Embracing a career that’s never going away: San Antonio College opens a funeral home

It opened the first mortuary science program in Texas in 1961. Now it is the only college in the country with a funeral home on campus.

By Camille Phillips, Texas Public RadioJune 12, 2024 1:30 pm, ,

From Texas Public Radio:

On the first floor of an old house that used to be the office of the president of San Antonio College (SAC), Jennifer Floyd pointed out features of a space remodeled to hold funerals.

“This is our chapel. Seats about 60 people, roughly,” she explained. “Family would sit here. Casket’s display up front. Clergy. There’s a keyboard for a musician. Podium for the minister.”

Floyd is SAC’s new funeral home director. She’s been in the business 24 years, and she now trains the next generation.

“We do mock arrangements. I take them to go pick up our hearse. We put caskets in and out of the car, to give them an idea of what it’s like to put a person in the car and take them out of the church,” Floyd said.

Camille Phillips / Texas Public Radio

Jennifer Floyd has been in the funeral home industry for 24 years. She recently moved to San Antonio to run San Antonio College's new mortuary.

SAC opened the first college-based mortuary science program in Texas in 1961 and already had embalming facilities on campus. Now, in addition to earning a degree or visiting the planetarium, San Antonians can visit the college to make funeral arrangements for a loved one.

“This dream actually started about 16 years ago with one of my predecessors,” said Mary Mena, the mortuary science program director. “It was just a wild idea, like, ‘Wow, wouldn’t it be great to have our own funeral home where our students could go and practice actual skills?’ ”

Mena said the idea remained just a dream for years until the president’s office was relocated. But, even though they had a location, state law banned funeral homes from operating out of tax-exempt properties.

So, SAC lobbied state lawmakers, got an exemption for educational purposes, and finally made it happen.

Camille Phillips / Texas Public Radio

San Antonio College's funeral home is located in a brick house that used to hold the office of the president of the community college.

According to the American Board of Funeral Service Education, SAC is the only mortuary science program in the country with a funeral home on campus right now. A college in San Francisco used to operate out of a funeral home before it closed. Another in Sacramento is trying to open one.

“It’s a great learning opportunity for our students so that when they get out into the real funeral world, they’ve at least got some background on how to how to start, how to begin,” Mena said.

A practicum at a funeral home is already part of SAC’s two-year mortuary science degree. But Mena said the mortuary on campus will be a learning lab where students can practice their skills more immediately.

“Sometimes, not always, but sometimes at the funeral home, it gets fast-paced that they may not have time to explain everything,” Mena said.

Jonnica Fuller recently graduated from the mortuary science program at SAC. She said she wishes she could have used that on-campus learning lab.

“It was a big adjustment to take myself out of a school setting and just realize that every day that I walk into work, it’s going to be different. Every day. It’s not going to be black and white like it is on our test,” Fuller said.

Jonnica Fuller graduated from San Antonio College with her mortuary science degree in May and was hired by the funeral home where she did her practicum. Courtesy Photo / Jonnica Fuller

She thought future students will have an easier time transitioning to the real world because they can witness real interactions with grieving families sooner.

But even though it was an adjustment, Fuller said she loves her new job because she makes a difference.

“My funeral home is kind of special. We do the county program, so we get anybody who is unable to pay,” Fuller said. “The clientele is from the top to the bottom. So, people that I would have never encountered. It’s people I would’ve never met in my life. It makes me feel good that I can serve them all equally, and I can all make them feel the same way.”

Fuller’s first experience with the funeral home industry was as a young mom 14 years ago.

“I had a daughter pass away when she was three,” Fuller said, “And one thing that caught me [was that] I did have a female funeral director during my daughter’s process of her ceremony.”

Now she feels like she can pay it forward. “It takes a certain type of person to deal with that every day. And the compassion that I had from that woman 14 years ago really solidified my decision on being there because I feel like I’m capable,” Fuller said.

Mena said having the best programs possible to prepare future morticians like Fuller is especially important right now because many funeral directors are close to retirement.

Fuller saw that as an opportunity for women like her. “I feel like there’s going to be a shift in the industry in the next … decade because women are the future,” she added.

Fuller first started thinking of becoming a funeral director at the start of the pandemic when she lost her job as a manager of a Barnes & Noble. Just before she was let go because of the lockdown, Fuller read a memoir titled Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory, written by a woman who worked at a crematorium.

“Reading that book kind of gave me hope that there’s something like that that I can do,” Fuller said. “And I knew that that the death industry is never going to go away. It’s just like food — food’s never going to go away. And death is 100%.”

Camille Phillips / Texas Public Radio

A room on the first floor of the mortuary on the San Antonio College campus has been set up to hold funeral services.

Now that she’s in the industry, Fuller said she thinks death is something people should be more willing to talk about.

Mena said it’s a good career for people who are sensitive and creative.

“Because we’ve got to remember that the funeral is for the living,” Mena said. “This is part of their healing process as well, on how they want to honor their loved one.”

Floyd said students are drawn to the career out of curiosity, compassion or sometimes even because they want to drive a hearse.

“I’ve even had students think that we make a lot of money because we drive nice cars,” she said with a laugh.

For her, it was curiosity. “My grandmother passed away. Her head had to be shaved, and we had to bring a wig. And I couldn’t understand why. So, I was determined to find out why,” Floyd said.

Years later, she learned the hospital had shaved part her grandma’s head while treating her for an aneurysm, and the wig was a cosmetic measure the funeral home chose to prepare her body.

But by that time, Floyd was hooked. She learned techniques to take hair from the back of the head where it’s hidden by the casket when the head is shaved at the front, so that loved ones can see the body with natural hair when they say goodbye.

“I think what makes us stay in this industry is that we love what we do, even after you’re long past that curious phase,” Floyd said. “You’ve found your creative niche in providing care to families at their most vulnerable hour, and you develop a passion for it.”

SAC’s mortuary science program has close to 200 students. Mena and Floyd said the funeral home is fully licensed and ready for clients — now they just need the phone to ring.

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