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Meet Leon Merck, a mortician
0803SLife
Leon Merck, funeral director at Memorial Park Funeral Home's North Riverside Chapel, has been working in the industry since he was 16.

Working for a living: Funeral directing

This summer, our In Schools page focuses on career options available to recent graduates and features stories from professionals with unique jobs.

At a glance

Funeral director/mortician

Overview: Funeral directors handle the logistics of funerals. Funeral directors prepare obituary notices and have them placed in newspapers, arrange for pallbearers and clergy, schedule the opening and closing of a grave with a representative of the cemetery, decorate and prepare the sites of all services and provide transportation for the deceased, mourners and flowers between sites. Most funeral directors also are trained, licensed, and practicing embalmers.
Educational requirements: Funeral directors must be licensed. State licensing laws vary, but most require applicants to be 21 years old, have two years of formal education, serve a one-year apprenticeship and pass an examination. College programs in mortuary science usually last from two to four years.
Median annual wage (as of May 2008): $52,210
Job outlook: Job opportunities are expected to be good, particularly for those who also embalm. Employment of funeral directors is expected to increase about as fast as the average for all occupations.

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

Ever since Leon Merck was 16, he wanted to be a mortician.

The day after he graduated from Gainesville High School, Merck, the son of a Pentecostal minister, set to work as an apprentice mortician at Hubert Vickers Funeral Home.

Merck has been an embalmer or funeral services director at least part time since June of 1948, even during his service in the U.S. Air Force. In 1976, he retired from the Air Force as a chief master sergeant and returned to Gainesville.

Hubert Vickers Funeral Home - once located on Broad Street, now Jesse Jewell Parkway - is no longer standing. But Merck, 78, still helps grieving families cope with their loss. He's now a funeral services director at Memorial Park Funeral Home's North Riverside Chapel.

Question: How did you become interested in this profession?

Answer: My daddy was a minister and I went to a funeral with him one day and he was officiating. And I watched Mr. (Hubert) Vickers and Mr. Forrest Sisk conducting the service, and after we came out I told my dad that's the kind of job I want, right there. I was probably 16. So my dad spoke to Mr. Vickers and, of course, they both agreed that I wouldn't stay with it very long: "Just let him look around and I'm sure he'll leave, he won't want to do that."

And so Mr. Vickers told my dad "Send him on out, and let him hang around a few days. And if he stays and likes it, then I'll put him to work, and if he doesn't, then no harm done."

Well, I went to work the day after I graduated from high school in '48 and stayed with him until '52 when I went into the Air Force. So I didn't leave, in other words.

Q: What type of education did you earn for this job?

A: I attended what was called Gupton Jones College of Mortuary Science, that's what it used to be. It was in Nashville, Tenn. I got certified in mortuary science in nine months. Now it's 18 months in school and 18 months apprenticeship. Back then, it was two years apprenticeship and nine months in school.

After I went to school, I came back and took the state boards, and I got a state license in embalming and then in funeral services directing.

Q: What does an embalmer or funeral services director do?

A: I've been an embalmer where you prepare people for burial. That entails restoring them, if they need it, and cosmetizing, dressing and placing them in a casket and putting them in a room where it's presentable for their families to see them. To physically embalm someone, it takes about two hours. You exchange the blood with a fermaldehyde-based fluid that disinfects, preserves and the third, and least important to the state department, is beautification.

I've mostly been a funeral director. You make arrangements with the family. First thing you need is a death certificate. You've got to get that death certificate to file with the state that indeed that person has passed away. You've got to get that done before you can collect insurances, 401(k)s or IRAs, all that.

Then you have to arrange for the visitation, the ceremony, where you're going to conduct the service, who's going to preach or be the minister in charge. You've got to coordinate with him and coordinate for what music is going to be sung, transportation to there, pallbearers, making sure the grave is dug at the cemetery at the proper place, at the proper time. And if it's military, you've got to coordinate with the military to get the military honors folks to come up. And if they're going to have "Taps" and the flag folded or firing the 21-gun salute. You have about three days to do all that.

Q: Why is this job one you've dedicated your life to?

A: It's a sense of helping someone, because the family is in need of help to do things they can't do for themselves. And you do that to help lighten their load, their burden. And help them get things done through the legal system as far as the death certificates and the insurances.

It's taking a lot of burden off of them. You are surrounded by death a lot, and you do meet a lot of grief and stuff the average person never sees their whole life.

I don't know why I do it or why I like to do it, because it sounds like you love death, but I don't. It might be my ministry and my calling. I guess I'm just called to do the next thing, and that's to roll the casket.

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