Feminizing Funerals


By Lisa Autz

Photo courtesy of David.

Valerie Wages can remember one Christmas morning when she was young that her father received a phone call from work. Because of the nature of his profession, she knew it meant that someone had passed away and her father would have to be there to help that family begin the grieving process.

Tom M. Wages Funeral Service, LLC, her father’s business, has served the community of Lawrenceville, Ga., since 1949. Drawn to the caring and nurturing elements of her father’s work, Wages decided to take on the family business as a funeral director herself.

Wages’s story is not alone and is actually part of a growing trend of women joining the male-dominated funeral service industry. In 2008, it was reported that the amount of women in the funeral industry has grown by 71 percent in the last decade. Women are also rapidly becoming the majority in mortuary science programs making up about 60 percent of the students in 2014, according to the National Funeral Directors Association.

Wages has gone on to become the first woman president of the Georgia Funeral Directors Association and the first licensed woman Embalmer and Funeral Director to serve on the Georgia State Board of Funeral Service.

Wages spoke with BTR about how this trend will continue to grow, despite female stereotypes that stigmatize women as being too emotionally sensitive and too physically weak to partake in the duties of funeral servers.

“Owners of funeral homes previously looked at men to serve a lot of different roles, be it doing the heavy lifting, washing the cars, or changing the oil,” says Wages. “But now there’s a shift in looking at the talent of the individual and what’s in their heart.”

Wages felt she was lucky to have a father in the business as many women struggled to land a job due to the largely male owners who find women ill equipped.

“I had friends that were women who would go all around the Atlanta area sending applications and never getting a call back,” says Wages. “They weren’t looked at as professionals yet I saw many women even smaller than me lifting heavy cots.”

Though a shift seems to be under way in seeing women as capable funeral directors, some in the profession do not feel it is taking place quick enough.

David R. Penepent, assistant professor and director of the Funeral Service Administration program at SUNY Canton, discussed with BTR his concerns that women are still grossly underrepresented as funeral directors.

“I noticed as a teacher that 60 percent of my students were women in undergrad over the last 10 years,” says Penepent. “However, my continuing education programs still only had 10 percent of women.”

In fact, his observations show true in that women comprise over 50 percent of all US mortuary school graduates. However, less than 20 percent of all funeral directors employed in this country are females.

Penepent was boggled at how so many women are coming into the profession but not necessarily staying in it for the long haul. Penepent has been researching the topic for over two and half years for his PhD dissertation entitled, “A Quantitative Investigation and Comparison of self-perceived gender role characteristics of male and female funeral service professionals”.

What was more perplexing, Penepent explained, was that the flux of female students coming into the program were phenomenal funeral directors that deserved a place in the business.

“Women are good at this because of their motherly, caring instincts,” says Penepent. “But it’s a man’s world and women that get into this business have to break that barrier.”

The answer, he adds, is not fighting but breaking through barriers with persistence.

The funeral market, an estimated $20 billion per year industry, is actually in need of a greater quantity of directors. Though the Bureau of Labor Statistics project funeral service employment to grow 12 percent from 2012 to 2022–an average stat for most occupations–in 2012, the funeral industry reported at its annual National Funeral Directors Association convention that the average profit from a funeral was down by 37 percent.

It has been reported that since the economic crisis of 2008, death businesses have seen a decline in profits as well as an increase in families choosing cremation as a lower-cost, funeral alternative. According to the United States Funeral Industry website, in 2014 about 42 percent of Americans are choosing cremation. It is expected that by 2020 over 60 percent of Americans will be cremated.

These trends are in the process of drastically changing the grieving process in America. Penepent believes that if there isn’t a change in the attitude funeral owners have towards accepting women in the industry, there will be a travesty in the lack of professionals for those bereaved.

“With the decline in the funeral industry, in the next 15 years we will be faced with such a crisis that people will have to stand in line and wait for their funeral needs to be met,” says Penepent. “In the next five years, we have to increase the ratio of women that are in this profession.”

Gregory Kie, the senior media relations manager for SUNY Canton, spoke with BTR about the how the trend is being seen in the college and how they hope to track the professional success of graduated students in the future.

“The school began its four-year Funeral Service Administration in 2010 and have steadily seen a 60 percent majority in women enrolled in the program every year,” says Kie.

However, due to the novelty of the program there are yet to be figures on the amount of women or students in general that graduate and pursue a career in funeral service administration, adds Kie.

The struggle for women to be seen as serious professionals is seen in numerous jobs previously dictated only by men. But when Wages discusses the satisfaction and meaningfulness that comes from her work, gender seems to slip the equation.

“I had someone point to me once and say, ‘Now, that’s a great funeral director,’”reflects Wages. “They didn’t look at me as a woman but at my abilities as a funeral director. Hopefully people realize that anyone can do it if you have the right mind and heart for it.”