Maria Fonseca found her way to mortuary school the way a lot of people do: Someone died.
"Unfortunately, three years ago, I lost a cousin," she says.
The funeral director who helped her family grieve left an impression. Fonseca didn't know anyone in the funeral industry, and she asked to shadow him. Then she decided to follow in his footsteps.
"I want to be there to support [families] whenever they're going through the worst moment in their life," she says.
Like Fonseca, 83% of mortuary college graduates in 2018 had no family in the industry, according to the American Board of Funeral Service Education. They represent a major change in an industry that for decades was dominated by family businesses passed down through generations.
"Nobody just walks in here by an accident," says Todd Van Beck, an administrator at John A. Gupton College in Nashville, Tenn., where Fonseca is working toward a degree.
"I believe firmly people are called to be a funeral director."
From legacy to calling
Van Beck refers to funeral directing as a "ministry," but it wasn't always that way.
In the years following World War II, a surge of veterans used their GI Bill benefits to go to mortuary school, says Jzyk Ennis, a spokesman for the National Funeral Directors Association. It was a secure profession (there would always be a demand for funeral services), and it was seen as a respectable white-collar job "because funeral directors wore suits," Ennis notes.
After the vets set up their funeral homes, Ennis says, it became standard for their kids or relatives to start working there and, one day, take over.
"The family name of the business becomes a long-term legacy in the community, and the children and grandchildren have secure futures," he says.
But being a funeral director involves long hours and unpredictable schedules — working weekends, taking phone calls in the middle of the night, missing birthday parties. For some people who inherited the business, the lifestyle wasn't worth it.
"I can't imagine a more cursed life than to be a funeral director and not want to do it," says Van Beck.
Still, many stuck with it. Gupton College President Steven Spann remembers when he started working at the school in the mid-1990s.
He says, "You had a lot of family-owned funeral students — their parents were in the funeral industry — back then. You don't see a lot of that now."
Gupton College is a pretty typical two-year school — with some key differences. Most colleges don't have casket displays or offer courses in embalming. Perhaps what's most striking to a casual visitor is the fact that every student, whether in class or wandering the hallway, is required to wear a suit, just as they will one day on the job.
"For females, it's very hard to find a suit anywhere," says Fonseca. "But I managed to."
Fonseca is passionate about her chosen career. But like her fellow first-generation classmates, she faces challenges that students who grew up in funeral homes don't. Those students have lived the material that's covered in their embalming and funeral directing classes. Newcomers have to race to keep up in the first few months, Fonseca says.
Gupton student Austin York, another newcomer, remembers feeling overwhelmed in his first few months.
"I was a nervous wreck," he says. "I wouldn't spend my time talking to any other students."
First-generation students also often face pushback from their loved ones who don't know what the industry is about. Spann, Gupton's president, says it's not uncommon for parents to resist their child's decision to enroll.
"It amazes me, the ones that come back at 22 and 24 and 25 that said, 'I wanted to do this at 18, and Mom and Dad wouldn't let me' because they think that's morbid."
Van Beck, himself a first-generation funeral director, says his parents were relatively supportive when he told them, at age 5, that he wanted to one day work in a funeral home.
But that wasn't the case with other adults he talked to about it.
"Everybody [thought] something horrible must have happened to me. I went to a funeral, and it was the most beautiful thing I had seen."
Eventually, Van Beck says, even uncomfortable family members warm up to the idea after seeing how passionate Gupton students are about funeral services.
That's what happened with Fonseca. She says her mother "freaked out" when Fonseca first shared her new career plans. But her mom has since come around, although she still doesn't like hearing about the schoolwork.
Fonseca hopes to help change the stigma around the funeral industry. After she graduates, she plans to work in a funeral home, and one day she wants to run her own. Then, she hopes to get her family on board — her siblings, maybe even her own children — and pass on a new family funeral business to the next generation.