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The People Place: Childhood Friends Now Colleagues in Ancient Profession.

(Emily Boles-Nickle (left) and Ashley Ward in a visitation room at Boles Funeral Home in Southern Pines)

Like father, like son — or in this case daughter, even when dad’s profession includes preparing the deceased for viewing and arranging funerals. Two proud papas — Scott Baker of Ohio and Moore County’s Jamie Boles — heap praise upon their daughters who followed where, until recently, women rarely tread.

Here’s the twist: In the early 1980s, Baker and Boles trained together at the Cincinnati College of Mortuary Science.

“We were best friends, inseparable, had a lot in common,” Baker says.

Jamie Boles went on to acquire four funeral homes, a crematory and pet cemetery in and near Moore County while Baker preferred moving around. The buddies remained close after they married and had children. The two families vacationed together at the beach.

Nobody dreamed once-playmate daughters Emily Boles-Nickle, now 33, and Ashley Baker Ward, 30, would work together in Southern Pines — Ward as embalmer and funeral director, Boles-Nickle as funeral director, marketing and aftercare specialist.

In fact, Ward recalls an unspoken rule that nobody in the family should follow Dad’s profession, which he deemed a hard lifestyle, requiring 24-7 availability.

Yet here they are, challenging the image of conservatively dressed gentlemen funeral directors, smiling, upbeat and realistic about a profession already ancient when Egyptians mummified their departed before entombing them in pyramids.

Actually, women are hardly new to death rituals; several religions permit trained women to wash, anoint and dress female corpses, or those of children. Women are thought to bring compassion and empathy to the bereaved, an outgrowth of maternal instincts.

For whatever reason, the National Funeral Directors Association reports that women now comprise 57 percent of mortuary school students; since 1980 the percentage of women funeral directors in the U.S. has risen from 5 to 43 percent

Scott Baker remembers his daughter’s curiosity; “Most women get interested through cosmetology and hairdressing — it’s a skill and an art — but Ashley wanted to go in and help,” he says. “The ultimate test was when I showed her the embalming room.”

Her curiosity satisfied, Ward planned a career in speech pathology. However, after two years in college she regrouped — and enrolled in her father’s alma mater.

“I want to help people,” she told her dad, who relented. Ideally, that meant implementing the process from intake and embalming to consoling the family, planning and overseeing the service and burial.

“She does some really nice work,” Baker says. “Now I come to her for professional advice.”

This feeling of service and accomplishment helped Ward overcome the squeamish parts. No surprise, both Boles-Nickle and Ward mentioned addressing family disagreements exacerbated by loss, not preparing the deceased, as their stickiest duty.

In Moore County, the name Boles is synonymous with both death rituals and state government. Since 2009, Jamie Boles has represented District 52 in the N.C. House of Representatives. All four of his children grew up around the business, which began in 1982 with the purchase of an ambulance service.

“They would vacuum and wash cars, set up tents but I didn’t encourage them (to become funeral directors),” he says. “Everybody worked here but only Emily took courses at Fayetteville Technical Community College and is in the business now. She was always very adventurous.”

Don’t forget, Boles adds, that contact with bodies is only 5 percent of the total job.

“The other 95 percent is the arrangements, making people comfortable,” he says. “Being caretaker of the dead is the most awesome job; you only get one shot at (memorializing) them.”

Jamie Boles learned women have an advantage. “Husbands usually die first,” he says. “A woman funeral director brings a little bit of comfort to the widow.”

Youth is another advantage, since like all institutions, funerals change with the times. Family-led services, green burials, live-streaming, even celebration of life events at the deceased’s favorite 19th hole are possible. Boles-Nickle has no trouble including a golf cart or mountain bike in the arrangements. Once, the deceased’s horse was tethered on Boles’ lawn during the service.

Occasionally, an old-school clergyman will react to a female funeral director. Otherwise, these young women have achieved acceptance.

Serendipity brought the daughters of the two mortuary school classmates together in Southern Pines. Their fathers stayed close — weddings, births celebrated together — but the daughters lost contact until recently, when Ward’s husband was stationed at Fort Bragg. Boles-Nickle’s husband is also stationed there.

A visit to Moore County re-established the friendship, enhanced by their shared profession. Not only was a job at Boles available, but Jamie Boles owned an empty house which he offered the young couple.

“I couldn’t believe our luck,” Ward says with a big smile.

The multi-task position was a good match, since she was already familiar with Southern Pines and the facility. But she still has trouble finding well-fitting suits and other outfits deemed appropriate without being “frumpy.”

Emily Boles-Nickle prefers planning, arranging and marketing more than meeting with families. The birth of her son six months ago may complicate her availability. Another issue: Boles-Nickle has always resisted the idea that she could not do the heavy lifting.

“I enjoy my job, but wouldn’t want the responsibility of owning a funeral home,” she says.

Both young women acknowledge the effect COVID-19 has had on their profession. Cremations have increased. Unlike some funeral homes, Boles accepts the remains of virus victims, which means stringent precautions. Too often, when the obituary announces “services at a later date” the service never happens.

“After the initial shock, people don’t want to go through it again,” Boles-Nickle says.

Funeral directors view this as affecting closure, therefore healing.

No matter what they wear, or how fine-tuned their technical skills these daughters heed Scott Baker’s advice: “In this profession being a girl is a little harder. Every family is different. You have to gain their respect the first five minutes. After that, everything else falls into place.”


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