Dylan Taylor is a funeral director at Flora Funeral Service in Franklin County. He started working in the funeral business as a 16-year-old student. Photo by Matt Busse.

Dylan Taylor recalls the first time he arrived at Flora Funeral Service to apply for a part-time job.

He was a 16-year-old high school student, working as a restaurant dishwasher and looking for a change.

Yet he wasn’t immediately convinced that, as a teenager, funeral service was the right fit for him.

“‘This is a funeral home,’” he recalled thinking. “‘I need to get out of here.’”

But with his mother’s encouragement, Taylor stuck with it. Now he’s 23 and a licensed funeral director for Flora, which has locations in Rocky Mount and in Hardy, near Smith Mountain Lake.

Despite the challenges that come with a career that inevitably involves tragic situations and bereaved families, Taylor, a 2018 graduate of Franklin County High School who was born and raised in the county, said he enjoys serving his community and providing a special level of care and comfort to those in need.

“It’s almost like we treat everybody like they’re the president,” Taylor said.

Being a funeral director involves a variety of skills. They take the recently deceased into their care and plan details of visitations, funerals and cemetery services. They prepare bodies for embalming, burial or cremation. They provide support and advice to family and friends.

The COVID-19 pandemic brought a new set of challenges, with many professionals fighting burnout while handling an unusually high number of deaths in their communities.

Taylor is one of the next generation of funeral directors, a young outlier in an industry that skews older than average and is set to see a large wave of retirements in the coming years.

“It’s not that I couldn’t do something else,” Taylor said. “But I feel like what we do is something really great. It all goes back to the community.”

Besides offering a chance to give back, funeral service is a profession in demand, and those entering the industry likely won’t have trouble finding a job. Government and industry experts anticipate a steadily growing need for workers in the coming years as older employees retire and an increasing number of people seek funeral services.

And enrollment in funeral service programs is rising to meet that demand. In 2022, new enrollees in the 58 programs nationwide accredited by the American Board of Funeral Service Education reached 3,462, the highest level ever. Total enrollment, which has increased every year since 2017, also reached a new peak in 2022.

Finding the next wave of workers

The median age of a funeral service worker in Virginia is 55, and just 12% of them are younger than 35, according to a May 2022 report from the Virginia Department of Health Professions.

Nationwide, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics puts the industry’s median age at 48.7, compared to a median age of 42.3 for all employed people in the United States who are at least 16.

About 22% of funeral service workers are under 35, compared to 35% of all U.S. workers, according to the bureau. 

Both the state and national figures paint a picture of an industry workforce that leans older.

Furthermore, more than one quarter of funeral service professionals — 27% — surveyed for the Virginia report said they expect to retire within the next 10 years.

The labor bureau projects an average of 7,900 funeral service job openings nationwide each year through 2031, primarily due to people leaving the industry or retiring, with demand for employees rising 8% annually as funeral service workers “will be needed to assist the growing number of people prearranging end-of-life services.”

The National Funeral Directors Association offers different numbers but still ones that show growth: 4,000 job openings each year through 2030, with employment rising 4% annually.

“There’s a good opportunity for jobs out there,” said Sam Rhue, funeral service program director at Brightpoint Community College, formerly John Tyler Community College.

Brightpoint is one of two Virginia community colleges, along with Tidewater Community College in Norfolk, that offer funeral service programs. It’s where Taylor earned his associate degree, graduating in 2021.

In 2022, Brightpoint’s program had 40 new enrollees plus another 50 or 60 who were working through prerequisites before joining the program, Rhue said. 

Although Brightpoint is in Chesterfield County, Rhue said the program educates students from around Southwest and Southside Virginia, thanks to a combination of remote learning and coordinating when students need to appear in person.

Most students already work at funeral homes, in large part because becoming a funeral director in Virginia requires at least 2,000 hours in an internship, Rhue said. 

“I can teach certain things here, but nothing like being in that environment, in that setting at the funeral home, seeing everyday situations that come in,” Rhue said.

The profession isn’t for everyone. Those looking at a career in funeral service not only need to be comfortable with the reality of working with dead bodies but also with the possibility of unpredictable hours and long days spent caring for families and handling the needs of the business.

Nowadays, it can be difficult to compete for younger workers with other professions that offer amenities such as frequent remote work or four-day work weeks, said Lee Flora, president and manager of Flora Funeral Service.

“We’re 24/7/365, so hours can be long, schedules are involved, weekends and holidays, and so unless you really have a desire to serve people during this time in their lives, you’re probably not going to fit,” Flora said. “That’s the biggest challenge in today’s world.”

More women choosing funeral service careers

Facts and figures about funeral service point to another demographic shift: The industry is seeing more female professionals. 

In Virginia, only about one-third of funeral service professionals overall are women, according to the state Department of Health Professions report.

But women comprise more than half of those under age 40, according to the same report.

Rhue said that in Brightpoint’s 2022 cohort of 40 funeral service program enrollees, 24 were women.

Jessica St. John. Photo courtesy of Tharp Funeral Home.

For Jessica St. John, Lynchburg location manager for Tharp Funeral Home, funeral service was a second career.

St. John, 28, graduated from Brookville High School in Campbell County in 2013 and earned a degree in media arts and design from James Madison University.

As part of a nonfiction writing class at JMU, she shadowed a funeral director for a semester and “just really was starstruck at how much I loved it, and couldn’t believe I was about to graduate with my bachelor’s degree in something absolutely not related to funeral service.”

She worked in media for a few years, but that experience had stuck with her. She went back to school, and, like Taylor, graduated from John Tyler Community College in 2021 and later earned a funeral director license.

St. John said she thinks society’s traditional image of what a funeral director looks like tends to be an older gentleman — “and older gentlemen are certainly wonderful at this job,” she noted — but she sees the shift toward more women entering the profession and wants to help change that stereotypical image.

One reason women may be well suited for the profession, she said, is that they’re often natural caretakers.

“That is definitely beneficial in this industry, being empathetic and really being able to listen and care for people,” St. John said.

Women are often naturally attentive to detail, too, she said.

“Being a funeral director, there are lots of moving pieces, lots of quick turnaround times, and having someone that is very detail-oriented is great in this business as well,” St. John said.

An industry adapts to change

The next generation of funeral service workers will need to be prepared for changing consumer preferences.

For example, choosing cremation over burial is becoming increasingly popular due to a variety of factors including cost, environmental impact and social acceptance, according to the National Funeral Directors Association, which predicts the U.S. cremation rate will continue increasing, from 32.3% in 2005, to 59.3% today, and to 78.7% by 2040.

Many of those arrangements will be made online, as more funeral homes offer the option.

A trend of live-streaming funerals, which grew in popularity during the COVID-19 pandemic since groups often couldn’t gather for in-person services, has stuck around at many funeral homes.

St. John said she’s motivated to stay in the industry for the long run, in part to see it “develop in ways that I can’t even imagine.”

“There’s a lot of growth that the funeral business is going to see, creatively,” she said.

Regardless of what stays the same and what changes, funeral service professionals say being in the business ultimately comes down to caring for their clients and easing the loss and sadness that comes with a death.

“That’s really the last thing you can do for somebody — have them be presented in a respectful, dignified way, and the family’s happy,” Taylor said.

Matt Busse is the business reporter for Cardinal News. Matt spent nearly 19 years at The News & Advance,...