In a small, nondescript building near downtown Nashville, the next generation of funeral directors are learning the craft.
This is the home of John A. Gupton College, a two-year school where students work toward an associate degree and state license in the profession.
And as a funeral arts and sciences school, it has a few unique characteristics: a casket display in its conference room; course offerings in embalming; the fact that every student — whether in class, wandering the hallway, or even taking classes online — is required to wear a suit.
"They want us to look professional," says Austin York, one of Gupton's 140 students. "Leather shoes and belt, same color. Dress pants, suit, tie."
"For females, it's very hard to find a suit anywhere," quips classmate Maria Fonseca. "So that has been a big challenge for me."
York and Fonseca both are the first in their families to go to mortuary college, a significant detail in the world of funeral homes. For decades, the industry was dominated by family businesses, passed down through generations.
But that’s changed. Last year, nearly all mortuary college graduates were, like York and Fonseca, completely new to the profession. These "first-generation students" are bringing new blood to the industry but also face their own set of challenges.
Gupton College president Steven Spann remembers when he started working at the school in the mid-'90s.
"You had a lot of family-owned funeral students — their parents were in the funeral industry — back then. You don't see a lot of that now," he says.
To understand the shift, industry analysts point to the years following World War II, when a surge veterans used their GI Bills to go to mortuary school. It was a respectable profession and a secure one — they knew there would always a demand for funeral services.
After they bought their own funeral homes, their kids had even lower barriers to entry into the profession. But at some point, some heirs to the family business got fed up. Being a funeral director entails long hours and unpredictable schedules — taking phone calls in the middle of the night, working on weekends, missing birthday parties.
"The turnover rate's pretty high. Usually if you stay in it after that, you stay till you die," Spann says with a laugh. "Or retire. But many of us don't retire."
In other words, the lifestyle is manageable only if you're passionate about the job, says Todd Van Beck, a Gupton College administrator and author on funeral practices.
"I can't imagine a more cursed life than to be a funeral director and not want to do it," Van Beck says.
Many inheritors who weren't passionate sold the family homes to corporations that boomed in the '80s and '90s. Others stayed locally owned but looked outside the family for management. Either way provided opportunities for newcomers to the industry.
As of 2018, only about 17 percent of mortuary college graduates had family in the industry, according to the American Board of Funeral Service Education.
'People Are Called'
Today, funerals are a $15 billion business in America, according to the U.S. Census. But Van Beck says new students don't get into this business because the pay is particularly good — the average wage of a funeral director last year was $57,620. Nor does the interest stem from morbid fascination.
Van Beck calls it a "ministry."
"Nobody just walks in here by an accident," Van Beck says. "I believe firmly people are called to be a funeral director."
But unlike classmates with family in the industry already, first-generation students often face pushback from their support systems, he says. Van Beck remembers his own family's reaction when he told his parents, at age 5, he wanted to one day work in a funeral home:
"Everyone thought something horrible had happened to me. But I went to a funeral. And it was the most beautiful thing I had seen."
That's also how student Maria Fonseca became interested in the field.
"Unfortunately, three years ago, I lost a cousin," she says. "Back then, I met a funeral director, who he took very good care of our family. He was our main support."
She asked to shadow him. And she was inspired by how a funeral director can help families work through their grief. "I want to be there to support them whenever they're going through the worst moment in their life."
When Fonseca told her mother about her new career plans, her mother "freaked out," Fonseca says.
Her mother has since come around to the idea, though she still doesn't love hearing about the school work, Fonseca says.
But she understands. She knows there's a stigma around death. She hopes to change that.
Once she graduates, she'll work in a funeral home. One day, she wants to run her own. And then, she hopes to get her family on board — her siblings, maybe even her own children, passing on a new family funeral business to the next generation.