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For a Recession-Proof Career, Consider the Funeral Business


When Diana Smillie, 34, became a beautician in 2007, she overheard a colleague discussing a different type of clientele: the deceased.

“It sounded so interesting, so I always kept it in mind,” the New Rochelle, NY resident said.

She later found out that a license was needed. So in 2010, Smillie pursued an associate’s degree at the American Academy McAllister Institute of Funeral Service in Times Square. She did a residency requirement and passed a national board exam as well as a New York state license — and hasn’t looked back since.

Smillie was hired at the Sisto & Paino funeral home in New Rochelle, where she met her husband, a funeral director. As spouses and colleagues, they find it helpful to have a supportive partner who understands the role.

“You have to work vacations,” Smillie said. “People are dying 24/7.”

Lloyd Maxcy Funeral Home in New Rochelle.
Stephane Yang

Smillie, who is now a funeral director, has a diverse job with responsibilities ranging from collecting the deceased and meeting with families to embalming, restorative work, makeup and styling the deceased. She also sets up the chapel, drives the hearse, and coordinates with cemeteries and places of service.

For Smillie, the role is rewarding. “It was a calling – I can’t imagine doing anything else. I love making the person look good for their family and I know how important it is for them to have one last moment where they can seeing your loved one look peaceful.

Every day is different. “You may have a few days where you do nothing. Then, all of a sudden, six people will die in two hours, and that’s madness,” she explained.

For a Recession-Proof Career, Consider the Funeral Business
Diana Smillie dons PPE before entering a preparation room where she performs embalming.
Stephane Yang

Flexibility and responsiveness are essential, as well as a strong disposition – funeral workers are in the field with the corpses and must be prepared for tragic situations.

However, the field is recession proof and offers job security and expansion. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Outlook Handbook, the industry’s projected growth is faster than average, with a median annual salary of $74,000 for funeral directors.

Requirements include specialized training (typically completion of an associate’s degree in funeral or mortuary science from an accredited institution), completion of a residency, and passing the national examination and licensing of status – followed by continuing education credits to maintain the license. Most graduates take the national board exam – it is recognized by all states, but not required in all.

For a Recession-Proof Career, Consider the Funeral Business
Diana Smillie has responsibilities ranging from collecting the deceased and meeting with families, to embalming, restoration work, makeup and styling the deceased.
Stephane Yang

Robert C. Smith III is the executive director of the American Board of Funeral Service Education, the national academic accrediting agency for college and university programs in funeral service and mortuary science education, based in Woodbury Heights, NJ . He said accredited schools must cover the appropriate curriculum, including “embalming, funeral direction, funeral service law, ethics, and some sociology, psychology, and counseling.”

“When we hear from students, one of the first things we say is, ‘Have you spoken to any funeral directors? Have you really done your homework to know what type of tasks you will need to do, or is it a perception you have that this is what you want to do? ” said Smith, who saw a slight increase in 2021 enrollment. “We emphasize that you must understand this understanding. It is not an occupation or profession for everyone. [It requires] people who have the right skills, the right mindset, the ability to deal with people effectively, to be compassionate, to be empathetic – that’s absolutely crucial.

For a Recession-Proof Career, Consider the Funeral Business
Diana Smillie holds an urn used for deceased persons.
Stephane Yang

Education and licensing are ultimately essential to progress, but so is the flexibility of empathy and maintaining your own well-being. Maintaining sanity both on and off the clock is essential while keeping professionalism intact at work.

Licensed clinical psychologist Yesel Yoon, Ph.D., who has a private practice on the Upper West Side, recommends funerals use rituals — like going for a walk — to mark the end of each workday, in order to not bringing grief home with you, and maintaining professionalism with empathy without mentally draining yourself.

“These rituals provide that sense of closure and just give us a little extra time between your work hours and when you can transition into your home life,” Yoon said.

For a Recession-Proof Career, Consider the Funeral Business
Diana Smillie says the role is rewarding.
Stephane Yang

“Make sure you’re not isolated and that you find supportive people who can normalize and support the work you do.”

William Villanova, 52, has served as president of the Frank E. Campbell Funeral Chapel since 2018. Founded in 1898, the New York funeral institution is headquartered in a 17,000 square foot space on the Upper East Side.

According to him, funeral directors must be willing to help, often providing a shoulder to cry on.

For a Recession-Proof Career, Consider the Funeral Business
Diana Smillie applies cosmetics to a deceased person.
Stephane Yang

“They understand exactly what they need to support the family, but they don’t become bereaved,” he said. “Sometimes you think about it after the fact, and you get a little choked up. There are times when there are services for premature deaths and you can’t help but feel it. Or maybe you come home at night, and you look at your family and say, ‘I’m so blessed.’ »

Villanova entered the industry more than 30 years ago through a connection with his sponsor, who owned two funeral homes. Working part-time after school, weekends, and other days off, he began mowing lawns, trimming hedges, and parking cars.
Similar to Smillie, he went on to study mortuary science at McAllister and rose through the ranks in industry.

For a Recession-Proof Career, Consider the Funeral Business
Diana Smillie earned an associate degree from the American Academy McAllister Institute of Funeral Service in Times Square in 2010.
Stephane Yang

Ultimately, Villanova believes that prioritizing the families who use your services is key to success in this high profile role.

“It’s a job that is very special,” he said. “On our crest, the Latin underneath says ne obliviscaris – never forget. This is the dialogue with new employees. Never forget this is our sacred obligation. This family walking through the door today n “have never experienced this before. We have the ability to make a difference in the lives of this family today. We are dedicated to the sacred obligation with dignity, honor and respect.”

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