Jan Smith was in the final semester of her training to be a funeral director when her 8-year-old nephew died after a heart transplant.
Her family’s heartbreak deepened her understanding of the value of the work she was preparing for.
“I was able to be an observer of how my profession can help a family with a traumatic experience like the loss of a young child. I saw what a difference we make with creating that meaningful last experience,” said Smith, of Indianapolis.
The business of caring for the dead and overseeing final goodbyes, long dominated by solemn men in dark suits, is becoming women’s work.
A Shifting Tide
Now 41, Jan Smith was in a minority when she attended mortuary school in the 1990s; only 5 percent of her class was female.
Today, she’s vice president of funeral operations for Flanner Buchanan, which has 17 funeral home locations around Indianapolis. About half of her funeral director colleagues at her company are women and the majority of candidates applying for internships or jobs are female.
That’s typical of how the gender gap in the industry has narrowed.
According to the National Funeral Directors Association, 16 percent of its current membership is female, up from 10 percent in 2004.
But the real shift will be felt as the next generation of funeral directors moves into prominence in the profession. In the past decade, the number of women enrolled in the nation’s 59 accredited mortuary science programs began to meet and then exceed the number of their male classmates. In 2016, 61 percent of students in college and university programs were female.
That’s consistent with the male-female demographics at the University of Minnesota. Its 110-year-old program of Mortuary Science offers a four-year bachelor of science degree.
Changing Nature of Funeral Director Profession
Angela Woosley, a senior teaching instructor in the program at the university’s Minneapolis campus, thinks the gender switch reflects a larger societal acceptance of women in roles previously dominated by men.
“Funeral directors have always been pillars of the community and in the past, maybe women would not have been in that category. But opportunities for leadership in many fields have opened up,” said Woosley, who is a licensed funeral director herself.
Woosley thinks one of the biggest reasons that more women are choosing the profession is because its fundamental nature has changed.
“Funeral directors used to perform a finite function and most funerals were pretty much done one way. Now we are facilitators. We take a client-centered approach to discover a family’s needs and to understand the story of the person who died. We bring the community together for a one-time event,” Woosley explained.
Throughout history, women often attended the dead, assigned to the ceremonial tasks of washing, anointing and shrouding bodies to prepare them for burial.
In the U.S., men took over the role during the Civil War, with the introduction of the embalming process. The ability to preserve physical remains transformed death care into a profession and often a family business, passed from father to son.
“There was a longstanding cultural taboo that women were too delicate or squeamish for this work,” Woosley said. “When I still hear that, I say, remember that women have always been nurses. The ill and the dead share a lot in common; bodies do things that require a strong stomach.”
A New Kind of Funeral
With the decline of burial and the rise of cremation, the timeline for a service can be extended and in many cases, celebrations of life are replacing traditional funerals. As fewer Americans are affiliated with a house of worship, managing the details of ceremonies that were previously organized by clergy now often falls within the funeral director’s purview.
“Preparing for a service is like being a project manager or an event planner. It’s a job that requires communication skills and the ability to multi-task, two areas where we know women excel,” Woosley said.
The work of the contemporary funeral director involves more than making sure the flowers, black cars and video tributes are in place and ready to go. Today, the curriculum in mortuary science programs trains those who work in funeral service in grief psychology and prepares them to offer empathetic guidance to families in the first stage of mourning.
Women as Comforters
Monica Torres, a licensed funeral director with NXT Generation Mortuary Support Services in Phoenix, believes that her ability to extend comfort to support the bereaved is a uniquely feminine advantage.
“Families respond to women in that compassionate role. I can put my hand on someone’s hand or give them a hug and it won’t be misconstrued. It’s not going to be appropriate for my male counterpart to do that,” she said.
A skilled embalmer, Torres specializes in restoration and reconstruction and is called in by other funeral directors for help with traumatic cases, preparing a body for viewing when there’s been a death following a disfiguring car accident or gunshot wound.
“I get offended when people say they think what I do is creepy,” she said. “That’s someone’s grandmother, that’s someone’s baby. I take it personally that I’m the last person who will care for these people, and I can see the relief on the faces of family members who know they can trust me with their loved one.”
Like teachers, counselors, first responders and social workers, those who work as funeral directors are now sometimes included in lists of the so-called helping professions.
“We see sad situations but we have to keep it together,” said Smith. “It’s an honor to be with families and help them through what is often the most difficult time of their lives.”
Before Smith studied mortuary science, she earned a pre-med degree, planning to be a pediatrician. She’s found that her career in funeral service has given her the sort of satisfaction that she had anticipated she’d experience in caring for sick children.
“It really is a calling,” she said.