Funeral Services trains students to be the ‘last responders’

Funeral Service students perform a mock funeral at the Whatley Center for the Performing Arts. The exercise gives students the opportunity to use the training they receive on the different duties a director performs during a funeral service.  ( Staff Photo | Joelle Weatherford)

By Abigail Barnard

Staff Writer

Police officers, firefighters and paramedics earn their title of “first responder” since they are usually the first to arrive at the scene of an accident. 

Funeral directors, however, are often known as the “last responders,” those caring individuals who prepare a person’s loved one for his or her final resting place. 

The Funeral Services program at Northeast Texas Community College spends hours training students to care for the deceased, answer first calls, and speak with grieving families. 

Funeral Services Director Rebecca Gardner has been working with the program since it began in 2016. 

Gardner said it is important for students to learn that first impressions matter most. The way a funeral director speaks to a grieving sister, father, or wife is paramount. Students learn the proper time to meet with the family. 

They are also taught to wait and allow the family time to grieve before jumping into the details. Gardner stressed the importance of showing both empathy and sympathy with those who have lost a loved one. 

“In the field, I could be meeting with a 93-year-old man who just lost his wife. We have to be able to empathize and sympathize with his situation,” said Gardner. “Ask him questions and develop a relationship with him, toward where he feels comfortable and confident in my skills as a funeral director. Being funeral directors, we have about five minutes to show a family we really care.” 

Gardner has assisted students with entry into the program and helped set up the program for accreditation. Ultimately the program, which began with nine students and now has over 130, was approved by the American Board of Funeral Service. 

Gardner said the Funeral Services program is continuing to expand and will bring embalming onto campus in the near future. She said the students will be under the guidance of a fully licensed funeral director and embalmer.

Gardner said much of the funeral services program is completed online, but also has a hands-on approach through the lab assignments. The students are able to complete videos when practicing their first meeting with a grieving loved one. 

Funeral directors juggle a variety of titles. They are the embalmer, the casket assistance, and the caretaker of the deceased. The job title that is sometimes overlooked is caretaker of those left behind. 

“Embalmers look like villains, like we are out to do something bad,” Gardner said. “But if anything we want to help prepare their loved one for final viewing, the final moment with their family before they are buried or cremated. We just want it to be the best possible way for them to say goodbye.” 

To the general public, funeral homes are often seen by some as a dark place full of death and can make people nervous about what happens behind closed doors. 

It may be difficult for them to accept the closure that a funeral home brings to a grieving family or the funeral director’s role in helping the family honor the life of the deceased.

“I always want to be honest and willing to share with people that want to know,” Gardner said. “There’s a lot of unknown to people about funeral services and what we do, I think that’s where the nervousness comes from.” 

For more information on the Northeast Texas Community College Funeral Services program or to register contact Rebecca Gardner at