Sociologists at Work

The Sociologists at Work feature exposes students to the importance and application of social science research.

Spencer Cahill

The Professional Resocialization of Funeral Directors

Funeral directors routinely deal with death and corpses. They are exposed to sights, smells, and sounds that most people have learned to find frightening or repulsive. And they must discuss cold, practical matters, such as prices and methods of payment, with grief-stricken clients without appearing callous. Thus, the occupational resocialization of funeral directors is as important as that in any other profession that deals with human tragedy (clergy, doctors, nurses, police detectives, etc.). But unlike these other professionals, for whom death is merely one aspect of the job, funeral directors exist solely for the purpose of dealing with death.

To study the process of becoming a funeral director, sociologist Spencer Cahill (1999) spent five months as a participant observer in a mortuary science program at a community college. In most states, funeral directors must complete an accredited program in mortuary science before getting their license to practice. Cahill regularly attended classes on topics such as health and sanitation science, psychology of grief, and embalming. He also talked informally with the other students and interviewed eight of them formally. What was especially unique about his research approach was that instead of taking the stance of the detached, objective researcher, Cahill incorporated his own feelings and emotional reactions into his analysis.

He found that the entire mortuary science education program serves to normalize the work, so that students become comfortable with death. Reminders of death are a constant presence. Nothing is hidden. For instance, all the classrooms contain some artifacts of death, such as refrigerated compartments that hold corpses, stainless steel embalming tables, and caskets. All the instructors Cahill observed spread their lecture notes on a body gurney, forgoing the traditional lectern and table. It was also common practice for instructors to leave the door open between the classroom and the embalming laboratory, allowing the lingering smell of decomposing bodies to drift into the classroom.

Because other students on campus tend to shun them, the mortuary science students often stick together, providing an almost constant network of support. From these casual interactions (as well as conversations with their instructors), these students learn an occupational language that communicates professional authority and calm composure toward things most of the public would find upsetting. For example, the students learn to see the corpse not as an individual person with a history and a family but as a series of technical puzzles and problems posed by the cause of death (e.g., ingested substances, chemical changes, injuries sustained before death).

However, Cahill points out that professional socialization is not enough to create funeral directors. He notes that students for whom death has always been a mystery or students who are predisposed to becoming queasy don’t last very long in the program. In contrast, those who are familiar with death or who have somehow worked with the dead before (such as the sons or daughters of funeral directors) are the most likely to succeed.

Eventually, the mortuary science students who complete the program adopt the identity of funeral director. They learn to normalize death and acquire the perceptions, judgments, and emotional management skills required of this occupation.

As one well-socialized student put it, “What we do is far less depressing than what nurses and doctors do. We only get the body after the death and do not have to watch all the suffering” (quoted in Cahill, 1999, p. 109).