More and More, Women Make a Living Caring for the Dead

The death business has a new face — a female one.

A growing number of women are enrolling in mortuary schools and aspiring to become funeral directors and medical examiners, jobs that were once mainly held by men.

In fact, today women make up 51 percent of students in the 54 mortuary science programs in the country, as opposed to only about 5 percent in 1970, according to the American Board of Funeral Service Education (search). The government's Bureau of Labor Statistics (search) reported that in 2002, 24 percent of funeral directors were women, as opposed to only 18 percent in 1993.

Many women are realizing they have the communication, people and event-planning skills needed to do the funeral director’s job.

“This profession is allied with all the helping professions, so it seems like a pretty natural fit for women,” said Jacquelyn Taylor, executive director of the New England Institute (search), the funeral services school at Mount Ida College in Newton, Mass. “They want to help people at a really important time.”

But until recently, women who wanted to enter the profession faced major hurdles unless they had relatives in it.

Twenty years ago, "a lot of the females who tried to get into the field were not able to get in," said Richard Sikon, program head of the funeral service department at John Tyler Community College in Chester, Va. "They were not respected as part of this industry. That has changed."

Women's exclusion from the field seems especially odd when history is taken into account.

"Historically, women were always involved in disposal of the dead," said Sikon, whose program is 67 percent female. "They were part of the ritual of taking care of the dead."

Now many women seem to be getting back to those roots. Between 1976 and 1995, there was a three-fold increase in the number of women graduating from mortuary and funeral service programs, according to the National Funeral Directors Association (search).

“It’s very service-oriented, and women are ... not afraid to share emotions,” said Christie Whitaker, a licensed funeral director at Whitaker Funeral Home in Newberry, S.C. “It’s a nice place for us to be able to share that with society.”

Whitaker, for her part, entered the field by marrying into it: Her husband is a funeral director. But she said most of the newcomers have no prior connection with the industry.

“The occupation has gotten more acceptance as an occupation one can choose rather than be born into,” she said.

That’s certainly the case with New England Institute student Lynne Dewey, who decided to make a mid-life career switch. She is currently in the two-year program and is considering getting a bachelor’s degree in bereavement studies.

Dewey, 44, said she left her administrative job to pursue a career in funeral directing because she was inspired by the funeral director she worked with when her husband died suddenly a few years ago. Less than a year later, Dewey’s mother died, too. The same funeral director was at her side to help.

“You have to be a people person, you have to have sympathy, you have to know what you’re doing and be confident,” said Dewey. “I think I have the skills necessary.”

Those on a funeral-directing career path can expect to earn entry-level salaries of $28,000 to $30,000, with the possibility of making six figures as the manager or owner of a funeral home, according to Taylor.

Funeral directing isn’t the only sector of the death industry seeing a rise in the number of women. Medical examiner offices are also becoming more female.

“There’s been an increase [in women] in medicine but also in law enforcement, and our field crosses both boundaries,” said Dr. Margaret Greenwald, Maine’s chief medical examiner. “More women are interested, and the field is supporting women.”

Greenwald, the secretary-treasurer of the National Association of Medical Examiners (search), said the appeal for women includes the different types of medical expertise required and the interaction with families involved in determining manner of death.

Not surprisingly, popular TV shows like HBO’s "Six Feet Under" (search) and CBS’ "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" (search) have given careers in the death industry positive PR.

“Death has kind of come out of the closet in the last 20 years or so,” Taylor said. “It’s a career that’s getting a lot of acceptance.”

“Six Feet Under” has gotten more people asking questions about funeral directing, she said.

“What that show has done is raise the public awareness,” said Taylor. “Pun intended, but people are dying to know about this.”

Greenwald said she’s convinced that young people inquiring about becoming forensic pathologists and medical examiners have been influenced by “CSI.”

“It’s not as realistic as what we do,” she said. “But it’s wonderful that it’s giving us exposure to the general public, who in the past thought being a medical examiner was morbid when in fact we can provide a service to families and the community.”

Though pop culture might be helping boost interest in the death business, it’s not a field that’s likely to go out of vogue.

“This is not a fashionable, stylish thing to get into that won’t be applicable 10 to 15 years down the road,” Dewey said. “This isn’t a fad. We’ll always need funeral directors to bury the dead.”