Female morticians are on the rise in the U.S.
Jasminne Navarre’s great-grandfather founded Rhodes Funeral Home in 1884, and the mortuary has since been a family and New Orleans institution. One day as a youth, Navarre visited the family business to wait for a ride, and during a busy period, she was tasked with delivering an urgent message to the mortuary director.
It was a seemingly random incident that would impact the rest of Navarre’s life.
“The lady answering the phone couldn’t leave her post, and I made myself available,” Navarre said of her errand. “I started as a message runner as a teen, and slowly found myself assisting in other areas as needed.”
Her career as a mortician blossomed from there. She went on to graduate from Clark Atlanta University and earn a teaching certificate as well. She then completed mortuary school at Community College of Baltimore County in Maryland in 2005 and served an internship in the field while also becoming nationally certified by the Society of Human Resource Managers.
“All of these together has allowed me to craft a career that allows me to service funeral customers, funeral industry students, career professionals working to mold the career that best suits their skills within the industry,” she said.
With that extensive education in hand, Navarre has spent more than 14 years as a funeral director and human resources manager in a field and a family business that she has grown to love.
She’s also a part of a significant shift in the funeral director industry. Navarre and their fellow veterans of the industry are being joined by more and more women who decide to become morticians and funeral directors. According to a recent article by National Newspaper Publishers Association reporter Stacy M. Brown, members of the mortuary business have noticed a significant uptick of women as funeral directors, embalmers and morticians.
The increase has been noted by others both inside and outside of the industry, including the Associated Press, which last November reported that nearly 65 percent of funeral director programs at universities were women in 2017.
In 2015, Fortune magazine stated that Houston-based Service Corporation International, the largest mortuary company in the country, features an employee roster of about 23,000, with roughly half being women.
According to 2016 U.S. Census data, roughly 28 percent of the counted 34,129 morticians, undertakers and funeral directors in the country are women. Data from the Census Bureau’s 2016 American Community Survey also showed that women funeral service managers actually earn more on average than their male colleagues, $61,597 to $60,487.
Evidence also suggests that women will continue to be the wave of the future when it comes to funeral services – Census stats show that women on average were 42.7 years old, while the men were 51.1 years old on average, showing that the women are younger and ready to spend more years in the field.
(According to those same Census surveys, less than 10 percent of people employed as morticians, undertakers and funeral directors are African American – just 3,644, or 9.9 percent of workers in the field.)
Another example of a woman’s experience in the field is when Kim W. Michel started out in the mortuary business, and faced a challenging road. As a woman in what has traditionally been a men’s field for 25 years, Michel found the going tough at times.
“It was very difficult,” said Michel, the executive director of the Louisiana State Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors in Metairie. “It wasn’t the education [that was hard], it was because it was so male-dominated.”
When she started out, Michel wasn’t planning on entering the mortuary business, but the death of a loved one steered her toward the field, and after a quarter-century of practicing her chosen profession, she’s glad she made the decision.
“I wouldn’t change my career,” she said. “It’s a very rewarding job. It takes a certain type of person to be successful. Not everyone can do it.”
Jan Smith, a spokeswoman for the National Funeral Directors Association, said she’s seen the result of those trends, which she said are extremely positive for the industry and for the individual women who decide to enter the field.
Smith, who also serves as vice president of operations for Flanner Buchanan, an Indianapolis-based funeral direction business that dates back about 150 years, said that when she became a licensed funeral director more than 20 years ago, she was somewhat of an oddity.
Now, she said, mortuary businesses are more open to hiring female morticians, embalmers and funeral directors. She said women can offer a particular adeptness as funeral directors, with a keenly attuned sense of empathy and compassion that appeals to and comforts grieving loved ones.
In addition, Smith said, women are frequently able to attend to and manage all the small but extremely important functions and responsibilities that go into a powerful, compassionate and smooth funeral service that memorializes the recently deceased.
“Women can have a high level of energy, and they’re able to juggle a lot of details, which is extremely important,” she said.
Smith added that while men can certainly embody such key traits as compassion and organizational ability as well, women often possess the perfect blend of all the skills needed to be an excellent funeral director and mortician.
“It’s created a great mix of skill and perspective,” Smith said of women’s experiences in the business. “Women can be comforting and form a bond [with loved ones], and they can be great communicators when working with a family.”
Navarre said one of the reasons for a historical dearth of female funeral directors has been the very nature of the business itself – and the image that’s traditionally been presented.
“The industry is seen [as male-dominated] because the image previously used to portray and or marketing of our field has been cold and stiff,” she said. “I think it might have also been left this way to mark the seriousness of the work, and a separation of the community who delivers the care we provide.”
Navarre echoed Smith’s sentiments regarding the benefits that women’s perspectives on life, love and grief can have at a mortuary.
“Women are overcoming these images and through the experience families have when serviced by professionals that look a bit different than the tradition but deliver high quality services that often exceed expectations,” she said.
“I would never diminish the work of my male colleagues,” she added. “We have worked together side by side and taken care of many families, so the addition of more women has only softened the cold presence that once hung over the image of the field. The sex of the professional doesn’t determine the level of care but does indeed diversify the experience.”
Smith said she expects the trend to continue, and Michel of the Louisiana state board agrees. A licensed embalmer for more than 25 years, Michel said that while she couldn’t comment on any national trends, she has definitely seen an increase in the number of female funeral directors, morticians and embalmers in Louisiana.
She said that many women who enter the mortuary field do so as part of a family funeral-direction business, passing on a multi-generational legacy in their companies. However, Michel said that more and more, the women who become morticians and embalmers are like herself – once-novices who are nonetheless attracted to a field in which empathy and efficiency are required to succeed.
Navarre – who’s also taught in local funeral-service education programs, in addition to her duties at Rhodes – said that while she has given much to her chosen field, she’s also found herself enriched by her profession, especially on a day-to-day level, and her work both poses challenges and provides personal satisfaction.
She cites helping loved ones prioritize the essentials of disposition and management as one of the biggest challenges, while she feels most rewarded when she’s able to give grieving families peace of mind and emotional and spiritual closure.
“No two days are alike,” she said. “Each case is unique, and each family requires services tailored to the individual we are servicing. The best way to describe death care in my opinion is never a dull moment, always an opportunity to observe human behavior and interactions and learn the value of life.”
This article originally published in the February 4, 2019 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.