Statistics suggest that back in 1995, only a small fraction of mortuary students — 35% — were women. However, this has grown spectacularly to 79%, as stated by the National Funeral Directors Association. As a testament to this shift, among the 17 licensed funeral directors at Phaneuf Funeral Homes and Crematorium, 10 are female.
The funeral business employs over 440,000 individuals and generates $16 billion yearly in the U.S. There was almost total male control in the 1970s, but now there’s nearly gender parity, with women making up 57% of U.S. mortuary science students. It’s thus increasingly likely a woman will conduct your funeral.
Four decades ago, the percentage of female funeral directors in the U.S. sat at a meager 5%, but this figure has surged almost tenfold to 43% today. Observations from Madison Sullivan, a longtime funeral director at Phaneuf, testify to the changing landscape. Madison noted that:
“I think women have played an integral role in personalization and connecting with families. It’s become such a rewarding career, being able to walk people through one of the most difficult times in their life. They really don’t take that for granted. The number of cards that I receive, or Christmas baskets and people calling me years later to say, ‘You helped me years ago with my Mom. Now, my Dad’s not doing well. We trust you. We have confidence in you, and we want to work with you again.’ Just knowing that I have an impact and can help people heal and grieve is really rewarding to me.”
History of females caring for the dying
While women were traditionally tasked with caring for the sick, the responsibility for the deceased largely fell on men. However, this trend is changing.
Women were heavily involved in death care practices in previous eras. In ancient Greece, for instance, women washed and prepared bodies for death rites. These rites were performed mostly by women in both Christian and Hebrew societies. Even in colonial times, preparing the dead was considered a household task and thus largely the responsibility of women.
History shows a significant shift in this trend around the time of the Civil War when it was argued that the emotional and physical demands of the profession made it unfit for women. Thus began the recent trend of male dominance in the funeral profession.
Despite the adversity they faced, women, notably Lina D. Odou, carved their niche in the funeral industry. After training in embalming in Switzerland, Odou opened a school for female embalmers in the U.S. in 1899.
The feminist movement of the 1970s and 1980s shattered the ‘glass ceiling,’ providing women with opportunities that had been denied to previous generations, even in the funeral industry.
“I don’t want to say anything against men because we have some wonderful funeral directors that are men. But I think of that stereotypical funeral director, the old man in a suit sitting across the table and saying, ‘This is what we’ve always done,’ Madison said. “When you’re with a woman, [I think] you’re more likely to talk about your feelings. Not with COVID, but usually I hug people. People like to hug me even if I don’t offer. They just feel more vulnerable and willing to talk about their emotions or they’ll cry in front of me.”
In our industry, we celebrate the rise of women. However, we believe that competence is truly gender-agnostic, whether male or female. A funeral director, above all else, should be skilled and capable of catering to the needs of their clients by treating the deceased with dignity and their families with compassion.