Orlando, Florida — Many University of Central Florida students study hospitality management and dream of becoming a wedding planner or running their own grandiose hotel someday.
But some head down an unexpected career path: planning funerals.
“We kind of joke it’s like planning a wedding, but you usually have one or two days to do it,” said Becky Raph-Bowie, a 2013 UCF hospitality graduate and a funeral director at Dignity Memorial, which regularly recruits UCF and Florida State University hospitality students.
The planners choreograph funerals that celebrate somebody’s life rather than the traditional wear-all-black, grim service.
There was the child’s casket made out of Legos or the deceased teenage boy who had loved Insane Clown Posse, so his family played the hip-hop music during the service.
Funeral directors must pull out the details — somebody’s love story, a secret talent, career accomplishments or family history — and tuck them into the funeral in an extravagant way or sometimes rather quietly.
Once, for an elderly man who helped discover the science that led to the atomic bomb, Raph-Bowie displayed his handwritten science journals at the funeral. Or there was the Jamaican musician who died, so Raph-Bowie organized a street fair where people danced and ate jerk chicken and yellow rice.
“As long as it’s not illegal or immoral, we’re doing it,” Raph-Bowie said. “There’s no box here.”
A rare idea that Raph-Bowie shut down? A Viking funeral complete with a burning boat.
“It’s illegal. I tried talking to the Coast Guard,” she said.
Since 2010, state law changed so funeral directors are no longer required to be embalmers. That has opened the door for the Houston-based Dignity Memorial, one of the largest funeral networks in the country, to recruit about a dozen hospitality students.
At UCF, representatives visited four of the five most recent career fairs and regularly post jobs online for students, said Bradley Loomis, an assistant director at UCF Rosen College of Hospitality Management.
“It’s event planning,” Loomis said. “It’s just the subject matter is different.”
The average pay was $53,540 for morticians, undertakers and funeral directors in Florida, according to the 2014 U.S. Department of Labor Statistics.
Raph-Bowie looks for students who are multitaskers and like high-paced work, but more importantly, know how to listen and are compassionate with grieving families. Funeral directors also take additional training to become certified.
Growing up, Raph-Bowie was known for planning parties. For a child’s birthday party, she once went as far to get a permit from the city and brought in an elephant from the circus.
When she recruits, she looks for others like herself — such as Jaynee Fontanez, who was that girl in high school who redecorated her locker every week.
In college, Fontanez traveled to Georgia for her grandfather’s funeral. He had been a simple man who worked hard his whole life, painting, but his real joy was fishing.
Fontanez’s family asked the funeral home whether it was OK to bring in items to pay tribute. Family members found things that reminded them of him: dropcloths, a fishing boat, a paint can that became the urn for his ashes.
Fontanez, then a UCF junior, showed the photographs from the funeral when she stopped at one of the UCF job fairs.
She got the job at Dignity Memorial.
Now three years later, Fontanez, 24, still event-plans, in her own way, at the funeral home.
“I can’t think of anything I’d rather be doing,” she said.