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    Sunday, May 19, 2024

    Conn. university's funeral services program brings new life to a field that is aging out

    East Hartford — Holly Bennett, by her count, is on her third or fourth career. And at the age of 49, she thinks her current job is the one she was destined for.

    Spending 30 years as an emergency medical technician and a short-lived transition to nursing, Bennett had devoted herself to helping the living. Now, her new career path is taking her on a journey to help those who have passed on, and the families that will be left behind.

    In 2022, Bennett received an associate degree from Goodwin University's funeral services program, the only one of its kind in the state and one of only a handful offered in New England. She now works for Leete Stevens Funeral Home, which has facilities in Enfield, Somers, and Windsor Locks.

    "This is the best thing I ever did," Bennett said, adding that her previous professions were not a good fit for her. "It didn't give me purpose."

    But her new career in funeral services, which came about after a questionable conversation with a university counselor, has been a revelation.

    "It's definitely what I'm meant to do," Bennett said. "I'm glad the adviser asked me about it even though I thought she was nuts at first."

    Bennett, like other graduates of Goodwin's program, said her favorite aspect of the job is working with families that are too overwhelmed with the death of a loved one to make the best decisions for them, from choosing a casket to deciding about the method of burial.

    "The best part is meeting with families and helping them make decisions," she said. "They're overwhelmed and don't know where to begin."

    Learning how to pay respects

    Goodwin's funeral services program was originally taught at the former Lincoln College before it moved to Goodwin in 2019. The program, which has selective admission, teaches students a wide range of funeral service processes, from initial pronouncement of death to final dispositions of the deceased.

    Students learn about business management, embalming, cremation, restorative art, casket sales, removal of human remains, the psychology of death and dying, funeral service law, and ethics. They also take part in at least one 15-week internship at funeral homes around the state. After graduation and passing state exams, students go on to a year-long paid apprenticeship in which they must participate in at least 50 embalmings and funerals before being licensed.

    Possible concentrations in the field include funeral service practitioner, licensed embalmer, funeral director, mortician, and mortuary transporter.

    "It's soup to nuts," Jesse Gomes, an assistant professor and director of the funeral services program, said of Goodwin's offerings.

    Gomes, who is also a working funeral director, said Goodwin's program is only one of three in New England and about 60 across the country. It is the only one with access to a state medical examiner's lab, where, Gomes said, three of his former students currently work.

    As for the makeup of his classes, which usually number about 30 per semester, Gomes said the vast majority are women.

    While about 96 percent of his students find jobs in the industry, Gomes cautions that anyone considering enrolling in the program should not view it as a stepping stone to a career in medicine. He also tells his students the most important rules of the profession:

    "First is respect and last is respect," he said.

    The business of burial

    Lionel Lessard, president of the Connecticut Funeral Directors Association and director at the D'Esopo East Hartford Memorial Chapel, said the funeral business has changed quite a bit since he began his career in 1979.

    Back then, he said, traditional funerals featured public calling hours one or two days prior to a church funeral service, followed by a procession to a cemetery for burial. At the time, only about 5 percent of final dispositions were cremations.

    Over the years, Lessard said, public calling hours have been reduced or replaced by family-only gatherings and there are fewer church services, which have been replaced by graveside services or park gatherings. Cremations now stand at about 50 percent, he said, and there are newer options including terramation, or human composting, and hydrolysis, or cremation by water.

    Lessard said that many families these days are looking for more joyful celebrations of life instead of somber memorial services.

    "People want color and light, not black," he said.

    The makeup of the workforce has also shifted, as the business has moved away from several generations of the same family owning and working in a funeral home — there are fewer FDK (funeral directors' kids) around these days, Lessard says. Today, more funeral homes are being sold to national corporations and the workforce is trending toward people seeking a second career.

    As a result of the change toward corporate ownership and younger generations choosing not to enter the business, Lessard said there is a growing need for more younger people to replace an aging funeral service population that finds it harder to handle late-night calls or heavy lifting.

    "There is a need and it's a growing need," he said.

    But the job itself hasn't changed, said Lessard, who is also on the advisory board of Goodwin's funeral service program and a member of its board of trustees.

    "I learned early on in my career that you have to be flexible, willing to adapt to be successful. You have to listen and be willing to give them choices and options," he said. "You're helping people out at the most difficult time of their lives."

    Advice from recent grads

    Matt Istendadt, who recently graduated from the program, said that during the COVID pandemic, he began working as a doorman at his brother-in-law's three funeral homes after the restaurant he was working for closed. That led him to start thinking about a career in the funeral industry, especially since he had college experience in a related scientific field.

    Istendadt, 30, who is waiting to take his state board exam and then begin his apprenticeship, said he believes Goodwin prepared him well for his new career. He also has advice for the students coming in behind him.

    "Get in a funeral home now," he said.

    Justin Porter, 34, also just finished his requirements for graduation and is waiting to take the state exam. He also has a science background from a previous college experience.

    Porter, who has a background in hairdressing, said the program gives students a good foundation. He said he would like to see the program invest more in staffing, adding a professor and some teaching assistants.

    Regarding what he learned — both good and bad — from the program, Porter said he gained muscle from having to lift heavy objects but was not a fan of the amount of paperwork that goes with working in the funeral service business.

    Porter, who spent double the required number of weeks in internships than required, also had some advice for others enrolled in the program.

    "Be prepared to take some initiative on your own," he said. "If you wait to get handed things, you'll get behind."

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