificate program being created, possibly by fall 2019. Some are employees of Vermont funeral homes who had no way of getting a mortuary degree under the old system, she said.
“These are people who are rooted in Vermont, they have lives and responsibilities here, and it would be difficult for them to pick up and move for the amount of time it would take elsewhere out of state,” Lewis said. “This would allow some of the folks (the funeral directors) are already working with to gain the education and experience they need.”
The funeral business isn’t unique in suffering a staffing shortage, but it does face some unusual challenges. According to the online publication “Funeral Director Daily,” the rising popularity of cremation has cut into funeral service revenues. Meanwhile, a cultural change has steered many young professionals away from jobs that require on-call or irregular hours, according to the publication. This hits rural areas particularly hard.
Adam Goss, who owns Spears Funeral Home in Enosburg and Kidder Memorial Home in Swanton, said he was initially opposed to the rule change, but his views changed after he watched one of his administrative employees learn the funeral director’s job. Goss is vice president of the state funeral directors organization.
“My employee … showed me she’s capable of doing what a funeral director does; she just doesn’t have that degree,” he said. He added that he now has two employees who hope to gain licensure through the streamlined process.
“They started out as office managers; once they realized really what a funeral director does, they were interested and said, ‘I want to do that,’” said Goss. “Whereas if I went to them and said ‘Do you want to come on as a funeral director?’ they would have said, ‘No way.’”

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