By Thomas A. Parmalee

Pierce Colleges of Funeral Service started the year off with a bang, announcing that Joseph Finocchiaro, who serves as president of one of its schools – the Dallas Institute of Funeral Service – would take on the chief executive officer and president roles for the entire organization.

In addition to its school in Dallas, Pierce Colleges of Funeral Service includes two other institutions that are also accredited by the American Board of Funeral Service Education: Gupton-Jones College of Funeral Service and Mid-America College of Funeral Service.

All three schools are single-purpose institutions offering an associate degree in funeral service.

Finocchiaro earned multiple degrees in music performance at the University of South Florida and then an associate degree in funeral service education from St. Petersburg College. Later, he also completed an executive juris doctor in law and technology with an emphasis in cyber-law from Concord Law School.

After completing his funeral education, he continued his work at the E. James Reese Funeral Home & Crematory in Seminole, Florida as an intern before earning his full license. When the firm was acquired by the Anderson-McQueen family of funeral homes, he became the funeral director in charge at its a Life Tribute-Gulfport chapel before switching gears, taking his first teaching job at Miami Dade College, where he became coordinator of funeral service education before joining the Dallas Institute of Funeral Service in January 2019.

We recently caught up with Finocchiaro to learn more about his march up the administrative ranks of funeral service education, the challenges he plans to tackle in his new role and his thoughts on mortuary science education.

You were a funeral director and certified crematory operator at E. James Reese Funeral Home and Crematory in Seminole, Florida, for several years before transitioning to becoming an educator. What prompted the change?

My constant dream was to be a collegiate professor, and this was apparent to me years before I ever thought about funeral service. When I began thinking what my next big step would be, I began looking at funeral service education as a way to enter the field of academia. It was a hard decision to leave funeral directing as I had very strong community ties in Pinellas County, Florida where I worked, but when faced with your dream job, better compensation and benefits, you take the opportunities you’re given.

I moved to Texas when they offered me the presidency of the Dallas Institute, since it was an on-campus, student-facing position. I had to move from St. Petersburg, Florida, to Hollywood, Florida, in order to take my job at Miami-Dade College, as there was no distance education program at that college and, even if there was, full-time faculty have to have an on-campus presence.

Do you still engage in any active funeral directing? Why or why not?

The short answer is I do not. As a professor, I felt it was very important to remain strictly neutral when working with funeral homes – both corporate and independent. As such, I did not solicit any trade work or part-time work outside of academia once I entered it. To be clear: I absolutely offered my time and talents to anyone in an emergency who would ask me, especially during the pandemic. I would not solicit opportunities to direct otherwise. Lastly, to do well in funeral service education, especially starting off, is an extreme time commitment. Like any teacher, you work countless hours off the clock that is not accounted for.

You jumped from being a professor at Miami Date college right to becoming president of funeral service and then to being named CEO of Pierce Mortuary Colleges. What prepared you to make that leap?

I wasn’t just a professor at Miami Dade College, I was the program coordinator of its funeral service program. This prepared me well for the next stage of my career since I had both educational experience and administrative experience. It was because of that administrative role I decided to study law, as I felt that would give me an edge if I went further into administration. When you combine the teaching, administrative, and legal/regulatory experience, in my opinion, you get a strong candidate for someone in charge of stewarding an educational organization.

You worked for a subsidiary of the prestigious Anderson-McQueen Family of Funeral Homes of St. Petersburg, Florida. How closely did you work with John, Nikki and Bill McQueen and what big lessons did you learn from them?

Anderson-McQueen acquired Reese Funeral Home right as I was finishing my internship. As a line-level director, I didn’t work day to day with John, Nikki, or Bill but rather would see them on a week-by-week basis during leadership meetings. What Bill and John did was invest in my development as a funeral professional. I have long attributed my success since then to that investment they made. I think the biggest lesson I learned is that it is entirely possible to do things in the nontraditional way and succeed at it. Anderson-McQueen always innovated new concepts and merchandise into its business model. The McQueens were highly visible and active in national organizations and encouraged their employees to engage in business networking opportunities. I would like to think I was a good employee to them, and I have the highest respect and admiration for John, Bill, and Nikki.

Can you share an experience where something at a funeral service did not go as planned or as expected, and what lesson did you learn from the experience?

It’s hard to pick just one story as you can imagine. I was at the funeral of the mother of a very dear friend. At the entombment, the lift battery died just shy of where it needed to be in order to load the casket into the crypt easily. Thankfully, the mausoleum crypt was about chest high, and when I looked at the cemetery worker his eyes were wide because he didn’t know what to do.

Before anyone could think about what was happening, I walked up to the side of the casket and stated, “This is where I would like to ask the men of the family to please assist me in laying their mother to rest.”

They immediately joined me at the casket, I gave some simple instructions on what we were about to do, and we laid their mother gently to rest. After the services were over, my friend who is a licensed medical doctor stated, “I have been to hundreds of these services over the years. I never could have imagined how important and meaningful a service could be until this moment.”

To this day, they do not know the battery failing gave them this incredible and powerful moment. They believed this was planned and an important part of the ceremony.

Do we have enough young people and older people who may be transitioning to a new career interested in funeral service? What can funeral homes and funeral professionals do at the local level to encourage more members of their community to explore a career in funeral service?

This is a difficult question – I think we have enough people coming into education to meet the needs, but we’re having a hard time closing that loop to getting them licensed.

There are several reasons for this and, to be honest, this question alone could be the topic of an entire interview, but I think a primary consideration is that people are coming for a funeral service education with unrealistic expectations of what we do. I think it’s very important that funeral professionals engage with educational institutions that offer shadowing opportunities, not just part-time work. Ride-alongs are common in some fields, and we need to paint a realistic picture of what we do on a daily basis.

Shadowing costs licensed practitioners nothing. As a shadow, they should not be participating in any way – they should simply watch and observe. If a shadow wants to take a more active role, then some type of part-time employment needs to be discussed so that they are covered by the firm’s general liability policy like any other employee. I think most funeral professionals will be able to tell quickly during the shadowing opportunity whether or not they may wish to invest in that shadow as a part-time employee.

Can you tell me a little bit about each school under the Pierce umbrella?

The Dallas Institute of Funeral Service originally began its history in 1900 as the Barnes School of Embalming and later became the Dallas School of Embalming. It was succeeded by the Dal            as Institute of Mortuary Science founded by W.H. Pierce and L.G. Frederick. Current enrollment is about 450 students.

The Gupton-Jones College of Funeral Service was founded in 1920 in Nashville, Tennessee, by L.A. Gupton. By 1969, it had migrated to the Atlanta, Georgia area. It moved into its current home in 1992 in Decatur. Current enrollment is about 425 students.

Mid-America College of Funeral Service is a combination of two schools: The Kentucky School of Mortuary Science and the Indiana College of Mortuary Science. The Kentucky School was founded in 1895. In 1972, the school was acquired by the Pierce Organization. The Indiana College of Mortuary Science was established in 1905 in Indianapolis, Indiana as the Askin Training School for Embalmers by Clifford Askins. It changed its name in 1924. In 1980, both schools merged, and the Mid-America College of Funeral Services moved to its current location in Jeffersonville, Indiana. Current enrollment is about 320 students.

Since the pandemic, a tremendous shift has occurred in education and distance education far exceeds on-campus enrollment. Many schools had to adapt to that trend, and thankfully, we had put emphasis on our distance education programs prior to pandemic, so we were able to adapt relatively easily because of our foresight.

Each campus has its own rich history and personality. Demographics also differ between the three schools, so each school, necessarily, has its own challenges.

What excites you most about the students you see at Pierce Mortuary Colleges today?

Today’s students genuinely want to get into funeral service for good reasons: to help people and provide support to others in their time of need. A large number of them come with no prior experience in funeral service and start working at funeral homes during or after their funeral service education. This provides both benefits and challenges, of course. But with the evolution of the death-care industry becoming a service-focused industry rather than a merchandise centered industry, the modern graduate is well prepared for their evolving role as a funeral professional.

What do today’s mortuary college students struggle with the most?

I would say many students struggle with time management and the discipline necessary to succeed in online learning while also juggling their personal lives and employment. Funeral service distance education isn’t diluted just because it’s delivered in an electronic format. The second thing is students struggle with the nature of the job. It’s hard physically and emotionally, and there’s not much that can prepare you for it.

What do funeral homes need to do to appeal to today’s mortuary science graduates, so that the best new graduates come to work at their firm? What do students value that perhaps their older peers did not?

Modern funeral homes have to accept that the business model that existed in the 1980s and 1990s is evolving, and the modern worker is not going to accept the same conditions that Gen Xers and millennials did. The newer generations put emphasis on work-life balance and their own personal physical and mental health. They have a personal identity that is separate from their work identity, unlike previous generations where their work identity/work ethic is strongly associated with their personal identity.

Would you like to see more states allow for a split licensure, or are you in favor of the idea that all licensed funeral directors should also be licensed embalmers?

I unapologetically have a clear preference that all licensees, dual or single, should have the common experience of a full funeral service education in both the arts and sciences.

I’m actually indifferent to the concept of split licensure and there are some compelling reasons why this model of licensure should be adopted. My concerns lie in the customer experience and increased risk of liability.

Traditionally, a family member could meet with a licensed professional in an arrangement conference and that arranger likely had a “dual license.” That client could ask just about any question and receive a response based on experience and personal knowledge because the licensee went through school and had experience on both the arranging and preservation side.

My concern now is that a single-role licensee (arranger) will have to defer questions to a second single-role licensee (embalmer). Worse yet, the arranger may answer the question conveniently with no basis in reality, which then increases the firm’s liability as they talk about something they know little, if anything, about. To be clear, of course there will always be situations with an arranger making promises they aren’t able to fulfill, as unfortunate as those situations are. A dual licensee is at least knowledgeable to some extent in preservation techniques and has proved some level of competency as a requirement of their formal education. That is not the case with a single-purpose licensee. This increases the risk of egregiousness when an unsubstantiated promise is made, which then increases liability.

From my decade of experience with those who “only want to be embalmers,” when they arrive at mortuary school, I’ve noted they’re choosing the prep room to avoid contact with clients. These licensees now have to be able to communicate effectively with clients and when those clients ask questions. This equates to your embalmers being interrupted from their expected duties in order to field questions that the arrangers simply have no knowledge of and then resuming duties after they’re done talking. This could lead to costly mistakes in the prep room.

Lastly, courts don’t change standards quickly, easily, or affordably. Courts may apply existing dual-licensee standards which may lead to increased litigation costs and appeals.

In summary, I’m not opposed to single licensure. I’m opposed to quick fixes that will cause other problems if the situation is not well thought out or planned for.  I have single-licensee graduates of my certificate programs who are excellent arrangers and managers. I am just as proud of them as I am the traditional students.

What do you see as your biggest challenges as the president of Pierce moving forward? What are some of your major goals?

I think my biggest challenge as the president of Pierce Mortuary Colleges will be to communicate to the industry, regulators, and general public the necessity of a formalized, quality funeral service education in the development of licensed professionals. A secondary challenge will be to educate those same parties on how pre-licensure education and testing is planned and delivered; especially the role of licensees in such things as exam and curricular development. Neither of these things happen in an echo chamber.

As for my goals, I am hoping to increase our partnerships with institutions of higher learning, so that all Pierce Mortuary College graduates have the benefit of transporting their education into baccalaureate and, in the far future, even graduate degrees.

I’m hoping to increase our efficiency as an institution to meet the modern needs of federal and state regulatory agencies while also exceeding expectations in regard to educational excellence.

Lastly, I’m hoping to establish our schools as the institutions of choice, so that both students and those seeking to become educators think of our schools first as excellent places to go to receive and provide instruction.

Is there a website you’d recommend your funeral service peers visit?

Please visit the American Board of Funeral Service Education ( and the International Conference of Funeral Service Examining Boards ( Subscribe to their notifications and newsletters, so that licensees can take part in things like subject matter expert evaluations of curriculum or test issues.

As president of the American Board, I’m always surprised that licensees are not more aware of their role in the development of education and pre-licensure certification. It’s a very important role they play.

Do you have any other thoughts to share or add?

Stay engaged with your state regulatory agencies and state associations. I think it’s very, very important that licensees participate in state and national associations to protect their interests and stay engaged in our ever-evolving industry.

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