As Minnesota ages, need for morticians becomes a life and death issue

Conversations with a young mortician in rural northwestern Minnesota reveal the challenges

A man stands in front of a casket.
Victor Sweeney has been a funeral director in Warren, Minn. for almost six years. The funeral home stocks a few, mostly simple caskets. Warren is too far north to ship in caskets for each funeral.
John Enger | MPR News

It’s often an early encounter with death that leads young people to become morticians.

For Victor Sweeney, the moment came at age 4 when he ran across the street to visit his friend, Robby.

Robby’s mom said the boy was still asleep and told young Victor to go wake him.

“I climbed up into his bunk bed,” Sweeney recalled. “And I’m trying to get him to wake up, and he’s not waking up.”

Create a More Connected Minnesota

MPR News is your trusted resource for the news you need. With your support, MPR News brings accessible, courageous journalism and authentic conversation to everyone - free of paywalls and barriers. Your gift makes a difference.

Robby had died in the night of a seizure from untreated epilepsy. Victor was the first to find him.

Distraught, Robby’s mom moved away a short time later, selling everything in the house, including Robby’s red metal bunk bed, which Victor’s parents bought and he slept in for the rest of his childhood.

All of it set him on a path to a life caring for the dead.

Now 29, Sweeney is a vital part of life in rural northwestern Minnesota, but one that’s disappearing from the landscape even as the need rises and the population ages. Morticians — some of the only professionals licensed to transport and handle dead human bodies in Minnesota — are on the decline.

Some 150 morticians have left the profession in the last five years alone, mostly to retirement, according to the state Health Department. Currently, there are about 1,000 morticians in Minnesota.

The University of Minnesota, the only school in the state with a mortuary science program, isn’t producing enough students to keep up. Enrollment peaked in the 1980s and ‘90s when the U graduated more than 50 morticians a year. Now, it’s about half that.

Turning that around means recruiting and winning over young people to a vital but difficult vocation, one that society seems to value only in its darkest hour.

It’s an especially hard challenge in rural Minnesota, where the work involves responding to middle-of-the-night calls and long drives in sometimes-treacherous weather.

‘No. Gross.’

A childhood experience with death, like Sweeney’s, is increasingly rare, which partly explains why it’s so hard to recruit young people to be morticians.

Greater life expectancies mean young people don’t lose their grandparents until they’re adults and have already set their career paths. Many young people have never been to a funeral, and so don’t think about “funeral director” as a career choice, said Micheal Lubrant, a mortuary science professor at the U.

“The next generation might not be as religious as they used to be, so they’re less concerned with ceremony,” he added.

Youthful, rural, morticians are such a rarity that seven years after Sweeney graduated from the U of M mortuary science program, Lubrant still remembered him by name.

“Victor,” he said. “Yes. I liked Victor. He was the class speaker at our graduation.”

As a teenager, Sweeney felt at home with religion in a way his parents did not. He went to Catholic school and remains devout. He wanted to be a priest, but in the end did not feel a spiritual calling to the cloth. He saw mortuary science as a kindred profession and embraced it as his calling.

He and his wife Paige were high school sweethearts in Bismarck, N.D. She met him when he still wanted to be a priest. By comparison, mortician didn’t seem that extreme of a career choice.

“I would tell my peers in college — my fiance is studying to be a funeral director. They were like, ‘No. Gross,’” she said recently as she served lunchtime chili at home to Victor and their baby daughter, the youngest of their three children.

A couple holds two small children in their arms.
Victor and Paige Sweeney raise their three children in Warren, Minn. The oldest, Edmond, is old enough to go to school, but Fiona and Arthur stay home.
John Enger | MPR News

“People are uneasy about it,” she added. “I think it’s because of the whole mortality issue. Nobody wants to think about it.”

Paige was much more concerned when Victor first pitched a move to the tiny farm town of Warren almost six years ago.

She and Victor were won over to the small-town life by Warren’s funeral director, Mike DuBore, who recruited Sweeney and essentially treated him as a son.

Sweeney said when he needed to buy a house and couldn’t get a bank loan for the remodel cost, DuBore bought the house, paid to have it remodeled, and sold it to Sweeney at cost.

When Sweeney’s car broke down, DuBore sold him a company van for well below market value. And when Sweeney’s second child was born, and he couldn’t pay the hospital bills, DuBore wrote a check.

Because of that loyalty, Sweeney’s turned down three high-paying mortician jobs that would have taken him out of Warren.

“He’s treated me like family,” he said of DuBore. “I think I’ll stay forever.”

In his travels around the state, Lubrant recommends that local funeral homes recruit interested teenagers and offer to pay their way through college.

Funeral homes are often family-run businesses. But new generations seem less willing to take on their parent’s profession, Lubrant said. If funeral directors want to pass the business to someone, they pretty much have to treat that person as their own child.

‘Do I have to keep doing this?’

Sweeney is more than a source to me.

When my father-in-law died a year ago, Sweeney drove out to pick up his body. Before he left, he took my brother-in-law and me aside and told us that we had done a good thing for my father-in-law, by carrying him from his bed.

It was a favor, he told us, that my father-in-law could not repay, after a lifetime of favors he had done for us. It had come full circle. The thought made us feel better in a dark time.

Sweeney is well aware of the changes happening in his industry — that most morticians are getting older and will likely become more scarce just when aging Minnesota needs them most.

Right now he covers a roughly 30-mile radius around Warren. By the end of his career, he worries he’ll be driving 60 miles to pick up bodies.

The schedule would be manageable in other parts of the state. Most Minnesotans choose to be cremated and are often not embalmed. That trend doesn’t extend to some rural areas.

In Warren, about 20 percent of people choose cremation. Sweeney not only picks up the bodies, he then spends the next few hours preparing them. A midnight death call isn’t just a quick round trip. It’s the beginning of a 16-hour workday.

State law requires people who transport bodies to have a mortuary license, but that could change. Lawmakers are considering legislation that would allow ambulance drivers to pick up bodies. It would really take the pressure off Sweeney. No more calls in the middle of the night, but he’s not too keen on the idea.

“When someone dies,” he said, “It’s a confusing time. There are so many people to call. I know all those people. I know just what to do because it’s my job to know.”

Sweeney worries an ambulance crew may not be helpful to a grieving family. They might be rushed, or insensitive. They might not be built for Sweeney’s line of work. Few people are, and that’s the heart of the problem.

The funeral business, at its core, is incredibly difficult. The hours are terrible. People die at night, and on holidays, and morticians have to drive out and transport bodies from grieving families. Then there’s the embalming, which is complicated — and troubling at times.

Sweeney recounted a night he spent preparing the body of a young boy. Even for a professional, it was hard on him.

“On nights like that I wonder, do I have to keep doing this?” he said. “But then I realized that his mother got to see him one more time, and I know I do have to keep doing it.”