Women Are Changing the Face of the Once Male-Dominated Funeral Industry
By Stacy M. Brown, NNPA Newswire Correspondent
For many, when there’s mention of singer Monica Brown, her hit songs like “The Boy is Mine,” and “Miss Thang,” might come to mind first.
For others, her stellar acting career with small and big roles in “New York Undercover,” “Living Single,” and the 2018 reality television show “T.I. and Tiny Family and Friends Hustle,” also come to mind.
But, it’s Brown’s other profession that – until recently – received little fanfare.
“When I’m there, I’m not ‘Monica the artist,’” Brown said on a recent broadcast of her reality show. “I’m a mortician.”
The 38-year-old Grammy and Billboard Award winner is among a growing number of women who are beginning to overshadow the typical “man in the black suit” funeral director.
“It’s far more than a job, it’s all-day, it’s emotional and it’s far more than you just go to work and come home and that’s it,” said Alyssa George, who just finished her internship on her way to becoming a funeral director.
George works under Patricia Marchesani, the funeral director, owner and supervisor at McCausland, Garrity, Marchesani in Glenolden, Pennsylvania.
She’s one of several in Delaware County.
“I definitely think the profession is changing. It’s more female than it’s ever been, and I really can’t tell you why; maybe it’s because we didn’t have a way in earlier, but it seems like we’re doing a lot of good work now,” George said.
Funeral directors, also sometimes referred to as undertakers or morticians, help families plan funeral services. They then carry out those services, according to a job description on study.com.
Most funeral directors are practicing embalmers, which means that they prepare and preserve the body before internment.
Common duties of funeral directors include meeting with families, helping families plan services, embalming and preparing bodies, planning and organizing wakes and memorial services, placing obituary notices in newspapers and handling paperwork.
To become a funeral director, individuals need to complete a 2- or 4-year program in mortuary science. Typical courses in such a program include physiology, anatomy, embalming techniques, pathology, restorative art, accounting and client services.
All 50 states also require funeral directors to be licensed, which generally requires at least two years of education, one year of apprenticeship and a passing score on a state examination, according to study.com, which notes that the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects employment to grow in that field by 7 percent through 2024.
Because funeral directors, whose median income is $48,490 annually, interact with the families of the deceased, it’s important that they are compassionate and empathetic.
“You have to be able to put yourself out there and understand that you have to put other people’s needs before your own,” George said. “It’s not to be taken lightly where you can just jump into the profession just because it might be a steady career or a good job because there’s so much more.
“You have to understand your community and be a huge part of that community and you have to be giving by nature because that’s what you’re doing, giving.”
In a published interview earlier this year, Jan Smith, a funeral director in Indianapolis and a spokeswoman with the National Funeral Directors Association, said she’s been in the business 20 years and recalled that there were just a few women then.
“Today… more than 60 percent of students are female,” Smith said.
“Women bring a level of compassion. For me to sit down with a mother who lost her child, I can connect on a different level than a man can, just being a mother myself,” she said.
Elizabeth Fournier of Cornerstone Funeral Services in Boring, Oregon, has served as the one-woman funeral service in that town for 13 years although she started in the industry nearly 30 years ago.
“When I first stepped into this industry, I was a 22-year old woman and no one else in the place resembled me. It was very uncommon to find a young woman in this profession as it was primarily men or sons of funeral home owners who followed in the footsteps of their father,” Fournier said.
“As you are aware, this has changed throughout the years. Our local mortuary college had nearly every seat filled by a female student. And it is the females who are getting a hold of me to apprentice or to learn from a woman who has been in this industry since the old boy network,” she said.
The reason for the shift is because of where we are as a culture, Fournier continued.
“I happen to be in Oregon where the cremation rate is 80 percent. This means a woman doesn’t have to go to school to become an embalmer; she can just meet with families and stay in the funeral home,” she said.
“Also, a lot of funeral homes are no longer the large homes owned and ran by families. The business has morphed into small lease-owned spots inside strip malls, as well as licensed funeral directors working out of their own homes because they can outsource most items needed. This also allows a lot of women to be involved because this industry is no longer a business handed down from fathers to sons.
“It’s very rare to see that lineage in a funeral home any longer.”
Further, Baby Boomers are gravitating away from traditional funerals, favoring cremations and celebrations of life, said Alison Johnston, the CEO and co-founder of Ever Loved, a website where individuals can plan funerals and memorials.
“This shifts the role of the funeral directors away from body preparation tasks, like embalming, and more toward event planning and family support, two areas that women have traditionally gravitated toward,” Johnston said.
Women are also finding themselves drawn to this world as something that may at first seem natural to them and finding that there is now space for them to get into it, said Amber Carvaly of Undertaking L.A., a funeral home in Los Angeles.
“They have taken care of children or parents and see funeral directing as something they may be good at because of their past experience. However, after running my own business I can tell you that the women that succeed do so because they are marvelous women of determination and are healthy whole humans with good boundaries and the ability to not take grief personally,” Carvaly said.
Finally, Funeral Celebrant Pam Vetter said the days of expensive cookie cutter rent-a-minister and insert-a-name funeral services are hopefully nearly over as families are demanding more personal, caring service from funeral homes.
“If funeral homes want to stay in business, they’ve realized that they need to diversify their staff. They’ve also realized that they’ve needed to diversify funeral service offerings by making the experience of saying farewell to a loved one both personal and honorable,” Vetter said.
Spending time with a family, listening to stories, playing favorite music, and adding an overall personal theme that connects to the deceased makes all the difference in the world to grieving families, she said.
“Families will remember a funeral service for decades to come because you never forget the day you say goodbye. The funeral service needs to be memorable and part of that effort is connecting with your families. That need is being met by bringing in and training a more diverse staff.”