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An unusual calling: Mortuary science programs see huge increase in students

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Posted at 9:05 AM, Nov 14, 2022

BILLINGS — Enrollment for mortuary science degree programs jumped by 24% in 2021, and at Michelotti-Sawyers Mortuary in Billings, they’ve seen that increase firsthand.

Many of us have a dream job, a place we’d love to work if only the stars would align.

“I finally found something I’d like to do,” said Hunter Keller on Wednesday.

For Keller, it’s working in the funeral home industry at Michelotti-Sawyers Mortuary.

“That funeral coach has taken both of my great-grandmothers. It’s taken my grandpa, my grandma, and my dad, and my best friend all to their final resting places,” Keller said.

The 34-year-old has close ties to the funeral home. His neighbor got him a part-time job there shortly after he graduated from Billings West High School.

That sparked an interest, albeit an unusual one, that led Keller to a community college in Colorado, offering a two-year mortuary science program.

“There were probably 40 or 50 students in my class with ages ranging from 21 to 50,” said Keller.

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Nationwide, the American Board of Funeral Services said enrollment in mortuary sciences is skyrocketing, up 24% last year.

It’s happening at a time when many in the industry are retiring with more than 60% of all funeral home owners expected to quit their jobs in the next five years.

“Yeah, I’ve definitely seen a change as the older generation starts to move on,” said Michelotti-Sawyers funeral director, Matthew O’Brien.

O’Brien believes COVID-19 may also have something to do with the sudden surge in mortuary students.

“Just the fact that so many people died. I mean, it’s a little more in the forefront of people’s minds,” O’Brien said.

There are no schools in Montana that offer mortuary science programs, so many like Keller are learning the art of embalming online.

“I did go down there a couple of times to campus and do embalming labs and restorative art labs,” said Keller.

Most who graduate from two-year mortuary science programs will make $65,000 to $75,000 a year within the first few years after graduation.

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Hunter Keller

And many of those students entering the industry are women, a shift from when O’Brien said he started.

"There are certain things that ladies can sometimes excel at better than men, things like attention to detail, sometimes compassion," O’Brien said.

Many entering the field today are also much younger.

“This career has really, really made me find my calling,” said Keller.

After Keller passes his national board exam, he’ll apprentice at Michelotti-Sawyers for a year and then be able to apply for a funeral directing job. It’s the start of what he hopes will be a long career.

"I think I might like to, to be a manager or something that I can help mold and shape the funeral home to progress with the times," Keller said.