If you’re in mortuary school, or have been looking for a job for a while, you’ve probably been warned not to work for SCI.

Nearly everyone in the industry works for SCI – the uninterestingly-named Service Corporation International – at some point. They’re the largest funeral service corporation in the world, so if you live in a major city, there are most likely several SCI-owned firms near you. I worked for a few of them when I was finishing school and for a couple of years after school, and it was definitely where I got all my best experience as an embalmer.

Most people say they don’t want to work for them simply because they are “corporate.” They assume that a corporately-owned funeral home cannot possibly deliver compassionate service in the manner of a family-owned funeral home. However, I have seen that the good and the bad of funeral service – customer satisfaction, job satisfaction, media scandals, funeral costs and employee salaries – are reported equally by those who have worked for and those who have used both SCI and non-SCI firms. (SCI is not the only funeral service corporation, but most others are much smaller in comparison; when people think of corporately-owned funeral homes, they think of SCI.)

SCI is known by its employees for three things: outsourcing all its work; rigid adherence to business hours; and sales quotas. A separate person will pick up the body, embalm or cremate the body, and meet with the family, and the funeral director meeting with the family will have a certain quota to meet when it comes to the number of funeral “packages” they sell; those containing certain caskets, stationery sets and other items. The directors and embalmers will also be restricted to a 40-hour workweek; any time there is a chance of overtime being earned, they will be instructed to take days off while another staff person is called in to work services. The funeral directors also do not do their own embalming; it is all done at a “prep center” which holds all the bodies for the city’s SCI firms and often contains the crematory. It was at one of these prep centers where I worked while finishing up my license, and each morning about four or five embalmers would wait by a fax machine awaiting orders for bodies – which were to be embalmed, dressed or casketed without embalming, or driven to the funeral home. I would embalm a few bodies a day, and got to see a lot of cases that many don’t get to see in their first year on the job. I was reconstructing shotgun suicides and embalming infants while I was still in school.

Most families have no idea of this arrangement. They don’t know that the person who arrived to pick up their loved one isn’t a funeral director, or that the funeral director they met with isn’t an embalmer, or that their father’s body isn’t even at the funeral home they selected. He could be across the street; he could be 60 miles away.

Later I went to work as a funeral director for SCI, which I liked a lot less. I didn’t like not doing my own embalming, or not working at the service after I had arranged it with the family. I did quite well meeting my sales quotas; co-workers used to joke that I must have threatened everyone into buying the plans. The costs were quite high; around $3,000 for a direct cremation and $9000 for a no-frills burial. SCI wants 25% of your sales to be these plans; mine were 50%.

The salaries aren’t really higher than at family-owned funeral homes, but the benefit packages are great. I’ve actually never had benefits from any funeral home but SCI. They offer a lot of sick pay; two weeks’ paid vacation after only six months on the job; 401k; and, last I heard, paid maternity leave. The hourly wages were, in the late 2000s, between $16 and $18 an hour; I have made $21 an hour at some family-owned places.

From what I gather, most families seemed impressed with the services and felt well taken care of. SCI uses JD Powers surveys, which assign a numerical value score to a funeral director’s services (up to 100%); we are supposed to score in the 90s. I actually never knew my score; only a few families turned in their surveys and I remember doing well, except when it came to working with pre-need funeral plans, and I have since admitted I was born without the part of my brain that allows me to understand how burial insurance works. Nowadays I give those families to other directors. But when it came to at-need services – especially sudden deaths or deaths that no one else wants – I did very well. Co-workers introduced me to other funeral directors as “the one who does all the babies and suicides.”

If you work for SCI, don’t get comfortable. They like to move people around a lot; many of my co-workers would come to work one day to learn they had been transferred to an office two hours from their home, or moved from the embalming center to one of the funeral homes. They put you where they have a need.

You will spend a lot of your time with online busywork, earning certificates for things like “Workplace Interpersonal Communication” and “Fire Safety” that are useful only to SCI. You will also engage in dreaded and demeaning team-building exercises, like in any office environment. There are banquets and boat rides. I remember they were very strict on the dress code. You could wear only black, charcoal or navy suits and white shirts, so keep this in mind if your wardrobe includes tan and beige suits. The company Christmas parties were great, but were also dangled in front of the employees as an incentive to get them to sell more plans. “If we don’t get these numbers up, we can’t have our Christmas party…”

One manager pit directors against one another in a way that eventually got him fired. He presented an impossible choice: either all of you take a pay cut, or one of you gets fired. Of course all of us took the pay cut, and the manager could then report to his manager that “they willingly agreed to the pay cut!” Clearly, that was not done “willingly.” He was fired, but the pay cut stayed in effect. We also lost our Christmas party.

Working for most funeral homes on a full-time basis generally means you cannot do side work for competitors, and this is especially true with SCI. If you work for a family-owned funeral home, you might be able to get away with doing embalming or removals for someone else on an occasional basis, if your skill and availability were unmatched. Not so if you work for SCI. If you want to work for SCI, plan on that being your only job.

If you want to be the kind of funeral director families remember, you will probably be better off working for a family-owned funeral home, one that will allow you to put in long hours of overtime on one family. I remember one day I put cremated remains into 100 tiny glass bottles, and my SCI co-workers told me it was above and beyond my duties. Not so in my book; I am a funeral director and some cases are just going to be more work than others.

Of course now, working in what I consider the perfect arrangement, am unlikely to accept a job offer from SCI or another funeral home. I like being a busy freelancer. From one day to the next, I don’t know where I’m working or what I’m doing, but I get to experience all aspects of the business with no limitations. I might go from the nursing home to the medical examiner to the prep room to the church to the graveside in a single day, or I might not work for a week. I can set my own rates and can turn down work if I think it’s not worth the money or if I just don’t feel like doing it. I can hire my own outside help. I bring my dog all the time. I don’t apply for vacation time, I just leave.

My mom once said that one definition of success is when you no longer have to fill out job applications, because instead, people will approach you and ask if you’d consider working for them. And today, that is how I get most of my work. People call me and say “I’ve heard of you, can you help me?”

Clearly this way of life is not for everyone, and sometimes it gets to me, not knowing when I’ll be paid or not ever having any benefits. Recently I was hurt on the job and there is no workers compensation, no disability insurance, nothing but waiting. But a lot of family-owned funeral homes are not able to afford to pay these claims, and have resorted to paying their employees in cash. Something else to keep in mind; in this business you will get hurt. If not from lifting a heavy body, then from embalming fluid in your eyes. It happens to everyone.

But I can say that there is not one job I’d rather be doing, or any other life I’d rather be living. I consider myself very fortunate; in spite of a lot, I earned a college degree and ended up with the career I always wanted. A lot of people will never get to say that.