Iowa’s New Mortuary Education Proposal May Spark State-wide Staff Drought
It was recently announced that Iowa might join Minnesota and Ohio to become the third U.S. state to require a bachelor’s degree in mortuary science in order to gain a funeral director/embalmer license. This would be the first change to the Iowa funeral director license requirements in 60 years and it is being met with strong opinions for and against the proposed changes.
Currently to obtain a combined funeral director/embalmer license in Iowa (and in most states) you are required to have the equivalent of an associate’s degree, the completion of an accredited mortuary science program, and passage of examinations. While the Iowa Funeral Directors Association wants to increase the qualifications to require a bachelor’s degree in order to obtain a license, many in the younger generation of directors see this change as adding more barriers to an industry already struggling to meet staffing demand.
IFDA legislative council Michael Triplett explained his stance for the new education requirements to the Des Moines Register:
…family dynamics and cultural experiences in Iowa have changed radically since the current laws were enacted Sept. 1, 1955. Every health scare of the past 60 years, we have had to get educated on to fix the problems. We didn’t have to deal with fentanyl, ebola, AIDS … requirements that are a matter of the world evolving.
Triplett implies that a student cannot be taught about “deal[ing] with fentanyl, Ebola, AIDS” within the existing education requirements. In the funeral space, it would be unacceptable for a topic so crucial as body-conditions not to be covered before the license is issued. If Triplett is correct and the industry is indeed experiencing problems with “family dynamics and cultural experiences in Iowa [that] have changed radically…[since] 1955” than the education curriculum needs to change, not the level of education obtained.
Triplett explains his second point saying:
…the current requirements put students within 10 credit hours of the degree to begin with, according to association literature. We think students should be rewarded for that.
Vicki Lensing of co-owner of Lensing Funeral Home shares a similar opinion saying:
I’ve always supported (a degree requirement), just because some people get into the field and may not like it, and there’s a degree there to fall back on.
The troubling lining of Triplett’s and Lensing’s arguments is that it assumes that intelligent college-educated adults cannot make rational decisions about their own future. Triplett wants to “reward” students with a bachelor degree for their work by requiring them to spend more money and an additional year of studying. Currently, if an individual studying mortuary science wants to spend an extra 30 credit hours obtaining a bachelor degree – they can. Further, Lensing’s motherly concern for mortuary science students neglects to acknowledge that someone unsatisfied with their career choice in any field has the ability to return to school later to obtain a required or satisfactory degree.
Finally, we need to look at the practical attainability of a mortuary science bachelor’s degree in the state of Iowa. Currently, there is only one school offering a bachelor’s degree in mortuary science – Upper Iowa University on their Fayette campus. Here, you can get the degree in 3 years and complete the necessary schooling with a total estimated cost of around $86,550. If the education requirements do not change and students do not need a bachelor’s degree in mortuary science to get their funeral director/embalmer license than one could attend Des Moines Area Community College’s nationally accredited program and complete the necessary schooling with a total estimated cost of around $20,000. Not only is it rare to find a mortuary science bachelor’s degree program in Iowa, it’s incredibly costly, especially for a job that will pay an entry-position salary of around $30,000
24-year-old Lance Angstman, a funeral director at Mitchell Family Funeral Home in Marshalltown, told the Des Moines Register:
If you are calling for a bachelor’s degree in Iowa, you’re going to lose a lot of opportunities pulling up kids from school around my age.
Richard Slade, owner of Slade-O’Donnell Funeral Home for nearly four decades, said:
The student debt load is a big factor. And I personally feel the vast majority of skills, just speaking for myself, is learned on the job. So many things I’ve learned never came from textbooks. Don’t get me wrong, Iowa has a lot of great education and some of the more stringent requirements in the nation. I can tell the difference, and there’s a lot to be said for that. … But just because you have a degree doesn’t ensure any greater practical competency.
With the overwhelming evidence showing that tightening education requirements will lead to damaging Iowa’s funeral landscape, putting a financial strain on young men and women entering the field, and will ultimately cause a decrease in new students in an already understaffed space… then why is the IFDA pushing to do this?
The answer could lay in the looming threat of widespread industry change due to innovative (and well funded) startups like Parting.com and Meet Grace. The more regulations the industry can put in place now, the safer they feel from outside change. Additionally, by making the education requirements stricter, one can make the funeral industry appear incomprehensibly complex and inaccessible, warding off potential disrupters. But there is a fine line to walk as we’ve watched 44% of the funeral homes in NYC close since 1991 (Crain’s NY) due to a variety of factors including staffing problems and unnecessary overhead due to over-regulation and fees.
Des Moines Register reports that “Triplett and IFDA executive director Suzanne Gebel insisted that they’d receive agreement from one of the state universities governed by the Iowa Board of Regents to provide a public mortuary science [bachelor’s] program option before proceeding.”
Ultimately, the effects of this requirement change in Iowa would be minor. The funeral industry is known for being short staffed and having staffing quality problems and those problems will continue and likely get worse if the new regulations are passed. The reason this decision is important is because it signifies a direction for the funeral industry at-large. Will we continue on the regulated protectionist stance pursued over last century or will we deregulate and open up the industry to allow for more employment opportunities, more innovation, fewer fees for funeral homes (more retained revenue), and more choices for customers?
Pat Leonard, who owns Leonard Funeral Home and Crematory in Dubuque, is secretary-treasurer of the IFDA and has served as a past president to the Des Moines Register:
People need to calm down. This is not going to happen tomorrow or next year. It’s a bit above that infantile stage, but not much larger than that. If it reaches a brick wall, we’ll be the first ones to say it’s not doable,” he said. “We’ll turn the page and improve the system we have now. If we can incorporate some of the new trends in the funeral industry and spearhead this across the nation, maybe it will steamroll if we can get things designed right.
Leonard’s cavalier statement asking people to “calm down,” might be realistic considering the size of Iowa in relationship to more influential states, but the hype isn’t about Iowa. This seemingly insignificant decision carries iconic implications for whats to come for the funeral industry at-large and it is being watched anxiously by industry leaders awaiting a glimpse into the future of death care regulation. Widespread regulation like this has the potential to impact the funeral industry at large – You can read our list of 15 iconic news stories shaping the future of death care here.
To understand more about the history, current state, and future of funeral industry regulations in the United States we strongly encourage you to read the brilliant essay “Regulated to Death” by Tanya Marsh published by The Wake Forest Journal of Law & Policy. Click here to download it free.