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Funeral Industry

Women have come nearly full circle in the funeral business. Before there was such as thing as a funeral home, it was the exclusive job of the females of the house or community to handle and prepare bodies after death. In the late 19th and throughout most of the 20th century, the task became the domain of men. Now, well into the 21st century, women are again assuming positions of leadership in mortuary services.

Female-Friendly Profession

Kim Perry is a licensed funeral director who works with Service Corporation International. The Houston-based mortuary company is the largest of its kind in the United States. It oversees 1,500 funeral homes and 450 cemeteries across the country. Perry works personally with around 30 of these businesses. According to Perry, times have changed since she entered the field in 1986. As far as women on the funeral staff went, "We were oddities," said Perry. That feeling of isolation is past. Today, 2,033 women operate within SCI in senior management. Approximately half of SCI's 23,000 associates are women.

The U.S. has 58 accredited mortuary schools. Currently, over 50 percent of their students are female, and the numbers continue to climb. In 2000, 50 percent of the students at Houston's Commonwealth Institute of Funeral Services were women. The latest count showed female enrollment at 64 percent. Perry sees the growth in female participation as a very natural development.

Nurturing Relationships

"Most of the people making arrangements for loved ones are women, and they feel really comfortable talking to another woman," said Perry. The ability to build solid relationships is regarded as a crucial skill in an industry that generates $16 billion annually. Perry notes that many women gravitate toward detail work, and that that kind of attention resonates with customers. Something as particular as the right flower arrangement can go a long way to comforting people who are grieving the loss of a loved one. Women tend to be very good at this sort of work, said Perry.

Historical Role of Women

It is only since the Civil War and the widespread practice of embalming that women have not had the role of tending to the bodies of those who have died. For centuries, it was women's work. The following are some of the traditions from around the world:

  • Women were charged with washing, anointing and dressing the body in ancient Greece.
  • Ancient Hebrew practices dictated that the care of the dead was unclean labor, and was thereby delegated to women.
  • Colonial women in the U.S. washed and dressed the bodies of family and community members in preparation for burial.

Men took up the practice of embalming during the Civil War, to preserve bodies that had to travel from the south to the north to be returned to their families. Still, women held a place within the business. A nurse by the name of Lina D. Odou learned how to embalm in Switzerland. She opened a school for women in the U.S., and graduated 10 female students in 1899. As the 20th century progressed, however, women lost ground in professional circles across most industries, including the funeral business. It was not until the 1960s and '70s that women started re-entering the field in numbers. Still, before 1980, fewer that 5 percent of mortuary students were women.

Professional Development

Muneerah Warner founded Funeral Divas, Inc. in October 2010. Members in the program have access to mentorship programs, as well as an online store filled with pink and black logo'd accessories such as sweatshirts and coffee mugs. The organization holds retreats and upholds a mission to support women in the industry through professional development and social interaction. Organizations such as Funeral Divas, Inc. clearly benefit female participation in the mortuary industry, but they may offer advantages for workers of all sexes. Active professional groups may serve to normalize an often-stigmatized industry. In addition, they may help funeral professionals take better advantage of each other for both professional and emotional support.

Category: Funeral

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