As we approach International Women's Day on March 8, one female funeral director from Accrington speaks of the challenges she has faced in what was formerly a male-dominated industry
It's one of the professions we might not all immediately associate with the front line of the war against Covid-19, but they have faced enormous stresses and workloads during this pandemic.
As we approach International Women's Day on March 8, one female funeral director from Accrington, Lancashire speaks of the challenges she has faced in what was formerly a male-dominated industry.
Once a rarity, there are now many female funeral directors, arrangers and crematorium managers helping families to say farewell to their loved ones.
Former pub landlady and office manager Susan Taylor is a funeral director with Wolstenholmes in Accrington, part of Dignity Funerals.
“The past 12 months have definitely been the most challenging time of my career,” said Susan.
“We have had to quickly adapt to both the restrictions on funerals and constantly changing circumstances to ensure that our clients and colleagues remain safe."
Last month, following another post-Christmas surge in deaths, one funeral director at a Hyndburn home told the Accrington Observer they had been “burning the candle at both ends” due to a distressing volume of local deaths.
And Susan says, like so many families, hers has not been untouched by bereavement during recent months.
“Last October my own grandmother passed away and we had to organise her funeral - adhering to the same restrictions with a limit of 30 attendees," she said.
"We are a family with six children, 13 grandchildren and 21 great-grandchildren so it was difficult, but gave me a better understanding of what our clients have had to go through.”
In pre-Victorian times, before funeral directing became a profession, the practical tasks required when someone in a community died were divided among the male and female members of the family or village.
The caring job of ‘laying out’ the dead would be allocated to a local woman or women, who may well have also acted as a midwife.
The men would be responsible for physical tasks such as digging the grave, making a coffin, transporting the deceased and - if the family did not have enough men to fulfil the task - providing additional men to carry the coffin.
Facing death as part of her daily life and work, might seem difficult for some but like many in the funeral sector it’s a vocation for Susan.
“As soon as I joined the funeral profession, I loved it - it felt like the job I had waited my whole life for,” she said.
“Like many women, a successful career hasn’t come easy to me and I’ve had to work hard. I am a single mother to three children so juggling home life and a career is difficult and you have to be very organised.
"I do sometimes get told ‘you wouldn’t get a woman doing this in my day’, but the reaction to female funerals directors is generally very positive.
"My children are very proud of me and other women are supportive.”
The theme of this year's International Women’s Day is “Choose to Challenge” – which is somewhat appropriate for the funeral sector as it strives to cope with the changing demands of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Despite the challenges, Susan says it’s "very rewarding" when a family tells them that they have helped them or provided comfort.
"I now work with another female colleague and we were recently asked to care for a lady that had died," she added. "Her family really liked that two ladies were caring for another.”