The Changing Role of Women in the Death Care Industry

The Changing Role of Women in the Death Care Industry

By Kerry Munday

A lot of information is available regarding underrepresentation of women in leadership roles.  But how does this transfer to the death care industry?  Before working for the death care industry, I had assumed that I would not be dealing with many women.  Stereotypes of the industry include sombre old men with salt and pepper hair, dressed in traditional black in the case of funeral homes, or burly men working outdoors in the case of cemeteries. 

These stereotypes stem from practices that were already in place, but became firmly entrenched during the US Civil War. The military adopted the policy of returning the bodies of soldiers home. Since is it was often a considerable distance, embalming became common. Since embalming was associated with science, and because most of the deceased were treated by male field hospitals, it was thought of as a man’s role.  In addition, funeral homes were considered businesses, which was also a man’s role.  Lastly, for both cemeteries and funeral homes, it was claimed that women could not deal with the physical demands of the job.The History of Women in the Funeral Industryprovides some further information.

While working at Stone Orchard Software, and dealing with people in the death care industry, I’ve been pleasantly surprised to see a number of women in leadership roles.  Statistics are showing the same.  According to the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA), 57 percent of mortuary science students in the US are women.

Women in the Death Care Industry

I spoke with four prominent female professionals within the industry to gain their perspectives on the changing role of women in the death care industry.  As with most people who work in the cemetery or funeral home industry, the women I spoke to either started working for the industry by accident, or joined the family business.

Linda Fitches, the General Manager of Mount Pleasant Cemetery (London) Inc., applied for and was offered a Bookkeeper/Receptionist position in 1980.  The ad in the paper did not mention that the position was in a cemetery, and originally, Linda wasn`t sure if she wanted to work in the cemetery industry.  Between 1980 and 1989, Linda watched 3 managers come and go.  In 1989, when the 3rd manager was leaving, Linda thought to herself that she should apply for the manager position, since she would have to train the new manager anyway.  Often, those who applied to manager positions did not have the cemetery expertise, and Linda knew a lot about the cemetery operations already.  Although she never thought she`d have the confidence to be a manager, she chose to apply alongside many men, and got the job.  Linda holds the distinction of being the first female manager in the history of Mount Pleasant Cemetery.  During her 25 years in the role of General Manager, Linda oversaw the redevelopment of Oakland Cemetery, brought in cemetery management software, added two retorts to their existing crematorium, planned the Hyde Park location for future cemetery use, and created many different cremation disposition options for both cemeteries.  In addition, Linda served on the Ontario Association of Cemetery and Funeral Professionals (OACFP) board for a two year term from 1997 – 1999.

Kathleen Jurasky, General Manager of Palm Springs Cemetery District and President of the California Association of Public Cemeteries (CAPC), also started in the cemetery industry by accident.  Before working in the cemetery industry, Kathleen worked for an accounting firm for 12 years.  Due to downsizing she was told she could stay on only if she got her CPA certification but decided that she did not want to continue with an accounting career.  During the course of a job search a position became available that had everything she wanted, but, like Linda, she wasn`t sure if she wanted to work at a cemetery.  Her husband thought it was the perfect fit though, as she had wanted her new career to “make a difference” in people’s lives.   Kathleen started her cemetery career as an Administrative Assistant in 1997, and then moved into the District Manager position in 2000.   She was instrumental in the development of a new 3,000 sq. ft. District administration building that was built to LEED standards.  The District moved into their new offices in August 2013.  She worked, advanced, and became Secretary/Treasurer, Vice President, and then President of the California Association of Public Cemeteries (CAPC).   She also serves as a mentor manager for the CAPC Association.  Her achievements include winning the President’s Award for Outstanding Achievement and Contribution to the CAPC in 2009, and the Cemeterian of the Year award for California in 2012.  Kathleen has also passed the exam for Special District Administrator and has been re-elected as President of the California Association of Public Cemeteries for a 2nd term.  Kathleen`s cemetery career has spanned 17 years.

Christine Hentges, President of the Tribute Companies Inc., officially began her career in the family cemetery business in 1995.  Prior to that, she had worked in the “real world” for a while, and decided to try working in the family business temporarily.  At the time, her father owned the cemetery business, and Christine was the fourth generation to enter the business.  Her temporary position has now lasted for 20 years, and she hasn`t looked back.  Christine started in sales at the Tribute Company, then moved to an Office Manager position at Pinelawn Memorial Park in Milwaukee.  She then moved into an administrative role and continued up the ranks to the VP who oversaw 3 cemeteries, and last year, became the President of the Company. Although she was known as “Bill’s daughter” for years, now that Christine is President, she has been introducing her father to new people, who often say “Oh, you’re Christie’s father…I’ve heard a lot about you.”

Nancy Lohman, Director – Corporate Development at StoneMor Partners L.P.  (previously the Vice President of Lohman Funeral Homes, Cemeteries and Cremation ) and President of the International Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Home Association(ICCFA), married into the death care industry.  Nancy and her husband chose to move back to Lowell’s hometown in Ormond Beach, Florida and be close to her brother-in-law.  Her husband noticed that there was a need for a funeral home in their town, and said he`d build it from the bottom up if Nancy agreed to run it.  Although she had no prior experience in the funeral home business, Nancy agreed.  Lohman Funeral Home Ormond opened in 1997 while Nancy was in school to obtain her Funeral Director license.  Nancy and her husband worked together as a complementary team, with her husband as the visionary, and Nancy bringing her detail oriented approach to best practices for service standards, operations and compliance.  As they grew, Lowell’s Brother Victor and their son Ty joined them as co-owners in the business. Nancy`s career path consisted of learning and expanding the business. Before transitioning to StoneMor Partners L.P., Lohman Funeral Homes, Cemeteries and Cremation had grown to 14 locations, including both cemeteries and funeral homes. 

Changing Attitudes

Although the death care industry is historically male dominated, Linda, Christine, Kathleen and Nancy have seen changes in attitudes toward women in leadership roles over the years. A common challenge they brought up is not being taken seriously.  Christine, Linda and Nancy have all experienced a time where men have asked for the manager, and expressed surprise when they found out the manager was a woman.

Kathleen offers a unique perspective from an African American standpoint.  Although she has not seen any negative perceptions toward women in the death care industry, she has seen a change in attitudes toward African American Women.  One of her first jobs was with a telephone company where she sold merchandise to a man over the phone.  Subsequently when he met her, he insisted that she was not the person he had spoken to, and was confident in his position because she did not sound like a “black lady”.  It took Kathleen some time to convince the man that he had been speaking with her and that she was the right person to complete the transaction.  Being the only African American Cemetery Executive in her area, Kathleen has been able to break down those misconceptions and is not shy about addressing those issues with people who are not receptive to her.  Christine addressed the attitudes directed at women in a similar fashion, by surrounding herself with people with a fresh perspective on the death care industry and constantly expressing her opinion, to ensure her perspective was embraced.

Over their careers, these women have had different experiences with role models.  Linda and Kathleen did not have any female role models to look up to, so they had to make their own way.  Linda jokingly explained that she made her way by being stubborn.  Kathleen made sure people got to know her so she could break down misconceptions.  Both women have served as mentors to various people to give them the guidance that they missed out on. 

When Christine started in the cemetery business, she was young, female and the boss’ daughter, and some managers were intimated to train her in case they did something wrong that would go back to her father.  This resulted in her learning a lot on her own, and working very hard to make sure everyone knew she was a legitimate business partner, and would ultimately succeed.  She got involved in the women’s forum at theICCFA when it was in its infancy, whose members worked hard to make sure women were embraced, mentored and succeeded.  Christine received their first scholarship to help women attend university for the profession, and they now offer 20 scholarships per year. 

Now more and more women are embracing the death care profession.  Nancy has seen an increase in women in key management roles, but would like to see more.  There has also been an increase in women completing a mortuary science degree, which will result in a larger pool of women to choose from for jobs in the field which will then translate into a larger pool of candidates for management and leadership positions.   In addition, she feels the death care profession is changing, particularly in funeral services.  Nancy envisions the role of Funeral Director as less rigid, and more like an event planner.  People in the role will need to be creative, detailed, flexible, compassionate, nurturing and imaginative.  Since many women possess these traits, she feels they would bring a lot to the role. Christine has similar ideas.  She believes the cemetery profession is a good fit for women due to the emotional connection, and women’s knack for taking care of people. 

Challenges and Opportunities

Being a woman in the death care industry has its challenges, but as Kathleen explained, she never sees things as challenging; rather, she sees them as opportunities.  If you look at them as opportunities, it is easier to find direction, and you will try even harder.  Each woman has challenged the stereotypes of the death care industry in her own way, and with the increasing number of women in the profession, these perceptions will continue to change.  Having men and women working side by side will change the industry for the better.