We’ve seen it time and again: history repeats itself. Even in our funeral industry when it comes to the role of women.
Often cited as an extension of the maternal care they naturally give, women in many cultures have historically been responsible for preparing bodies after death, even going as far back as Ancient Greece.
But a shift away from women handling these tasks began prior to the mid-1800s when cabinet makers – traditionally males – began to also build caskets and handle more of the post-death process. The shift continued around the time of the Civil War when embalming became a more common practice in order to preserve deceased soldiers who needed to be transported long distances home to their families.
Given the science of embalming (when women didn’t “do” science), the handling of the deceased becoming more of a business than family ritual (when women weren’t part of professional matters), and the new perception that women were now unfit to handle the same emotional and physical requirements of post death work they previously did eventually pushed many women to the sidelines. Until history began to repeat itself.
Women re-entered the industry working alongside their grandfathers, fathers and husbands, taking care of office work and sometimes the deceased’s makeup and hair. Over the years, women have continued to participate in the family funeral industry, even growing into leadership roles, as we see today.
Like Ashley Hoff-Czaplewski, a third-generation funeral director at Hoff Celebration of Life Center in Minnesota.
“After high school, I began nursing school, soon realizing it wasn’t what I wanted. After thinking through and researching many other careers – social work, psychology, etc. – I was still unsure where to go,” said Hoff-Czaplewski. “After spending a weekend at home where I talked to a woman whose husband had died a few years back and she said how much my grandpa and dad had helped her at that time and how much that meant to her, the light bulb finally went off. From that moment on, I haven’t looked back.”
The journey into the funeral industry hasn’t been quite so natural for others, however. At one of my first funeral trade shows 15 years ago I was told I wouldn’t be in business in 5 years. Stephanie Charron, intern at Graham, Putnam & Mahoney Funeral Parlors and one of Bogati Urns’s inaugural scholarship winners, also experienced something similar.
“For as long as I can remember I’ve been curious about funeral homes. When I was a young adult in the 80’s, I called a local funeral home to ask how someone gets into the funeral business” said Charron. “The gentleman on the phone yelled at me stating, “Women don’t do this job! This is a man’s job and family business only!” and he hung up on me.”
She believed him and didn’t pursue a career in the industry until decades later. Now 50 years old and a student at Fine Mortuary College in Norwood, Mass., she’s one of many women in the industry.
According to the American Board of Funeral Service Education’s 2018 Executive Director’s Report, 64.8% of recent program graduates were female. The same is seemingly true across the border in Canada where Krystal Riddell, owner/funeral director for Essentials Cremation and Burial Services in Niagara Falls, Ontario, estimates 70-80 percent of funeral program attendees at Humber College are female.
“I think more women are entering this field because they are drawn to a professional setting, perhaps they look forward to a physical challenge, and at the same time they get to embrace the nurturing part of the profession,” said Riddell.
In fact, as with many women in the industry, the nurturing aspect of the business is what captured Riddell, who was first introduced to the profession at the age of 15 after her stepfather passed away.
“I always thought I would become a teacher or social worker,” she said. “However, once I started looking into what funeral directors do, I learned I would have the chance to help people, especially when they need it the most.”
Same with Trina Eggert, co-owner and funeral director at Your Traditions Cremation and Funeral Chapel in Sarasota, Fla. At age 11, Eggert lost two dear friends who were like brothers to her. The boys’ parents wanted her to be a part of the funeral process and took her to the funeral home, where she received much comfort from the funeral director.
“This is the most devastating time in someone’s life, and it shouldn’t be treated as a transaction,” said Eggert. “I felt then that I wanted to be able to bring a bit of stability to someone during such an unstable time.”
But are women still experiencing any push back in the industry? Not really.
“When I first started working at our family firm in 2010, there were a few times when I would start talking to a family about arrangements and, at some point, one of them would say, ‘When do we meet with the funeral director?’ or ‘Are you the secretary?’ Comments have also been made when on house calls like, “When are the guys coming to pick up mom?’” said Hoff-Czaplewski. “Those types of comments were really only in the first few years, though. I think people are now much more used to seeing female funeral directors, so they don’t even think twice.”
These women aren’t thinking twice about it either. They are much more focused on what they can—and do—bring to their field. Their passion, visions, and abilities are inspiring.
“Just because families are saying they want to keep things simple doesn’t mean they don’t want a service,” Hoff-Czaplewski says. “We need to be open-minded and think outside the box as we engage the families and find out what they truly want and need.”
Riddell agrees. “Our generation is such a “do-it-yourself” or “check Google” type of generation. It’s anything but traditional,” Riddell said. “I hope I can bring new options or traditions to families and show them there is still value in ceremony and gatherings. It’s taking hospitality to the next level.”
Then there’s the infamous women’s intuition, which Charron has already experienced. “When I was preparing a young deceased person for a viewing and was putting her clothes on, I found wooden rosary beads. I went to place them around her neck, and one of my colleagues said, ‘Stef, the rosary beads go in her hands.’ I said, ‘I know, but something is telling me to put them around her neck,’” says Charron. “When the family came in and saw her, one of the family members said, ‘Oh my goodness! Her rosary beads!’ I quickly looked over at my coworker. As my heart was pounding and we made eye contact with each other, the family member continued, saying, ‘She never took them off her neck!’ I exhaled with relief. That was the best reward!”
Then again, some of what these women aspire to bring is simple. “Women are good listeners, which is a key factor and probably the most important skill in a good funeral director,” says Eggert. “Women provide a good balance in ways like this.”
Appropriately, Eggert’s business partner at Your Traditions, Scott Kinne, fully agrees. “We’re frequently giving each other a different take we hadn’t thought of before. It goes both ways, giving different perspectives,” said Kinne. “It’s vital for a female to be involved in this business. You really need their nurturing, maternal qualities. It just gives clients more options. I wouldn’t do it any other way.”
To keep the momentum going, our fearless females had some great suggestions for women looking to enter the funeral industry: reach out to local funeral directors for mentorship; get involved in state organizations; find – and show gratitude toward – your tribe of supporters; know your value; stand up for what you believe in; and stay focused, calm, persistent, and resilient as you work toward your goals.
To think, women only obtained the right to vote in 1920, and look how far we’ve come! Yet it’s incredibly exciting to think of all the opportunities in our industry beyond what’s already been built and achieved.
Eggert sums it up perfectly: “There is always room for growth in everything we do in life. I believe the funeral industry is growing in many ways, and women do and can continue to play a role in that growth.” FBA
A former advertising professional turned RN, Andrea Bogard LeBlanc combined her business and compassionate sides with the founding of Bogati Urn Company in 2004. Headquartered in Sarasota, Florida, Bogati Urns offers funeral homes and crematories nationwide an unparalleled variety of urns, scattering tubes and related products. Andrea can be reached at (941) 351-3382 or [email protected]