It’s been incredibly flattering to see how Undertaking LA has inspired the desire in so many people to start their own funeral home. Nothing brings a tear to my eye, and warm oxygenated blood to my heart, like seeing your enthusiasm to create a world in which there is greater family control over the dead body, as well as more transparency in the funeral industry in general. And, while my first instinct is to tell you to run fast and far, and that you should enjoy whatever precious time you have left on this fragile terrain known as Earth, I know you won’t listen. You are just going to have to find out what this job is really like the hard way. So, in an effort to make it a little easier on you, I put this list together of some of the most important things I’ve learned along the way, that you will need regardless of what State-or country-you live in. As for the emotional stability to handle everything else. Well …
Know the laws that govern your State.
Every State is different. When people call asking for legal advice, good schools to attend, or what they are allowed to do, I genuinely can’t tell you. Think of this as a litmus test for whether or not you really want to do this job. A great deal of being a mortician, as well as an entrepreneur, is creative problem solving and having to think on your toes. Looking up the laws that govern you is necessary and you will need to know them backwards and forwards (and probably upside down too). Ultimately this will be what protects you and makes you a better Funeral Director. Which is why, it would be a disservice for me to do the work for you. So step one, no matter what State you reside in, I promise you have a governing Funeral Bureau, I want you to look it up, find your “Laws” tab, and start researching. After that, take a visit to the Funeral Consumers Alliance and commit the information you will find on their site to memory. Print it out. Tape it to your wall with all your other laws and make them your best friends. When you start your home you will be responsible for adhering to those laws. Violations can result in massive fines and even losing your license!
Find out your requirements to be a licensed Funeral Director, Embalmer, and Funeral Home.
Again, every State is different. I know that essentially this information goes hand in hand with “know your laws”, but because I know every State is different, and to the best of my knowledge licenses are not State transferable, it’s worth reiterating. For example, in California it is only required to have one licensed Funeral Director on staff. Everyone else can essentially work under their license. This means that if right now you want to get your feet wet in the industry you do not actually have to be licensed. Huge disclaimer, I am not saying I do not think you shouldn’t be licensed. It’s merely an example of one of our laws. If you’d like to be a licensed Funeral Director you must have 60 units of college credit, be over 18, not committed a felony, and then pay a fee to take the exam (and pass it). Bam, you got yourself a license! In States like Georgia and Texas you will also have to serve an apprenticeship, which is honestly not a terrible idea (cough cough California).
To be a licensed Funeral Home we absolutely had to have a Prep Room- this is where bodies are embalmed-regardless of whether we offered embalming, and of course, we had to have refrigeration space. The caveat was that we were permitted to share a space if another home would let us. We are incredibly lucky to have found a crematory that was willing to partner with two unknown girls and sign a contract that would allow us to do just that. There is only one other place in the Los Angeles area that I know of that does that and I am not even aware if they are taking on new homes at this time which essentially means that starting a home like ours may not be currently possible. In other States I have seen laws that also require you to have a casket selection room, which is something that we do not have and would absolutely despise having since we only offer three caskets and would have no where to show them.
To sum it up, look up what you need in your specific State to be fully licensed. If it seems like it is not a possibility for you then you may need to think of other creative business avenues that will allow you to still obtain the qualities of this job that are inspiring you to help this movement.
You will need a dedicated phone system.
This sounds like a no brainer right? But, it’s worth pointing out. You have your mortuary, so now how do people get in touch with you? You don’t want to give out your personal number, which means you will need to purchase a business number. Companies like RingCentral offer the ability to purchase multiple numbers, as well as the offering Call Forwarding so that even if you are not by your desk phone-and believe me you never will be-all calls will go to your cellphone. RingCentral also allows us to send and receive electronic faxes. In case you’re laughing right now and thinking, “Ummm faxes? Amber it’s 2017.” Lemme just tell you, “No it ain’t!” Faxes. Learn to love them my friend. This industry is stuck in 1975 in more ways than one. However, my guess is that faxes are used because they are a dedicated phone line and are more secure than an email which can be intercepted and have private information stolen. But I still hates them.
You absolutely want an Answering Service.
An Answering Service is a company that essentially works like a 24/7 secretary for you. They can answer basic questions, take messages, and even dispatch First Calls if you want them to help with that. Most importantly, if you ever want to go to the bathroom, take a shower in peace, or get a good night of sleep-ever ever ever again-you will absolutely need them. Answering Services have various levels of plans, so figure out how to work this into your monthly cost. When we first opened we used our answering service sparingly cuz, duh, we were hella broke and couldn’t afford to use it too much. It resulted in me getting insane amounts of late night phone calls from people who wanted to talk about their eventual demise while I was trying to relax with friends or dare see a concert. Don’t be me trying to run outta the one and only good Cypress Hill song at the Greek Theater to find out that someone was interested in filling out a Pre-Arrangement packet with you at 11PM. While I think that openly discussing your death is great, that can definitely wait until normal business hours. Moral of story? Thank you Answering Service. I love you. Answering service.
Figure out if a First Call service is right for you.
We are lucky that our Crematory also functions as our First Call service. What’s that you ask? Well, when someone dies and they make their “first call” to the mortuary, these are the responders. They are the drivers that go to the hospital morgue to pick up the body, or come to your house. If you are trying to save money it is possible that you could save more by doing this yourself. However, you will need to factor in your van, gurney, car insurance, and any sort of personal and/or property insurance you will need for this. For us it is more cost effective to have our Crematory staff do this, but depending on how many cases you do a month it may be better for you to do them yourself. Don’t forget that house calls need two people so you will have to have a partner. Also I’m not sure if I mentioned to you how much I enjoy sleeping yet? But I LOVE my sleep. From time to time our good friend Jeff at Elemental Cremations brings up how we should be our own First Call drivers to help with our business. And to that I say “Shut up Jeff! Don’t give Caitlin any crazy ideas! Or I will be driving that van to Seattle to see your body first!” Actually, I think doing hospital calls could be pretty relaxing which I know sounds weird. But hey! I am a mortician saying that so take it as you will.
You need need need to have a digital/electronic signature service. Oh yeah! And Adobe Acrobat helps too!
This was something I went a long time-three years-without utilizing and I CANNOT believe I made it that far. Getting a company like RightSignature or DocuSign is pretty much a game changer. Yesterday I went through my old files and they looked like my cat had done all of my arrangements, used his face to input the information, barfed on my computer and yet somehow managed to file them all in a folder on my desktop with the family name correctly labeled because that was the only part that was neatly done. Do NOT start your business without this. Digital signatures not only make it easy for your family to return your forms which makes them happy, it keeps them from incorrectly filling them out. This was almost 80% of my daily headache when I first started out. I tried every single thing I could think of to get people to sign on the correct lines. “Please only sign where you see a star”. Paperwork would come back with blank lines next to stars. “Please sign where you see the arrows.” Multiple signatures all over the place with missing signatures. “Please don’t sign anything. We will go over it together on the phone and I will tell you where to sign.” Yup, you guessed it, missing signatures and wrong placements. Do NOT do this to yourself. You will waste hours-even days-of your life chasing people back down and asking them to re-scan stuff, which by the way, makes them super pissed. Don’t skimp on this. I just saved your whole business with that. Trust me.
Adobe was a last minute thought. Although I cannot believe I forgot it. I am currently editing a packet from a family and Adobe helps me extract the necessary pages I need to send to my crematory as well as combine their Death Certificate and Disposition Permit into the same packet. This will help you organize your files and simplify the process along the way when it comes time to print them out and verify that you have everything you need to complete a file.
Again. You’re welcome.
(Thank you Jeff… Jeff shout out.)
You will need reliable car.
I would be lost without my car. If you have ever tried to drop by our office you may have found we were not there. That is because as a small business we are constantly on the go. I spend a large portion of my time driving to and from the crematory and then jumping on my laptop either at home or a coffee shop so that I can smell fresh air and get enough sunshine that I don’t die of a Vitamin D deficiency, or more importantly, stress. It is only after three years that we have finally been able to hire an assistant who now takes on some of the driving tasks that allow me to spend more time in the office and on the phones to help our families. However I would consider us to be ridiculously lucky to be able to do this by year three and that only happens because of my next piece of advice. And you may not like this one…
You are going to need a second job, or a small business loan.
I’m fairly certain that my partner and I know that we are in a unique position. Caitlin is now a twice New York Times best selling author. This allows her to invest in me and Undertaking LA in a way that other small business owners couldn’t. However, if you are thinking, “Oh great! How the heck am I supposed to get a Caitlin?! I give up.” I wouldn’t just yet. Here is my terrible dirty secret. I have worked a second job for the last three years. It’s what helps us offer competitive prices and keeps our cost low. We supplement our income by working 24/7. I have no life. In fact, I am using the morsel of free time I have right now to write this to you. And using the very very few minutes I have between running to the Health Office, answering emails, answering the phone, faxing papers to the crematory, and going to the Post Office, to edit this. And that is going to be the level of passion you will need if you want to be successful. You need to eat, sleep, breathe, mortuary life. And then you need to find time to have another job in between all of this. I am lucky and my other job provides a mostly stable income that has allowed me to survive these last three years. I could also tell you that with a very minimal loan I probably could have made the payments I’d need in order to keep our doors open. Whatever you choose to do, be it getting a second job or taking out a loan, make sure that you take care of yourself. This is an incredibly emotionally draining job and if you don’t take care of you, you won’t be able to take care of anyone else.
You need to know that sometimes, it gets lonely.
Yes. It gets lonely. And no, that is not a reference to being around dead bodies. I actually spend most of my day talking to families, which means that technically I am never alone and always have someone to chat with. What I am referring to is the quality of time spent with others and what effect that has on your mood and brain chemistry. You may find that your friends will not want to talk about your job. You may even find that you don’t want to because it feels unhealthier rehashing the day out and living it all over again. After all this time, I still almost never tell people what I do, because the truth is most people do not understand what this job is. And when you put your heart and soul into it, it feels incredibly isolating after awhile. You may also find, that answering questions from strangers that they seem to find cute and funny, actually just feel disrespectful to the hard work you put into this.
So, I guess what I am saying is brace yourself for this life. If you work in a normal funeral home you may or may not find any of this to be true or helpful. That’s ok. But, like any endeavor where you set off to truly create something you are passionate about, you will often be on your own. I am so so thankful for Caitlin, who answers almost all of my insane and crazy texts, even when she is in some far off country on an excursion. She is still always able to listen and respond with a certain kind of calm empathy that can only come from a woman who has also been there. I am also overwhelmingly happy for Sarah Chavez. She’s my death sister stationed three hours North, but always a text away and we have spent endless hours sympathizing, empathizing, and talk one another off a cliff. Ok it’s her talking me off the cliff. And, I’m thankful for Jeff Jorgenson, our big brother in Seattle who has offered endless advice and has also shared all of my woes of learning how to run a funeral home from scratch. So last piece of advice, find your tribe. They are out there somewhere, but also find solace in the quiet time with yourself. If you haven’t learned to appreciate it yet, I promise you will.
Best of Luck Future Deathlings,