DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Funerals are a more than $15 billion business in America. And for decades, that industry was dominated by families who passed the business down through generations. But that is changing now. Last year, about 83% of mortuary college graduates were completely new to the profession.
As Emily Siner of member station WPLN found, these first-generation students are facing some real challenges.
EMILY SINER, BYLINE: In a nondescript building near downtown Nashville, a new generation of funeral directors is learning the craft.
AUSTIN YORK: The school is not very large. This is literally the entire downstairs classroom.
SINER: Austin York is one of about 140 students at John A. Gupton College. And it's a pretty typical two-year school, with some key differences. Most colleges don't have casket displays or offer courses in embalming. And perhaps what's most striking to a casual visitor is the fact that every student, whether in class or wandering the hallway, is in a suit.
YORK: They want us to look professional - leather shoes and belt, same color, dress pants, suit, tie.
MARIA FONSECA: Which, for females, it's very hard to find a suit anywhere.
SINER: York and his classmate, Maria Fonseca, are both the first in their families to go to mortuary college. They represent a major change in the industry. Gupton College president Steven Spann remembers when he started working at the school in the mid-'90s.
STEVEN SPANN: You had a lot of family-owned funeral students, that their parents were in the funeral industry back then. You don't see a lot of that now.
SINER: In 2018, only about 17% of mortuary college graduates had family in the industry. That's according to the American Board of Funeral Service Education. Gupton College administrator Todd Van Beck says people don't get into this business out of morbid fascination. Those who enroll without family connections really want to be there.
TODD VAN BECK: Nobody just walks in here by an accident. That - I believe firmly people are called to be a funeral director.
SINER: Student Maria Fonseca heard that call at a family member's funeral.
FONSECA: Unfortunately, three years ago, I lost a cousin. Back then, I met a funeral director, which he took very well care of our family. He was our main support.
SINER: She asked to shadow him. And she was inspired by how a good funeral director can help families work through their grief.
FONSECA: I want to be there to support them whenever they're going through the worst moment in their life.
SINER: But the job has some big challenges, especially for those who aren't used to the lifestyle of long days and unpredictable schedules. Spann says there's a lot of taking phone calls in the middle of the night, working on weekends, missing birthday parties.
SPANN: The turnover rate's pretty high. Usually, if you stay in it after that, you're there till you die (laughter) or retire, and many of us don't retire (laughter).
SINER: First-generation students who do decide to stay in it often face another challenge - pushback from families who have no idea what the industry's about. Here's Van Beck.
BECK: Well, I'll give you example. When I was 5 years old, I told my parents I was going to be a funeral director when I got big. And everybody thinks something horrible must have happened to me. I went to a funeral, and it was the most beautiful thing I had seen.
SINER: He says most of the first-generation students he knows have had similar experiences, including Fonseca.
FONSECA: Once I told my mom I was going to go into the funeral business, she freaked out.
SINER: She says her mother has come around to the idea, although she still doesn't love hearing about the schoolwork. Fonseca knows there's a stigma around working with death, but she hopes to change that. Once she graduates, she'll work in a funeral home. And one day, she wants to run her own. Then she hopes to get her family on board.
FONSECA: Hopefully having either my siblings follow that through, or even my children.
SINER: Passing on a new family funeral business to the next generation. For NPR News, I'm Emily Siner in Nashville.
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