Kari Moates started out with plans for a career in forensics, but the more she looked into it, the more working in a funeral home interested her.
A funeral home gives the 19-year-old Piedmont Technical College student the opportunity to perform scientific tasks through embalming and the ability to help ease the sadness of those mourning the death of a loved one.
"At the end of the day, seeing the families and knowing they're pleased and I've brought some comfort to them at the their time of need, it feels good," she said.
But Ms. Moates doesn't represent the norm. Fewer college students are heading into the funeral services industry, leading many to wonder whether there will be enough undertakers to handle the deceased.
Through 2010, more people will be exiting the industry than entering, the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics reports. Many funeral directors are reaching retirement age and are not being replaced fast enough by younger people.
Nationally, only 2,542 new students were enrolled in mortuary science programs in 2002, compared to 3,022 in 1995. That's a 16 percent decline, reported the American Board of Funeral Services Educators.
At Kinsey & Walton Funeral Home on Peach Orchard Road the youngest apprentice, Linda Ashley, is 39.
Being a funeral director requires long hours - many are on call night and day, dealing with grieving families and preparing the deceased for wakes, burials and cremations.
Service Corp. International, the largest owner of funeral homes in the country, cut 13.5 percent of its jobs last year. Greg Bowden, a company spokesman, blamed the job cuts on consolidation of funeral homes.
Many funeral directors leave the industry to pursue other jobs, federal data shows.
"It takes a special kind of person to be a funeral director," said Katie Monfre, a spokeswoman for the National Funeral Director's Association.
David Wilkinshaw, a spokesman for the National Funeral Directors Association and a third-generation funeral home director, said he thinks the industry is in decline because younger generations don't want to follow in the family business.
For example, Augusta's Elliott Sons Funeral Home was sold to Service Corp. International because no fourth-generation family members wanted to take over.
Patty Hutchinson, the president of Gupton-Jones College of Funeral Services in Decatur, Ga., said her enrollment is down a little, which she attributes to the opening of other mortuary science programs, such as Ogeechee Technical College in Statesboro.
However, she acknowledged that young people might be more interested in jobs with better hours and pay.
Barry Miller, the clinical director of Funeral Service Education at Ogeechee, said his enrollment is up this year, but he still can't fill all the requests he gets from funeral homes searching for qualified apprentices.
"Typically, we have a lot more requests than available (students)," he said.
However, some people don't foresee a labor shortage in the funeral industry.
The number of funeral director permits issued has not dropped significantly, reported the Georgia Funeral Service Board. And Loretta Kinsey, the co-owner of Kinsey & Walton, said she had no trouble filling her four apprenticeship positions.
"They've been coming to me," she said. "You still have a lot of people who can't find work in the funeral service industry."
Some believe the industry will rebound, particularly in light of the popular HBO series Six Feet Under.
"It kind of glamorizes the industry a bit," Mr. Miller said. "I think it makes people think about it more than they normally would have."
Reach James Gallagher at (706) 823-3227 or firstname.lastname@example.org.