Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Not just a man's job: More women are funeral home directors

For centuries, and across many cultures, women have taken many roles in the rituals surrounding death. They have dressed bodies, cooked and cared for survivors and rendered other services.
But, until a few decades ago, few women were funeral directors in the American funeral industry. That job was one among many that were widely considered “a man’s job.”
That is changing, in both perception and reality.

Bernie Henderson, president of Woody Funeral Home and Cremation Service, grew up in a family funeral home business and has seen the change taking place around him.

Back in the 1960s and ’70s, Henderson said, “you didn’t expect to see a woman in that job. It was highly unlikely. It wasn’t thought of as work conducive to having females do it. It was like a lot of other jobs — police officers, firefighters, ministers, doctors, the military, engineers.

“Those were stereotypes that were still around, even into the ’80s,” he said, “in part, I think, because men were afraid they’d get shown up.”

But, in the past decade especially, Henderson said, women have proven “they can do anything they want to, and do it quite well.”

Henderson has first-hand experience to back that observation when it comes to his profession. At Woody — with its three Richmond-area locations — four of the company’s 10 funeral directors are women.

According to the Wisconsin-based National Funeral Directors Association, women accounted for 16.5 percent of the association’s membership as of 2014 — compared with 9.7 percent a decade earlier. The group represents 48 percent of U.S. funeral homes.

Ingrid Brown was the first of Woody’s female funeral directors when she started her apprenticeship there 13 years ago.

“My father made sure I got a good education,” Brown said. “I like dealing with different cultures, and I think that is a valuable asset for me.”

Women, she said, sometimes have a knack for attention to detail. “We have to check with the hospital to release the body, do the paperwork, meet with the family to make arrangements for visitation and services, book everything that needs to be booked, call the newspapers to put in the notices — there are so many details.

“And all funeral directors have to adjust to the different needs of different families.”

The other women funeral directors with Woody — Carmelita Anderson, Narita Wright and Jordan Mullins — also noted qualities that may help women in the job.

“I think some women may be a little more in touch with feelings than some men may be,” Wright said. “And some family members are able to open up to us a little more and tell us what they need.”
Anderson said she sees women approach the job “a little differently, with more sympathy and willingness to show it. Some families respond to that softer side.
“Some men are stiffer, more businesslike,” Anderson said. “Though some are also able to show emotion when it’s called for.”
Mullins, 27, has been a funeral director for five years and been with Woody since July. She said that, once in a while, women in the position of funeral director still see resistance from grieving families.
“Sometimes certain members of families aren’t expecting to see a woman,” she said. “They still default to an older man in that role — a gentleman in his 60s rather than a female in her 20s.
“But being a younger woman can be an advantage, too,” she said. “It just depends on the family.”

Indications are that the percentage of women funeral directors will continue to rise, according to the National Funeral Directors Association.
In 2013, the most recent figures available, 62.7 percent of mortuary science students nationally were women, up from 35 percent in 1995.
Chuck Bowman, secretary of the funeral directors association’s board and an officer in a Denver funeral firm, said that when women began to assume the role of funeral director “some people thought women wouldn’t be tough enough ... that they couldn’t deal with the sight of a dead body. Of course, that’s turned out to be a bunch of hocus-pocus.”

Bowman said women “bring a motherly quality to the job” that often is ideal for a grieving family, especially when the deceased is a child.

Lacy Whitaker, executive director of the Virginia Funeral Directors Association, said the industry “attracts the caring, nurturing side” of women. And as women continue to enter the business, she said, she expects more women will open their own funeral homes.

Henderson said the rising tide of women as funeral directors — and in administrative positions and ownership in the industry — also reflects the determination of more women to pursue the business.
“Women are coming into the industry with a strong will to be part of it,” Henderson said. “They’re not entering into it casually.

“They have a can-do attitude — they’re going to make this happen,” he said. “They’re not doing it because ‘I’m the son and my daddy wants me to do it.’ ”

Lacyn Barton fits that description. She is a licensed funeral director for Nelsen Funeral Homes and location manager for the firm at its home at 4650 S. Laburnum Ave. in eastern Henrico County.
Barton studied mortuary science at Arapahoe Community College in Denver and worked in the industry in Colorado, Washington state, Arizona, New Mexico and Pennsylvania — 14 years in all before joining the Nelsen staff last week.

“I’ve been trying to seek out opportunities to advance,” she said. “I wasn’t born into the business. ... I’ve been seeking opportunities for better, higher jobs.”

Her entry into the funeral business was an odd one. A horse-training accident resulted in a broken skull and left her unconscious. Her family was planning her funeral.

“When I did wake up, I had to learn to walk and talk again,” Barton said. “My family told me the story of what had happened.”

She no longer could ride horses because of the risk of even worse injury, she said, effectively ending her career in that field. She began contemplating what her family members had been through when they had expected her to die.

“I said, ‘I think I’ve found my calling — helping people through the difficult time of a funeral.’”

She said she expects more and more women to consider the funeral industry as a career path.

“Women will find they have the personality and skills for the job,” she said, “the compassion and empathy to make the work a meaningful personal experience. When it comes to nurturing and care-giving, women are especially adept.”

Nelsen’s two other locations are in Ashland and Williamsburg. Woody and Nelsen — both independently operated — are owned by Houston-based Service Corp. International under that company’s Dignity Memorial brand. A public company, Service Corp. International operates more than 1,500 funeral homes and 450 cemeteries.

Among the longer-tenured women funeral directors in the Richmond area is Nicole Blanchard, one of three women among the 12 funeral directors at Bliley’s Funeral Homes’ three full-service Richmond-area locations.

Blanchard comes from a funeral-business family. Her father ran a funeral home in Delaware. A 1990 graduate of the mortuary science program at John Tyler Community College, she made the rounds of Richmond-area funeral homes for 18 months looking for an apprenticeship — a requirement for a funeral director’s license.

“I wasn’t having any success,” she said. “A few places said, ‘We’ll call you,’ but I knew they weren’t going to.” She said she was ready to start hunting for jobs in Northern Virginia when she tried Bliley’s one more time. “And they were ready to have a woman on the staff.”

She is in her second tour at Bliley’s, her work there sandwiched around a stretch at Nelsen from 1994 to 2006.

Initially, she said, she saw some resistance to a woman as funeral director — at work and from families — but that faded and often many families appreciated her softer approach.

“Some people would say a woman can’t move a 300-pound body — well neither can a man,” she said. If a woman needs help, she gets help, just as a man does, Blanchard said.

She said she is surprised to see how many younger women are entering the industry now.

“The younger generation isn’t limiting itself,” she said. “Just as in other occupations, they’re overcoming the same arguments against doing the work.”

She said most men in the profession “care about the families they work with. They have the same warmth and sympathy that women do,” but there are times when grieving families respond to women more freely, such as when the deceased is a child or a baby.

She recalled a time during her apprenticeship that she took as a sign that she had made the right career choice.

She was driving a hearse, she said, not during a funeral procession but in ordinary traffic. “I was stopped at a light. An older gentleman pulled up beside me and motioned for me to roll down my window. I did, and he smiled and said I was the first female hearse driver he had ever seen. He said, ‘I think I like it.’ ”

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