Surprisingly, women choose funeral studies

Burned out in administrative work, Lynne Dewey walked away from her 9-to-5 desk job and went back to college. Not for some high-paying executive job, but for a career in funeral directing.

Yes, funeral directing.

"I had two major losses within a year," says Ms. Dewey, who is working on her bachelor's degree in bereavement studies at the New England Institute at Mount Ida College in Newton, Mass. "I depended on the local funeral director. I saw him in action and I thought, 'I could do that.' "

After reading about increasing numbers of women going into the industry, Ms. Dewey decided to go to mortuary college - and says she found the perfect career.

She is not alone. Women make up more than half the students at the 54 mortuary colleges nationwide today, compared with 5 percent in 1970, says George Connick, executive director of the American Board of Funeral Service Education.

Although it's still more common to see male funeral directors, that's changing fast, says Jacquelyn Taylor, executive director of the New England Institute. And while there is no direct evidence tying the increase in female students to the popular HBO show "Six Feet Under," some suggest the program has helped portray the gritty business as more loving.

"And that certainly doesn't hurt," says Ms. Taylor. "Death continues to come out of the closet and more people are talking about it."

Some students are career-changers looking for a more meaningful line of work. Others have simply been intrigued by the business since they were teenagers. But the bottom line for many women in the field is a deep desire to help people during an emotionally difficult time.

While the funeral industry is often believed to be a family business - attractive largely to those who grew up with connections to the sometimes mysterious line of work - that's not always the case. A vast majority of Mount Ida students came to mortuary studies on their own. Two-thirds of 2003 graduates had no prior family relationship with funeral homes.

"I've always been interested in it since I was a teenager," says sophomore Allison Taylor, who left behind a career managing a medical practice.

Female students admit that often the most challenging part is telling their parents or friends about their career choice.

"My family was not thrilled," says Ms. Taylor, who's studying for her bachelor's degree in bereavement studies. They asked, 'Why on earth would you want to do something like that?' But I love the science of it, and helping people deal with things in their lives when times are the hardest."

Historically, women were the first caretakers of the dead in the United States. They were called "layers out of the dead," says Jacquelyn Taylor. "This was consistent with their role as midwives and nurses. It was only when the education became formalized that it was deemed inappropriate for women."

Until the early 1960s, the curriculum was exclusively technical - embalming, biology, and chemistry classes. The course of study was no more than nine months, says Taylor. In the 1970s, the curriculum shifted to 60 percent technical and 40 percent managerial. It wasn't until 1996 that an associate degree was required to work in a funeral home.

In addition to embalming classes, students today must take psychology of grief, accounting, mortuary law, and business law. "This is one of the few majors where students have to shift from science to business to social science," says Jacquelyn Taylor. "It is very intense."

In one funeral directing class, students must act out roles. Allison Taylor sits at a table and plays a funeral director, while fellow students portray a grieving family. They go through the motions of preparing a funeral.

"It's emotionally difficult," says Taylor, in the role of funeral director. "We're dealing with people's emotions and grief, and it can be overwhelming. It's learning how to help people through that without getting emotionally caught up in it ourselves."

Although more women are getting into the field, there are still some barriers. "I do feel that women have a more difficult time trying to obtain the jobs that men have in the funeral service," says freshman Kristine Yother. Although only a two-year degree is required in most states, "I want to do the four-year degree because I want to have the same possibilities."

Much like any career today, getting first-hand experience while still in college is not only key, it's required at mortuary colleges.

Ms. Yother applied to three different funeral homes before she found a job. "I was looking for anything - even scrubbing toilets to get my foot in the door. I started out washing funeral fleet vehicles and cleaning."

While her background is in psychology, Yother didn't want to be stuck behind a desk. "I had always been interested in the process of life and what comes after. People might see women as more caring and sympathetic and empathetic because they can relate on a different level."

That's a generalization, says student John Dillen, who grew up in the business. "If [our funeral home] was looking for someone, we would want the most qualified. But you definitely see more and more of it. A lot of daughters are going into it."

Although it wasn't Amy Bollman Lowery's first choice to work in the family business, a sense of obligation brought her back home to Oregon after dabbling in a political career in Washington, D.C.

Once established in the business, however, she found herself deeply engaged.

"When I think about my grandfather, operating his business, I don't think he would have ever imagined his granddaughter would be involved," says Ms. Lowery. "But since I grew up in the industry, I saw what my family did for the community. I saw the care they gave people when people needed them the most."

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