By Rhonda Simmons
Kienta Tibbs is living proof that being a funeral director isn’t just a man’s job any more.
The southern Maryland native is opening her own business, Tibbs Funeral Home & Cremation, Monday at 503 N. Main St. in Culpeper, where W.C. Thompson Funeral Home operated for several decades.
As the funeral director, Tibbs, 41, will meet with families, help plan burial services, embalm and prepare bodies, plan and organize visitations and memorial services, place obituaries in the newspapers and help finalize death certificates.
“I want my families to know that I am here in Culpeper to earn their trust and honor their loved ones. They should be able to grieve and not worry about the business side of the process,” she said.
“As a female in the industry, I offer compassion, empathy and a feminine touch during delicate times. I am that funeral director that cries with them, but also understand it’s my job to get them through this grieving process.”
Tibbs is one of a growing number of women working in the forefront of the funeral service industry. According to Robert C. Smith III, executive director of the American Board of Funeral Service Education, women represented 62 percent of graduates from accredited mortuary programs in the United States in 2015, up from 53 percent in 2004 and 40 percent in 1996.
“So having a female funeral director in Culpeper or any other community is not really a surprise from a statistical perspective,” Smith said, noting that female ownership of small businesses in general is also rising. “The year 2000 was when the female graduation rate reached the 50-50 point.”
Janet M. Stephens, program director of funeral services at John Tyler Community College in Chester, said of the 40 students in the program this year, 19 are women.
“You typically see men in this profession. When I came through the program in 1992, there were about nine of us in the program. That has changed over the years,” she said. “I think women bring more compassion to this industry. We are more apt to listen to the family’s needs and desires.”
Even though more women are entering the mortuary profession, they still face gender stereotypes in the industry.
“When I attend conventions, the male funeral directors are quick to think that my husband is the funeral director and not me,” said Tibbs.
As for the job itself, Tibbs said: “There really aren’t any challenges because we’ve figured it out. We know how to do the removals by ourselves, and we handle the families well.”
Tibbs, a first-generation funeral director, said she first became interested in the mortuary business as a third-grader, after a cousin died in a car crash. While attending the viewing, she noticed grass in his hair and blood oozing from his ear.
“I just knew that wasn’t right and that just drew my interest,” she said. “When career day came along, a local funeral director spoke and that’s when I knew that’s what I wanted to do. And I’ve always had the interest ever since.”
Tibbs received her associate’s degree in mortuary science from Gupton-Jones College of Funeral Service in Atlanta and completed her apprenticeship at Gregory B. Levett & Sons Funeral Home in Conyers, Ga. She obtained her initial funeral service license in December 2001 and is now licensed in Maryland, the District of Columbia and Virginia.
Tibbs got her first full-time job in the industry at Vaughn Greene Funeral Home in Baltimore, then spent about 15 years with Metropolitan Funeral Service in Alexandria. She worked as a funeral director at Harman Funeral Home in Hagerstown, Md., for almost a year before deciding to open her own business in Culpeper.
Tibbs said she handled every aspect of the business for her former employer, from meeting with families to preparing the bodies.
“So I thought, I can do this and step out on my own,” she said. “That just encouraged me and gave me the drive to open my own business.”
Jeff Tibbs, 42, describes his wife as a natural nurturer, a skill that serves her well at as the mother of their four children and on the job.
“She’s compassionate and understanding,” he added. “It’s just a different perspective. My wife is very good at what she does. I don’t think I’ve ever met a funeral director that has the skills and technique that I’ve seen her have in the prep room.
“She has done work for a lot of different funeral homes. She does her work behind the scenes on a lot of dignitaries and political figures. People don’t [ask you to] do those things if you’re not good at it.”
Kienta Tibbs said her husband has played an important role in her career.
“He’s been so supportive. When we first heard of a need to have an additional funeral establishment in Culpeper, Jeff did months of research to assure me and our kids that this would be a great area to grow a business and raise our children,” she said.
Tibbs said her funeral home will welcome all faiths and nationalities. At Metropolitan, Kienta Tibbs serviced all cultures, including Jewish, Muslim and Chinese customs.
Tibbs Funeral Home & Cremation will offer full-service funerals, cremations and memorials. She will also sell caskets and urns and produce programs. Tibbs will also incorporate doves, balloons, memorial slideshows with music and flowers into various services.
“When families come here, I want to have everything done here,” she said, “so they can avoid having to make any second or third trips anywhere else.”
Kienta and Jeff Tibbs have four children: Jeffrey II, 19; Kobe, 12; Madison, 11; and Dylan, 7. She plans to continue to live in Harper’s Ferry, W.Va., and make the more than two-hour commute—at least until her younger children complete this school year.
For more information, call Tibbs Funeral Home & Cremation at 540/321-4778 or 1-844/891-5856.