The Legal Regulation of Mortuary Science Education

Todd W Van Beck. Handbook of Death and Dying. Editor: Clifton D Bryant. Volume 2. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Reference, 2003.

Throughout a 35-year career as a funeral director, I have informed countless numbers of people about my training and education. Furthermore, I have been asked thousands of times to articulate the requisite educational background that licensed funeral directors and embalmers need to fulfill the requirements for a career in this profession. The response is almost universally the same: “I did not know that! I just thought undertakers had the funeral home passed down to them from their fathers.” So it is with public knowledge of funeral service education, licensing, and internships. The purpose of this chapter is to inform readers about the development and history of mortuary education.

The History of Mortuary Education

A great deal of misinformation exists about the nature of funeral service. This is the world of the undertaker, the embalmer of the dead, the mortuary, and the mortician. Not a week has gone by in my career that I have not been asked, “How can you stand to do that job?” Public ignorance concerning the funeral service profession is particularly revealing in the lack of awareness of funeral service education. Learned and professional people, even professional thanatologists, are hard-pressed to give accurate and timely information on this subject. Sometimes you will hear “experts” say, “Oh, embalming; that started in the Civil War.” Or you will hear something similar to this: “Funeral directors really aren’t well educated.” Even Jessica Mitford (1963) took mortuary education to task in her book The American Way of Death and used the subject to critique the vocation of funeral directing. This vocation was and is an easy target for criticism.

Many misconceptions about funeral directing need to be corrected. The first misconception is that the career and education of funeral directors is a relatively new idea and vocation; second is the notion that embalming the dead and the career of funeral directing really originated during the U.S. Civil War. Although it is true that so many people were killed during the 1861 to 1865 period that hundreds of embalmers were sent onto the battlefield to care for the dead, it is not true that the vocation and education of funeral directors started at that time.

Throughout history, and even in the period before written history, evidence shows that every human society charged someone with the responsibility of caring for the dead and of addressing the community problems created for the living when someone died. In ancient Rome, the responsibilities of “undertaking” were well established. The libitinarius was the head undertaker, and he was paid for the services rendered (Toynbee 1971:130). The libitinarius operated out of the Temple of Libitina, the goddess of corpses and funerals. Deaths were also registered in this temple. The libitinarius had several workers who performed embalming and other functions. The embalmers were called pollinctores (Toynbee 1971:13). The “designator” arranged the funeral procession (very important to the ancient Romans; it is the precursor of the Mardi Gras parade today) (Toynbee 1971:91). The praeco or death crier would summon the people to the funeral procession (Toynbee 1971:113). Most readers are already familiar with Egyptian embalmers of ancient times. Hence, throughout the centuries, someone was assigned the important responsibility of caring for the dead. Over time, the training and education of “undertakers,” whether they were called a libitinaria, pollinctores, designators, or praecos, revolved around the ancient mentor-apprentice system.

In the Middle Ages, those born to peasant families would remain peasants for all their lives, generation after generation. This traditional system continued for many centuries; there was only one way out of this caste system and that was the mentor-apprentice opportunity. If the watchmaker, cobbler, butcher, candlestick maker, or undertaker approached a peasant father and asked if the peasant son could become his apprentice, then the cycle of peasant status from one generation to another was broken. These career opportunities for a peasant family were indeed a time for joy and celebration (Van Beck 1992:144).

The first method for training undertakers was the mentor-apprentice experience, a system that continues to function under state regulations. Today, however, the apprenticeship system is controlled and regulated by state agencies.

By the time of the American colonial period, the vocation of undertaking was well established. In fact the term undertaking comes from the identity of the person who undertook the task of caring for the dead and caretaking of the living at the time of loss and bereavement. In colonial America, undertakers also served as livery stable operators (furnished the funeral coach), cabinetmakers and furniture dealers (furnished caskets), and/or church sextons (sold and dug the graves.)

Probably the oldest documentation of an undertaker being certified to do the job occurred in Boston during 1786. City records indicate that Robert Newman was registered that year with the Selectmen of Boston (the town council) as “one of those willing to undertake the charge of funerals.” It was undertaker-sexton Robert Newman who, on April 18, 1775, hung the lanterns in the steeple of Old North Church to alert the colonial militia of the British invasion, which culminated in the battles of Lexington and Concord and the American Revolution.

Over the next 80 years, the mentor-apprentice system flourished in the United States. The American Civil War, however, created an urgent need for a more regulated and accurate system of mortuary care because of the immediate emergence of thousands of dead human bodies.

President Lincoln’s administration implemented the first organized effort to care for the dead using chemical preparations on a large scale. This movement created the identity of the embalming surgeon and also prompted the move toward formal certification for embalmers. By the end of the war, embalmers had to demonstrate their competency by passing an examination administered by the Quartermaster Corp.

Following the end of the Civil War, a group of men who had served as embalming surgeons began traveling throughout the United States and Canada teaching livery men, cabinetmakers, and church sextons the art and science of embalming. For this reason, Civil War embalmers today are revered in the annals of funeral service and embalming history. Customarily, these traveling, teaching caravans printed a schedule of classes, and a professor accompanied a train to a designated city and taught students the art of embalming, a class that included 6 to 8 hours of instruction. A large, impressive diploma was awarded to the successful student. Professor Joseph Henry Clarke, who, in 1882, founded the Cincinnati College of Mortuary Science, published an account of his 25 years of teaching and travel. The book, titled Reminiscences of Early Embalming (Clarke 1917), provides an insightful chronology of the obstacles these teachers encountered while attempting to promote and teach a new idea.

Mortuary education became more formalized after 1876. In that year, Auguste Renouard opened what can be considered the first free-standing mortuary school in the world. This school was located in Denver, Colorado, but Renouard and his son, Charles, later moved to New York City where they operated their prestigious mortuary school until it closed in the 1950s. Throughout the years 1880 to 1910, many free-standing mortuary schools were established in the United States. Similarly, mortuary schools were established in London England and Toronto Canada. Today, the Cincinnati College of Mortuary Science, established in 1882, holds the distinction of being the oldest mortuary school still in operation.

Gender Opportunity

The success of these schools created specialization in the funeral field. In fact, one of the most famous specialized mortuary schools was created for women students only. From the Victorian period through the early 20th century, it was considered unethical for a man to embalm the naked body of a woman or a child. Because of this situation, an opportunity was created to train women in mortuary sciences. The most famous of these colleges was operated by Lina Odou, who founded the New York School of Embalming for Women and who eventually collaborated with Frank E. Campbell, the famed funeral director of the rich and famous, to establish an institution in Manhattan. By the beginning of the 20th century, a nationwide network of educational institutions was formed to educate funeral directors and embalmers. As this movement took effect, the art and science of embalming and funeral service as a professional calling entered into a new and challenging phase that would continue to build on the profession’s previous foundation.

How the System Works Today

State boards in 49 of the 50 states function as separate and autonomous agencies, each of which enforce their various rules and regulations. Indeed, so many different regulations exist that neither time nor space will allow such inquiry into the subject. What can say be stated, however, is the following: Some states are highly regulated with regulations existing for almost every facet of funeral service and embalming. Certain states also require inspections; heavy fines are levied for violations of state regulations.

Other states, however, have few if any regulations. The state of Colorado, for example, has absolutely no regulations concerning the education of funeral directors or the operation of their businesses. Other states have enacted regulations, but these are rarely, if ever, enforced. And although some states require only a high school diploma for admission to mortuary schools, others require one or two years of advanced general education. Some states accept a certificate or a diploma from a mortuary school, others require an associate degree, and two states, Minnesota and Ohio, require a bachelor’s degree.

As with any bureaucratic organization, different agendas and personalities all play a part in state regulations of the profession. The American Board of Funeral Service Education and the International Conference of Funeral Service Examining Boards, however, function at a somewhat different level than do the individual states boards. This difference is neither good nor bad; it simply offers less bureaucracy and more focused direction on one specific task.

American Board of Funeral Service Education

The structure of the American Board of Funeral Service Education (ABFSE) has five major divisions in which to conduct its operations: (a) a national scholarship program, (b) curriculum development and oversight, (c) liaison to the national board examination, (d) accreditation of the mortuary school, and (e) the college and university council, which serves as the voice for funeral service educators.

The history of the organization has been marked by periods of intense acrimony and discord. Several recurring themes can be identified that the funeral profession simply seems unable to resolve. These are (a) academic requirements for licensure; (b) single funeral director/embalmers license versus a dual license for each; (c) a national board examination versus one administered by the state board; (d) items to be included in the curriculum; (e) academic policies, including admissions requirements; (f) recognition from the federal government; and (g) public versus private education programs. Such issues have been debated over the past 50 to 70 years.

The International Conference of Funeral Service Examining Boards develops and administers the National Board Examination. In 1928, the old “Grading Committee” was employed to determine the grade for each school. A grade of “A” was awarded to programs that required a high school education and required 24 weeks of instruction; a grade of “B” was granted to programs that required an eighth-grade education and 24 weeks of instruction; and, finally, a grade of “C” was granted to programs that required only an eighth-grade education and provided a 12-week program of instruction. The curriculum at the time included embalming, anatomy, microbiology, pathology, chemistry, hygiene, restorative art, funeral service law, accounting, and ethics. Today, the conference examination consists of 300 multiple-choice questions covering subjects such as embalming, anatomy, microbiology, pathology, chemistry, hygiene, restorative art, funeral service law, accounting ethics, funeral history, psychology of grief, business law, funeral service merchandising, sociology of funeral service, computers, funeral directing, and finances.


As a primary part of further attempts to establish a degree of vocational professionalism in funeral directing, a series of licensing requirements were enacted during the latter half of the 19th century. Known during this period as state boards of embalmers, the primary function of these boards was to license new funeral directors. The composite membership, which still functions in many states, was usually through an appointment by the governor of the state. At the time, it was not uncommon for funeral directors who had assisted in electing a governor or who contributed financially to a gubernatorial campaign to receive these appointments, for when the administration changed, the state regulatory board memberships also changed. Then, as today, each state had its own regulations. Unfortunately, attempts at universal licensure have not been successful, and little hope exists that such licensure will soon materialize.

In the past, state boards of funeral directors and embalmers administered the examinations, interviewed the candidates, and issued the final licenses. This system worked well for nearly 75 years, but over time, in some areas of the country, the boards functioned in the manner of a social insiders club more than a regulatory body without a political agenda. Because of abuses of the system, “public members” joined the boards in the late 1960s, and some states turned the board responsibilities over to a government official who, in consultation with an advisory board, worked to reform the regulatory structure deemed to be essential for the protection of the public and the profession itself. Because of the labyrinth of state regulations governing the practice of funeral service, however, the system continues to vary from state to state.

One of the most glaring problems is the issue of reciprocity of state licensure. If funeral directors were originally licensed in one state, the issue became one of whether this same license would allow one to practice in another state. At present, this issue remains unresolved. Indeed, it is common practice for one who has been once licensed to be denied licensure in another state simply because of a few requirements that may differ. In the past, it was common for the sitting state board of funeral directors and embalmers to require a reciprocal license candidate to reenter a mortuary college and take the entire set of required courses a second time. Requirements such as these, however, have been eliminated, but the funeral service licensing system remains a complicated process.

The State of Colorado addressed this issue of licensing during the 1980s when the legislature established what is known as “sunset” for the state board of funeral directors and embalmers. Sunsetting is a process of ongoing audits of both money and consumer protection that produces recommendations made to the state legislature as to whether the state board under evaluation should continue or should be “sunset,” or replaced. When the State of Colorado eliminated the state board of funeral directors and embalmers, this act led to substantial reaction within the funeral profession. Many funeral director associations began to emphasize the important role of the state board system both to their membership and to the general public. However noble these efforts were, the State of Colorado has stood firm that funeral directors need not be licensed.

The result of sunsetting has not been dramatic in Colorado primarily because the state does not have a large number of funeral homes. However, should sunsetting occur in New York State, for example, where the Bureau of Funeral Director monitors over 2,000 funeral homes, or in Pennsylvania where the State Board of funeral Directors and Embalmers also monitors 2,000 funeral homes, the consequences would tell a much more different story. It is safe to predict that not many more states will follow the lead of Colorado, but because several states do have active sunsetting policies in place, there are no guarantees.

Education: The System

In this section, mortuary education and licensing requirements in funeral service from 1900 to the present day are addressed. The focus of this discussion is on the formation of the three regulatory agencies and how, over time, these agencies have come to influence each other through establishing a form of mutual cooperation and support within the profession.

During the early portion of the 20th century, progressive funeral directors such as George Olinger, David Turner, and Russell Law, among others, recognized the need for change. The year 1900, for example, gave rise to the first formal discussion directed toward establishing a standardized national examination, which was intended to replace the older state board examination. Viewed by some individuals as being highly suspect, given that factors external to the actual licensing process often influenced who did receive such certification, the new system of examination was directed toward challenging a male-dominated system and the “good old boy” network that had operated with great efficiency.

From 1900 to 1925, the United States was to witness a movement from commercial schools where the practice of selling embalming fluid along with diplomas was a frequent occurrence during the rise of the proprietary school, the sole purpose of which was the education of funeral directors in the modern, sophisticated techniques of the profession. Also, in 1900, the National Funeral Directors Association instituted the first committee on education.

In 1904, the initial meeting of the Joint Conference of Embalming Boards and State Boards of Health was commissioned to design a plan for unifying the regulation of embalming requirements and examinations among the states to confront the issue of professional license reciprocity and explore the adoption of uniform transportation rules in the shipping of deceased persons. These attempts at uniformity at the beginning of the 20th century, despite the best efforts, found little if any support in the field. Several years passed before the vision of these progressive thinkers was realized.

Prior to 1910, the average embalming curriculum was increased from 6 to 8 hours, to an average of 3 to 7 days. In 1910, the Cincinnati College of Embalming adopted a 6-week course, and by 1913, that same school began to offer an optional 3-month curriculum.

In the 1920s, many mortuary schools were in a transformation process, moving from private to not-for-profit organizations. Charles O. Dhonau, dean of the Cincinnati College at the time, was a pioneer in this movement, and he eventually established the Cincinnati Foundation for Mortuary Education, which to this day functions as a part of the college’s financial foundation.

In the history of funeral service education, the year 1927 was pivotal in the advancement of mortuary education. Professor Charles O. Dhonau called a meeting to be held in Cincinnati where for the first time representatives from the examining boards, mortuary college representatives, and members of the present-day National Funeral Directors Association met. At this meeting, a nine-person grading committee, the forerunner of what is currently known as the American Board of Funeral Service Education, was formed to evaluate mortuary science programs. Known as the “Grading Committee,” this body was composed of three members from the state boards of embalmers and funeral directors, three from the mortuary schools, and three representatives from the education committee of the National Funeral Directors Association. This committee recommended that a nationwide minimum 6-month curriculum be adopted, that a minimum of a high school diploma be required for entrance to a mortuary college, and that a grading team be given the authority to evaluate mortuary school performance. All three recommendations were later opposed by members of the profession.

However, by 1930, most all the mortuary schools in the United States had adopted the 6-month curriculum, and in 1932, the Cincinnati College offered the first 9-month curriculum. In 1933, the Grading Committee became the Examination and National Board Committee, and during 1934, the first national board examination for the funeral service profession was developed.

In 1936, the Wisconsin Institute of Embalming in Milwaukee changed its name, eliminating the word embalming and replacing it with the phrase mortuary science. After the change to the Wisconsin Institute of Mortuary Science, the name swept the mortuary school system, and by the 1960s, the term embalming was absent from most funeral director’s diplomas. Also, in this same year, the Cincinnati College of Mortuary Science offered the first 12-month curriculum in the United States.

After 40 years of meeting, intense discussion, and much effort, the original nine-member grading committee was abandoned (not without resistance from many of the same schools that had rejected its original formation), and in 1940, the Conference of Funeral Service Examining Boards replaced the committee. At present, many state boards accept the Conference’s National Board in lieu of their own state examination, thereby eliminating many vestiges of the past.

The Conference of Funeral Service Examining Board developed the first course content and written professional expectations. In 1947, this same board established the content to be covered on the certifying board examination. During the mid-1950s, the National Funeral Directors Association formed a commission to study mortuary education with the result that this committee eventually offered 58 recommendations for improving the system. These recommendations included (a) a single universal license, (b) a minimum 3-year training program with a prerequisite liberal arts and/or sciences degree, and (c) the formation of a state accreditation agency.

The year 1959 represented a landmark period for funeral service education. Although almost 60 years had passed from the genesis of the concept, in 1959 the American Board of Funeral Service Education was created. Since that year, the American Board has become the scientific arm of funeral service education, establishing valuable working relationships with the International Conference of Funeral Service Examining Boards, the National Funeral Directors Association, and the National Funeral Directors and Morticians Association.

In 1968, the Mortuary Science Department of the University of Minnesota awarded the first bachelor’s degree in mortuary science. Today, Minnesota and Ohio require a bachelor’s degree for licensure as a funeral director. The period from 1970 to the present saw some improvements in the curriculum and teaching innovations, but by far the most dramatic change in mortuary educations was a rapid proliferation of mortuary programs. For instance, in 1970, there were 21 accredited mortuary schools in the United States (7 public and 14 private school), in 1980 there were 40 programs (13 private and 27 public schools), and by 1996 there were 50 programs (11 private and 39 public).

Today, the funeral service education system is supervised by three distinct but mutually cooperative regulatory agencies. The first agency is the American Board of Funeral Service Education, a governing body charged with accreditation standards and serving as an arm of the U.S. Department of Education. Second is the International Conference of Funeral Service Examining Boards, which administers the national board examination, an examination that serves as the master evaluation tool used in the profession to gauge minimum competency in funeral service arts and sciences. Third are the individual state boards of embalmers and funerals directors. In total, this system represents a labyrinth of regulations, statutes, and rules. Each state has an entirely different system ranging from a one-person administrator to offices that employ many people. As mentioned earlier, only the state of Colorado requires no formal license for funeral directors or embalmers.


Although misconceptions of the funeral service profession continue, the steady efforts throughout the past century have been somewhat effective in establishing enhanced professional standards. One major problem still exists, however—the lack of a consistent national standard licensing program that would be uniformly accepted by all state regulatory agencies.

A final issue is in need of attention for today, as is the case for most service and caregiving careers; the funeral service profession is experiencing a problem in that it has lost some of its previous appeal among young people in search of a vocation. In addition, the composite of people interested in funeral service as a career has changed dramatically. Today, women and second-career people make up a great proportion of students enrolled in mortuary colleges. The fact, however, is that there are far too many mortuary schools in comparison to the number of students available. Recruitment efforts will help to resolve this imbalance, but the funeral service profession is rarely the type of career that one identifies while in attendance at a career fair. The profession is far too serious, unique, and introspective for one to quickly make such a career decision.

Appendix: Chronology of the Development of Funeral Service Education


The Conference of Funeral Service Examining Board began to accredit programs in funeral service education, grading and assigning grades of A, B, C to these programs. The curriculum consisted of embalming, anatomy, microbiology, pathology, chemistry, hygiene, restorative art, funeral service law, accounting, and ethics. A number of states resisted the recommended length of course work, opting for no more than a 6-week training program.

In 1928, 15 schools were listed by the conference, including 7 that exist today: the New England Institute, American Academy-McAllister Institute, Simmons, the Cincinnati College of Mortuary Science, John A. Gupton, Worsham, and the University of Minnesota.

Issues in 1928

Issues in 1928 included whether night school should be creditworthy, whether raising academic requirements was intended to keep people out of funeral service, and whether public institutions could effectively teach funeral service education.

The University of Minnesota’s continuing education division created an embalming school, a move that caused great consternation among representatives of private schools who feared a loss of students and the consequences that this “public” school trend could bring to the profession if others followed suit.

A quote from the 1928 meeting of funeral service educators is telling:

I do not believe we should issue accreditation to a university or college to teach embalming. They may be equipped to teach chemistry, hygiene and maybe anatomy, but there are some things they cannot teach. I don’t believe a student could be a finished product when he graduates from a university and I believe we are lowering our profession every time we grant accreditation to a college or university embalming school. (quoted by Dr. Gordon Bigelow, personal correspondence to Todd W. Van Beck, March 1986)

Colleges and universities were described as a “menace.” Within this word lie the seeds of acrimony and distrust that would eventually divide the private and public educators for many years. It started a theme that still exists.


Great acrimony and discussion developed over the conference’s plan to adjust scores to ensure that 30% of students would fail the National Board Examination. Also, the source of questions for the certification examination was a major concern, as was the need to standardize the textbooks from which examination questions would be taken.


A long letter on academic freedom from the University of Minnesota to the Conference of Funeral Service Examining Boards is of interest. The letter charged that the emphasis on textbooks was linking the test to a book rather than to a subject. Again, the breach between the public and private schools widened. Eventually, these differences led to the common belief among members of the profession that the public programs teach subjects, whereas private schools provide only enough information for students to pass the national board.


The University of Minnesota refused to charge students $15.00 each to be paid to the Conference of Funeral Service Examining Boards to fund accreditation activities. As a result, the university was given a grade of “AA” by the conference. A lawsuit was threatened in which the right of the conference to assign a second-rate academic rating as a result of the university’s refusal to turn over the proposed finances was to be challenged.


Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan, applied for accreditation, having taken over the former Michigan School of Embalming. A lawsuit was filed to prevent this from happening; however, the suit failed.


The Joint Committee on Mortuary Education was founded with representatives from the National Funeral Directors Association, the Conference of Funeral Service Examining Boards, and colleges. Accreditation policies were established, but actual accreditation was still conducted by the conference. The committee agreed on three areas: (a) accreditation visits to occur every 3 years, (b) programs must be either 9 or 12 months in clock hours, and (c) standards of accreditation were written into manual form, many portions of which still exist today.


The National Association of Colleges of Mortuary Science (private schools) set a goal of a bachelor’s degree as a professional minimum. The Joint Committee recommended that 2 years of education be required.


The Joint Committee sought to have the Conference of Funeral Service Examining Boards do an item-by-item analysis of examination questions. It also established that no more than one entrance date per year for admission be instituted, preferably between the months of September and October.


The Conference of Funeral Service Examining Board issued a position statement calling for (a) a standard/universal license; (b) 3 to 4 years of college(c) merging of the national and university school associations into one entity, hoping to provide national leadership; and (d) a standardized National Board Examination.

The Joint Committee changed its name to the American Board of Funeral Service Education, although accreditation still was done by the conference.


Both the U.S. Department of Education and the National Council of Accreditation rejected the American Board’s application for recognition because of this organization’s physical location alongside accrediting and testing agencies.


The American Board of Funeral Service Education was created as an autonomous organization; the process to gain recognition with U.S. Department of Education began. This recognition was finally achieved in 1972.


The American Board of Funeral Service Education instituted a new admission standard that required 30 hours of liberal arts education prior to admission to mortuary college. The National Association of Colleges of Mortuary Science withdrew from the American Board and established itself as a separate accreditation agency for its colleges. The National Association applied for recognition with the U.S. Department of Education. The result, however, was that both the American Board and the National Association were denied recognition on the basis that only one accrediting agency can represent a profession.


The National Association of Colleges of Mortuary Science withdrew its application to the U.S. Department of Education, a move that led to the American Board’s being recognized as the sole accrediting agency in 1972.


Nineteen new programs were accredited. The American Board created a committee to investigate the proliferation of schools while expressing concern over enrollments.


The proliferation of schools continued at a rapid rate.


This period was marked by interorganizational harmony, and much progress was made toward improving relationships between the Conference of Funeral Service Examining Boards and the National Board regarding the content of examinations, accreditation standards and policies, the curriculum review process, and academic standards and scholarship.