Idaho funeral home director says the business has changed

A fifth-generation Idaho funeral home director says customer preferences have evolved.

POST REGISTERJanuary 15, 2014 

Brian J. Wood’s workday starts when someone dies.

“I tell my wife, ‘Oh honey, I’m going to work to pick somebody up and get them ready for their funeral,’ ” he said. “It doesn’t faze me at all.”

Some days, the phone call comes at noon; other days, it’s 2 a.m. But procedure for an on-call funeral director is always the same: When he receives notice of a death, Wood drops what he’s doing, gets in his car and drives to pick up the remains of the deceased.

A FAMILY BUSINESS

Wood, 32, is a mortician and funeral director at his family’s business, Wood Funeral Home, in Idaho Falls.

“Death is as normal to me as birth is to a nurse who works over in women’s care,” Wood said. “They see birth every single day. I see death every single day.”

He grew up watching his dad — also a licensed mortician — manage the family business. But he rarely helped his father with the work.

In college, his interest in the profession grew after he started working part-time at the family business.

“At 21, I started in the mindset that the funeral industry was a little scary,” he said. “Because when people think of a funeral director, everyone immediately thinks of death and that all of our time is spent with a dead body. But once I got into it, I realized most of our time is spent with the family. The death part is like 10 percent of our business.”

FOLLOWING THE RULES

In Idaho, there are 236 licensed morticians and 10 licensed funeral directors, said Dawn Hall, spokeswoman for the Bureau of Occupational Licenses.

Each must adhere to the “Funeral Rule,” which is enforced by the Federal Trade Commission and governs the type of information funeral service providers are required to disclose to consumers.

Provisions include not charging consumers for embalming unless they authorize it, providing consumers a price list and informing consumers they are not required to purchase a casket if they choose cremation.

Since 1995, the Idaho Board of Morticians has taken disciplinary action against 42 funeral service providers in the state, according to the Idaho Bureau of Occupational Licenses website.

State law allows a licensed mortician to perform funeral-director services, but not vice versa. Requirements to obtain either license include 60 college credit hours, 12 months as a resident trainee under the supervision of a licensed resident mortician, one year of mortuary school and passing a state and national exam.

Wood performs both mortician and funeral director services. As a funeral director, he wears a crisp, dark suit and a warm smile, doing his best to comfort grieving families.

Seated on the cozy couches in an upstairs area of the funeral home, he helps them make all the necessary arrangements.

As a mortician, he heads downstairs to a stark white room that smells of antiseptic solution.

He dons a white, polyethylene apron that he ties over his suit. He also puts on a surgical mask and covers his shoes. He begins by sterilizing the body, setting its features and injecting it with embalming fluid. He then applies face makeup, styles the hair and dresses the body in attire provided by the family.

“It’s all part of the job,” Wood said. “Instead of bringing them into life, I’m helping them depart life.”

INDUSTRY CHANGES

These days, fewer families are choosing embalming and traditional funerals for their departed loved ones. Cremation, a cheaper alternative, is growing in popularity.

A traditional burial costs $2,000 to $4,000 more than cremation, Wood said, because it includes additional cost of a casket, vault and a plot at the cemetery.

In 2012, the average cost of a funeral nationally was $7,045, according to a survey from the National Funeral Directors Association. During the past decade, funeral costs have increased 35.2 percent, according to the survey.

While people in eastern Idaho still request more traditional burials than other places, Wood said 35 to 40 percent of his services are now cremation services.

“It's truly on the rise,” he said. “Society is becoming very transaction-based, where you can have what you want, when you want, in five minutes. People used to come in here and the handshake was all they needed. Nowadays, we need a contract. It’s sad to see it change like that, but that's just the way it's going.”

Laine Eckersell, owner and mortician at Eckersell Funeral Home in Rigby, said helping people in need is the part of the business that hasn’t changed. When people ask him what it’s like to work around so much grief, he tells them that helping others makes it all worthwhile.

“It is different for me, because I’m not the one grieving,” he said. “I see the people who are sad and hurt. But I’m there to help and serve them. It’s my job.”

Wood said the job has helped him personally come to terms with death. As a result, he lives his own life a little differently.

“Death is scary to people because it’s unfamiliar to them,” he said. “I’ve learned it’s extremely hard to know when things are going to happen in life. It can take you by surprise. So this job is a steady reminder that life is short.”

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kjohnson@postregister.com (208) 542-6757

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