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Communication, compassion and career success

Students considering a career in mortuary science often think the curriculum centers around embalming a dead body.

Not so. TCC’s Associate of Applied Science in Funeral Service is an extensive program designed to meet an evolving industry where jobs are generally plentiful.

A student practices placing an American flag on a casket

While students are required to take two semesters of embalming with labs each time, a wide scope of courses also comprise the Tidewater Community College funeral service program headed by Frank Walton. Microbiology, chemistry, psychology and pathology classes are as integral to the curriculum as Principles of Funeral Management and Funeral Service Law.

“We spend a tremendous amount of time discussing survivor and survivor rights, legalities and the social aspects of the business,” says Walton, adding that excellent communication skills are essential to be successful. “Funeral directors will tell you they would prefer to hire a student who has people skills and who has empathy rather than someone who can embalm. We can teach you how to embalm. If you come in and hit the ground running knowing how to talk to people – what to say and what not to say – it makes you more marketable.”

Walton’s interest in the field stems from a family-owned business he now operates with his father in Virginia Beach. In addition to his bachelor’s in economics from Hampton University, Walton holds a master’s in counseling from Norfolk State University. He received his mortuary science training at Gupton-Jones College in Atlanta.

students learn how to embalmWhat once was largely a family business has since become one run by medical conglomerates that do the bulk of the hiring today. Walton said it’s not unusual for graduates of TCC’s 67-credit program to start at salaries of $40,000 or more. The field attracts students directly out of high school, military veterans, displaced workers and increasingly, women. Currently, TCC’s program is 75 percent female.

“It’s a really good move if you’re willing to relocate, you’re flexible and marketable,” he says. “In a year and a half to two years, you can finish school and go on to get your license.”

The TCC program, accredited by the American Board of Funeral Service Education, covers all the aspects necessary to complete the National Board Examination. TCC graduates boast the highest pass rate in the state for the exam. In addition, TCC requires students to complete a 3,000-hour apprenticeship, which often leads to direct placement into jobs.

Graduates are equipped to be more than funeral directors. Some work for transplant agencies and tissue recovery organizations. Others work toward advanced degrees in forensic science, enabling them to find employment in law enforcement or pathology.

Two students work on a wax model during a restorative art classThe funeral service curriculum exposes students to all the business aspects of the industry, including proper religious, fraternal and military customs. Students also complete six credits in Restorative Art, which teaches the treatments and techniques for feature construction with restorative wax.

A state-of-the-art embalming lab opened onsite at the Virginia Beach Campus in January. In groups of five, students cover all the embalming techniques, allowing them to work with the various types of chemicals and preservatives necessary to prevent decomposition.

TCC students are also taught about cremation, an increasingly popular option given the economy and the green movement, Walton says. Graduates know how to direct a funeral with minimal supervision and set up and maintain an OSHA-approved preparation room.

“It’s not a cookie-cutter profession,” Walton says. “It’s one of the few professions where you can wake up in the morning and have nothing to do, and by noon, you’re completely swamped.”