Help Wanted: Morticians to take care of baby boomers

March 18, 2004|EMILY BURTON

STANFORD - In the summer of 1348 the bubonic plague swept through Florence, Italy, chasing broken families from the city as 96,000 died. In today's America, we average more than 2.4 million deaths a year.

Our life expectancy has risen above those of Mediaeval Europe's, up to 77.2 years, but our situations are becoming similar. As the art of morticians falls from favor, we are slowly running short of people to care for the dead.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than 600,000 Kentuckians are age 62 or older. The population is aging in tandem with the current crop of licensed funeral directors, a group expected to lose many of its numbers to retirement between 2002-2012, says the U.S. Department of Labor.

But members of the profession have already seen it coming.

"There's definitely a shortage of qualified employees, and the reason is because it's hard to find somebody who's good at it, who wants to do it," said Tony Floro, licensed embalmer and funeral director at W.L. Pruitt Funeral Home in Moreland.


"From what I've heard from industry analysis, I'm under the understanding there's a decline of people entering into the mortician sciences in college," said Farris Marcum, funeral director and embalmer at Barnett & Demrow Funeral Home, Waynesburg and Fox Funeral Home, Stanford.

Death takes no holidays

Even those who do want to join the ranks of licensed professionals might want to think twice about their motivation. The money is not always greener on the other side of the coffin, warn profession veterans. The funeral home is staffed 24 hours a day, with calls coming in at midnight just as often as noon, and death takes no holidays.

"We are seeing some people enter into the industry who just are doing it because they think it's a cool thing to do, not because they're dedicated to it," explained Bill Demrow, owner of Barnett & Demrow.

"They don't know what it's like to leave in the middle of a Thanksgiving meal, to not go on vacation because you need to have someone to cover the funeral home," said Floro. "They don't realize what a commitment you have to have to do the job. The job becomes your life."

Many funeral professionals say they have come by their lives in the business through family ties or a dedication to "helping people through this hard time in their lives," said Floro, not an interest in a quick buck.

Demrow has been in the work since he was 13, when he started helping his father in the graveyard.

"That's when I began digging graves as a boy, by hand," Demrow said. Grave digging lead to other odd jobs at the funeral home and eventually to the helm of the company.

"It's gone full circle. I started out mowing the grass, now I own the place," said Demrow. His son, Curt, has also joined him in the business.

"Usually, if it's a family-owned business, the kids will take over," explained Brian Hall, licensed funeral director at Alexander & Royalty Funeral Home of Lancaster.

"I lived on top of (the funeral home) when I as a little girl You were always around, it was just the way you were raised," said Karen Pruitt Floro of W.L. Pruitt. "It wasn't something I thought about. It wasn't creepy, it wasn't scary," agreed her son Tony Floro.

Family heritage can only get you so far, said Tony. The business will need new professionals in the near future, but quality and dedication will still be the foremost requirements.

"You always get to help people, and it's not a job you could do other than for the satisfaction of it," said Tony Floro. "It's almost like a calling, like a ministerial calling. You can't just do it because it's in your family."

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