Times have changed, and women funeral directors are no longer unusual. Neither are female embalmers. In 2010, 57.1% of mortuary science students in the United States were women, according to the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA). Back in 1995, only 35% were female. An NFDA survey of its own members in 2011 found 11.5% were women vs. 9.7% in 2004.
Why do women enter this field? At one time actress Angelina Jolie wanted to be a funeral director because she was unhappy with the way her grandfather’s funeral was handled. (Obviously she changed her mind.) Other women may choose this career because a funeral home was the family business. Ellen Wynn McBrayer, CFSP, CPC, who operates two funeral homes in Georgia, got into the profession because her grandmother was one of the first licensed women funeral directors in the state. McBrayer’s mother eventually took over, and McBrayer followed in her footsteps. She became a licensed embalmer, as well. “I realized a funeral was more about a personal relationship with the grieving family and the toll grief can take,” she told me.
Women have always been attracted to helping professions, and this one requires compassion, and comforting skills, as well as commitment and event planning and organizing expertise. “Women by nature are comfortable with intimacy. They’re good listeners,” says Kim Stacey, founder and CEO of the Association of Women Funeral Professionals (AWFP).
Some women are drawn to embalming – a cosmetic and preservative process that prepares the body for interment – for other reasons. Kim Stacey notes that young embalmers love the art of reconstruction and/or are intrigued by the science. Each body is different. Their interest may have been sparked by a personal incident as a child, such as attending an aunt’s funeral and marveling at how wonderful she looked in the casket. Ellen Wynn McBrayer wanted to be both a funeral director and an embalmer to offer the best part of herself. “Death is a lot more than the funeral,” she says. “If the family chooses embalming (as opposed to cremation), viewing the body is the beginning of the process of closure.”
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Florence Isaacs is the author of several books on etiquette, including My Deepest Sympathies: Meaningful Sentiments for Condolence Notes a.... She writes two advice blogs for Legacy.com: Sincere Condolences and Widow in the World, a new blog for bereaved spouses and partners.
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