Cypress College’s Mortuary Science Program Puts Last Responders First Programs

July 31, 2020
Cypress College Mortuary science student working on clay mask

Not many community college programs have roots that go back over 100 years but Cypress College’s Mortuary Science program is a special exception. Initially started as the Los Angeles College of Anatomy, Embalming, and Sanitation in 1918, the institution was gifted to Cypress College and the North Orange County Community College District (NOCCCD) in 1976 by Melvin Hilgenfeld, whose family still operates the longstanding Hilgenfeld Mortuary in Anaheim.

Today, Cypress College’s Mortuary Science program, which is accredited by the American Board of Funeral Service Education (ABFSE), continues to train the next generation funeral service practitioners, providing an important career pathway into an industry that is in constant need of well-qualified employees.

As one of only two mortuary science programs in the state, and as the only one to offer a BA, Cypress graduates about 40 students a year, well below California’s funeral service workforce needs. To address this gap, North Orange Continuing Education (NOCE) recently partnered with Cypress to offer a free Funeral Services Assistant Certificate program and to provide a seamless pathway into the industry and a direct pipeline into Cypress’s own program.

“Every year, the state of California needs an average of 118 licensed practitioners in the field,” explains Cypress Mortuary Science professor Jolena Grande. “Cypress and American River College in Sacramento graduate about 60 students, leaving twice that many jobs unfilled every year which is too bad because these are great paying, secure careers with a lot of opportunity for growth.”

Grande’s own journey is a case in point. After dropping out of high school in 1987, Grande found it difficult to secure a living wage and find full-time employment. That all changed after she took a job in the Westminster Memorial Park’s flower shop and was invited by a colleague to observe the restoration process of a recently deceased individual.

“This decedent had donated organs and undergone an autopsy and was in pretty bad shape,” recalls Grande. “I watched over the next several hours as my friend completely restored the remains to create a suitable memory picture for the family. I was enthralled with not only the process of restoration but the idea that I was serving a family in their greatest time of need.”

In Grande’s opinion, attending to this deep, human need forms the core of what funeral service practitioners do.

“Not only is it my job to get the decedent to their final resting place but it also my responsibility to get the family where they need to go in terms of their grieving process,” explains Grande. “We need to weave those things together so that the experience yields a successful grief response and resolution. People think if you work in funeral services, you spend all your time with dead people, but the truth is 95% of my time is spent supporting the living. We are the helping profession after all.”

Grande’s early experience observing the restorative process put her on a career path that took her to Cypress College for her AS, and then to the University of Central Oklahoma for her BA, where she graduated in 1994. At the time, it was the closest geographically located funeral service baccalaureate program to California.

Since then, Cypress’s Mortuary Science program has stepped in to fill the educational gap and in 2016 became one of fifteen California community colleges approved by then Governor Jerry Brown to pilot baccalaureate programs that addressed specific regional workforce needs. In 2018, Cypress graduated its first Mortuary Science – BS cohort to great success.

“Our first baccalaureate class had 12 graduates and all of them have gone on to promotions, management, master’s programs and even ownership,” says Grande. “Some have become faculty here, others are managers at funeral homes like Hillside, Rose Hills, or working for Service Corporation International. One is even head of the Texas Funeral Service Commission. We have tons of success stories. Our students start at Cypress but they go all over the place.”

Grande, who has now been working as a professional in the field and teaching at Cypress for 25 years, credits the success of both their AS and BS degree programs to several unique factors.

“One big thing is all the instructors in our program have worked or currently work in the field,” says Grande. “This is important when you’re in a hands on field like ours. We maintain our professional careers so we can keep our own licenses current and pass on those up-to-date skills and practices to our students so they’re fully prepared when they enter the workforce.”

A “clinical practicum,” similar to an apprenticeship or internship, also means that all Cypress students are working in the field before they graduate, which means they are getting hands-on experience and making professional connections, all of which make their future success more likely. Because of this, almost all Cypress Mortuary Science students have jobs before they graduate.

Regional and state partners also play a critical role not only in providing student’s opportunities to work but also in guiding and supporting the program as a whole. In addition to the obvious debt owed to the Hilgenfeld family, the Hilgenfeld Foundation for Mortuary Education, Forest Lawn Memorial Parks and Mortuaries, Rose Hills Memorial Park and Mortuaries, Hillside Memorial Park and Mortuary, Service Corporation International, and many others create an important support system for the program and its students. At the same time, these regional and statewide entities benefit from the educated workforce Cypress provides.

“I can’t begin to tell you how important our industry partners are and all the things they do,” says Grande. “Our regional partners are vital and we would not be here without their guidance, expertise, and support. All of our faculty are housed in a building called the Forest Lawn Center, which is named after the Forest Lawn Memorial Park and is a testament to the incredible support and relationships we have with regional businesses.”

Despite the complications created by the COVID-19 pandemic, Grande is excited about what the future brings. Because funeral practitioners already follow strict health guidelines (including the use of Cal/OSHA-compliant personal protective equipment (PPE)), the program’s labs haven’t had to change much due to COVID. The biggest change has been transitioning classes entirely online.

“Our faculty have reached deep to come up with some of the most innovative group activities to really help our students keep that level of connectivity,” explains Grande. “They’re not just broadcasting lectures but integrating them with small group work, and activities that build teamwork and foster interaction.”

Still, Grande is excited to get back into the classroom as soon as state guidelines allow.

“Our students are people persons,” says Grande. “They’ve been the true troopers in all of this. Funeral services people are all about connection. Our instructors are great at fostering that online but we’re all eager to get back, I think. Our students want that human connection. It’s what our profession is all about.”

Click here for more information about Cypress College’s Mortuary Science AS and BS degree programs, and NOCE’s Funeral Service Assistant Certificate.