(Photo by Ben Conant)
What does it take to be a funeral director?
For one, it takes a lot of time in the classroom. Nicole Judge of Peterborough, the newest licensed funeral director/embalmer at Jellison Funeral Home in Peterborough, got her associate degree in mortuary science from FINE Mortuary College. She previously earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Keene State, but compared to her undergraduate four-year program, the mortuary science degree is a two-year program, with each term lasting 10 weeks and classes five hours a day.
Coursework is a mix of art and science – microbiology, embalming, pathology, funeral directing, accounting, marketing and merchandising.
“In those 10 weeks, there was enough crammed for an entire semester of school,” Judge said. “I like to tell people I had no social life in school because I was studying every day.”
But wait, there’s more.
Would-be funeral directors also have to perform an apprenticeship, usually of two years and 2,000 hours. It includes conducting 25 funerals and 50 embalmings, 25 of which must be unassisted. Judge did hers at Jellison and passed two National Board Exams for Funeral Service and the required practical and written exams for the State of New Hampshire before getting her license in January.
“It’s a lot,” she said of taking classes while doing her apprenticeship. “It’s definitely a lot.”
And one more thing.
It’s not a requirement to get a license, but Judge said it helps to be able to read and understand people. After all, funeral directors are helping people get through the worst days of their lives.
“Some people don’t know how to be empathetic,” she said. “ ‘Order-takers’ is what they call it in school.”
Seeking fulfilling work
Jellison’s owner, funeral director/embalmer Julie Thibault, said Judge reached out to her about doing an apprenticeship, and said her already being a student was a big part of agreeing to bring her on.
‘She knew the commitment involved,” said Thibault, who also went to FINE and teaches there.
Thibault also said she and Judge both being local helps.
“It takes the level of trust off the table because they know us,” she said.
Judge said two of her grandparents died when she was 10 and 12, and that she remembers being nervous about their funerals, but intrigued by the process. However, she put it on the back burner when she went to college, originally studying nursing before switching to psychology, and eventually working in social services and mental health.
“I loved helping families, but it wasn’t fulfilling what I needed to be doing,” she said.
Even though the work Judge was doing wasn’t quite what she was looking for, Thibault said it is a plus when it comes to working at the funeral home.
“I wish there was more weight put on a social work/psychology background to come into this field,” she said.
Thibault, who has been with Jellison for a little more than 20 years, also said Judge’s age, 31, is perfect.
“Any younger than that, it’s hard to have the life experience for the job,” she said. “She really fits right in. She makes people feel comfortable. She is enthusiastic to learn new things.”
Judge, who agreed that her background helps “immensely,” said the first time she took a tour of the funeral home after Thibault agreed to take her on, she jumped about a foot in the air when she came across a body in a casket.
Even now, Judge said dealing with families for the first time can be awkward, as she has to know when to sit back and listen and when to let families know what services are available.
“It is weird when you first start out and don’t know what to say,” she said.
There is a marketing aspect to funerals, but Thibault said most of it is indirect, letting families look at what the home offers instead of actively selling something. With 85 percent of Jellison’s services being cremations, they encourage people to bring urns from home if they have them.
“We read our families’ views of what they’re looking for and tell them what’s available,” Thibault said. “Our value is really in our services, and not what we sell.”
Probably half the time, Thibault said families have contacted the funeral home about pre-arrangements, meaning they already know what is needed in the first 48 hours after someone dies. The funeral home takes the person into their care, meets with the family to find out what they’re looking for and gets the death certificate, burial permit and works with the family on an obituary and planning services.
Thibault said it can be hard on families when someone dies during the winter because the burial is often months after the funeral, meaning the adjustments to routines and starting to only think of nice memories is interrupted by having to do the burial.
She tries to counsel people to keep in mind that a delayed burial is no less of a ritual, and that the family can still hold a get-together afterwards if it likes.
“It’s still a time to remember and celebrate the person they lost,” she said.
If a family has to wait for a burial, Judge says the funeral home will still communicate with them.
“We’ll have multiple meetings and calls,” she said. “We can kind of figure out where families are at.”
Strength and support
Judge’s 9-year-old son Liam will come to the funeral home, and she said she tries to answer his questions in an age-appropriate way.
“He’s learning all about this, too,” she said. “He’s an old soul. He’s very curious, and he’s very smart.”
Judge met her fiance, Jim Acciardo, in mortuary school, and he’s pursuing his Massachusetts license while working at Cournoyer Funeral Home in Jaffrey. She said it’s important having a significant other who understands, including possibly having to pick up Liam on short notice.
Jelllison does about 100 funerals annually, working with Michaud Funeral Home & Crematorium in Wilton for cremations. Thibault said they work by the philosophy that they’re only going to do this once.
“We put a lot of pressure on ourselves to make sure it goes according to plan,” she said.
And as they’re helping grieving families, they also have to be in control of their own emotions. Judge said she recently helped with a funeral in Jaffrey where she had to leave the room because the emotions were getting to her.
“We’re human,” she said.
If Judge or Thibault have to go to a car accident or traumatic death, or if one of them feels “off,” they can talk to each other.
“We just have to be strong together,” Judge said.
Thibault is a former EMT with the fire department in Peterborough, and carries with her advice that she got from a firefighter.
“You always remember that you didn’t put people in this position, and all that you can do is trying and make it a little better,” she said. “We remind ourselves of that on a regular basis.”
And Thibault said it can be surprising to see people’s strength.
“I think that’s what you grasp onto during those times,” she said.