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More and more, the funeral director is a ma’am

by Thomas Gaudio
May 17, 2011


In the world of funerals, it takes a real man to be less of a stereotypical man.

Women have grown from a small minority to a small majority at the country’s 56 mortuary science programs. But, experts agree, there’s still a place for men willing to step outside their traditional roles and accept the new paradigm.

Alpha male? “Not going to work” in the death care field, said Ray Aikens, a funeral director at A.A. Rayner & Sons and an adjunct professor in the mortuary science program at Malcolm X College. “You have to be a good listener, you have to be engaging and be able to spark a conversation.”

Funeral directors should project a persona that says “I’m a trustworthy individual, and I care for you,” he said.

Men should pay heed. In 2010, 56.8 percent of new enrollees at mortuary science programs nationwide were women, virtually unchanged from 56.9 percent in 2006, according to the American Board of Funeral Service Education.
Women have entered many educational and professional fields in recent decades. But the nurturing-woman stereotype seems to explain why more and more female students have decided to study funeral service.
“We deal better with births and deaths” than men, said Denise Hudson, who is in her first year of the two-year program at Malcolm X College, where she’s studying for an associate degree in applied science.
 


“We’re somewhat made to comfort,” she said. “When you were little and you got hurt, you went to your mother, not your dad.”
At Malcolm X College, a whopping 40 of the 48 students in the mortuary science program are women, said director Karen Scott. Most of the students are black, she noted, attributing the program’s high ratio of women to men to the “big percentage of African-American males in jail and not in the workforce.”
 


At the Worsham College of Mortuary Science in Wheeling, half of the 122 students who enrolled last year were women, a similar percentage to recent years, said Stephanie Kann, program director. Four Illinois institutions offer degrees in death-care service.

Before death was turned into a business in the 19th century, women were the “layers out of the dead,” Aikens said, caring for family members near death and then cleaning, shaving and dressing the deceased in homes so people could come to pay their respects. In that context, women have come full circle, he said.
 


While the gender disparity at Malcolm X College may be an anomaly, even Worsham’s 1-to-1ratio would have been inconceivable decades ago. In 1971, only about 5 percent of mortuary science students were women, said Patty Hutcheson.

She is president of both the American Board of Funeral Service Education in St. Joseph, Mo., and Gupton-Jones College of Funeral Service in Decatur, Ga.
 


But women have parlayed their traditional roles as caregivers at home into professional roles that require a similar skill set, Hutcheson said. Women’s desire to work in the funeral industry, Hutcheson said, is “a natural progression.”
 


“Women bring a lot of compassion to the table,” she said. “And attention to detail. You want everything right when you present the deceased in visitation and funeral services, down to the collar fixed correctly and the tie tied properly.”
 


Luis Pelayo, a 21-year-old student at Malcolm X College, said men are generally less nurturing and compassionate than women, but “I’m going to try to be.”
 


According to his female classmates, Pelayo will have an advantage in the job market. They spoke of the male dominance in the field and recounted tales of male funeral directors who were dismissive of them. But some women who've been in the field for a while don't necessarily agree.
 


“Women at one time were discouraged from pursuing jobs in funeral service,” Kann said. “Now it’s more accepted.”
 


Hutcheson has faced discrimination from colleagues and customers as the co-owner of Hutcheson’s Memorial Chapel & Crematory in Buchanan, Ga., which she has run with her husband since 1983.

In the 1980s, she said, “some customers would say, ‘We’ll wait for your husband.’ They were used to seeing males, not females, doing this.”
 


Also, Hutcheson said, male co-workers can be unforgiving of their female colleagues if they lack the physical strength to perform the job.
 


“You have to be able to pick up a dead body just like a man does,” she said.

“Each will do it with help but you have to be able to carry your weight. I think a lot of men think women cannot lift, which isn’t true.”
 


While gender discrimination is still present, Scott said, it was worse decades ago.



“I think people are warming up to the idea of women in the funeral service industry,” she said.

Aikens agrees. At A.A. Rayner & Sons, which has locations in Park Manor and Austin, he said most of the employees are females.

“Families are satisfied with the services they provide," Aikens said.