After a year as mortician's apprentice to a large Washington funeral home - researching for the St. Francis Burial Society - the Rev. William A. Wendt has more sympathy for the mortician.

The former rector of St. Stephen and the Incarnation Church concludes that "by design or default," funeral directors "bear almost total responsibility" and take on all distasteful aspects - most notably, handling of dead bodies. In that respect, "These guys really earn their money."

But, Wendt says, overall effects make funerals "a spectator sport." Tradition has come to mean "show." Costly embalming, viewing, flowers and music create an image of "sleep - not death. We can all live with more quality by accepting death in our lives."

Wendt was prompted to co-found the St. Francis Society several years ago, after he met resistance from some morticians when he tried to carry out a good friend's wishes for burial in a plain pine box.

"What I got when I first started calling around, requesting this simple box was, "Sure, for the kind of person who doesn't mind burying his mother in an orange crate."" That attitude, he says, made him respond with bellicose TV interviews and loud cries of "emotional extortion."

Now he says he accomplishes more with lectures and counseling.

So far as those in the funeral industry who say he and his group are bizarre, Wendt says:

"I'll tell you what's bizarre - innerspring mattresses, satin-rolled and pleated cushions and phot slots on $10,000 coffins." CAPTION: Picture, The Rev. William A. Wendt with his coffin-bookcase; by James A. Parcell