By Danny Lawhon
The educational requirements to become a licensed funeral director and embalmer in Iowa haven’t changed in more than 60 years.
The Iowa Funeral Directors Association has been wanting to up the ante. Some among the current generation of directors see more barriers to an industry already struggling to meet demand.
The result is an odd dichotomy — and some strong feelings — for a field in flux.
Most states that offer a combined funeral director/embalmer license, including Iowa, ask for the equivalent of an associate’s degree, along with the completion of an accredited mortuary science program and passage of examinations.
The IFDA wants Iowa to become the third state (joining Minnesota and Ohio) to require a bachelor’s degree in order to gain a license. Its reasons are numerous and far-reaching.
- For one, 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,” said IFDA legislative council Michael Triplett.
- Additionally, 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,” Triplett said. “We didn’t have to deal with fentanyl, ebola, AIDS … requirements that are a matter of the world evolving.”
- There’s also the practical matter of having a degree, no matter what future employment or career discernment. “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,” said Iowa Rep. Vicki Lensing, D-Iowa City, who has co-owned Lensing Funeral Home since 1978. “In that case, you feel like you wouldn’t have wasted your time.”
Upper Iowa University is the only state college offering a bachelor’s in mortuary science. Students must attend the Fayette campus, that carries a $28,850 annual tuition cost. If a student received all education through Des Moines Area Community College’s nationally accredited program, he or she could complete all schooling with a total estimated cost of around $20,000.
Affordability and access are the obvious alarm bells, but they’re impactful ones.
“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,” said 24-year-old Lance Angstman, who is a funeral director at Mitchell Family Funeral Home in Marshalltown. “The school loan debt can be unbelievable.”
Indeed, nearly two-thirds of Iowa’s college graduates in 2015-16 had student loan debt when they received their diplomas, according to data compiled by The Institute for College Access & Success. Those graduates had an average student loan debt load of $29,801, the 19th highest in the nation.
“The student debt load is a big factor,” said Richard Slade, who has owned Slade-O’Donnell Funeral Home for nearly four decades. “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.”
Kevin Patterson is the chair of the DMACC mortuary science program, the only one in the state certified by the American Board of Funeral Service Education. He sees the draw and the concern in equal measure and merely wants what’s best for students.
If there’s miscommunication involved, it concerns the framework that would be in place if a bachelor’s becomes a requirement. Any change in these standards require approval from the Iowa Legislature. To that end, 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 program option before proceeding.
Triplett said the IFDA has specifically talked with University of Northern Iowa representatives about the idea.
“There has to be an option that is cost-effective and protective of students,” Triplett said.
Pat Leonard, who owns Leonard Funeral Home and Crematory in Dubuque, is secretary-treasurer of the IFDA and has served as a past president, said the formal effort is “not in the infant stage, but still in the middle ground.”
“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.”