Burying tradition: Female funeral directors now dominate historically male profession

For centuries, funeral homes have been passed down from father to son. That trend has met its demise.  

 Funeral director Donita Greene views a decedent ahead of a visitation at Greene Funeral Home in Alexandria, Va., Thursday, Oct. 18, 2018. This image has been partially blurred to protect the identity of the deceased. (Lindsey Leake/American University)

Funeral director Donita Greene views a decedent ahead of a visitation at Greene Funeral Home in Alexandria, Va., Thursday, Oct. 18, 2018. This image has been partially blurred to protect the identity of the deceased. (Lindsey Leake/American University)

WASHINGTON - The middle-aged woman was surrounded by red, white and yellow carnations. She wore Mouseketeer ears she’d had since childhood that matched the Disney characters embroidered on her turtleneck and denim overalls. Mickey and Minnie Mouse adorned the black fabric draped over her fiberboard casket.

The back of her funeral service folders featured a drawing of Mickey and his catchphrase: “See you real soon!”

Angela Woosley vividly remembers the Mickey Mouse funeral not just because of its unconventional theme; it’s unforgettable because it was the first she ever directed.

“I never thought the words of Mickey Mouse could inspire hope,” said the mortician. “I’ll never forget her.” 

Woosley is among the wave of American women putting to rest centuries-old tradition in the business of death. Historically an occupation held by men, funeral service is now not only welcoming of women but also dominated by them. 

My mom was an R.N. and my dad, when I was a kid, was a Lutheran pastor … that kind of equals a mortician.
— Angela Woosley, Program of Mortuary Science, University of Minnesota Medical School

As recently as “two generations ago,” nearly all the nation’s mortuary science students were male and mostly sons of funeral home owners, according to the American Board of Funeral Service Education. Today, the organization estimates 65 percent of graduates are female. Only 18 percent have relatives in the business. 

“That’s a change from previous generations,” said Woosley, a first-generation funeral director. “My mom was an R.N. (registered nurse) and my dad, when I was a kid, was a Lutheran pastor … that kind of equals a mortician.” 

Woosley is a senior teaching specialist in the Program of Mortuary Science at the University of Minnesota Medical School, one of only four institutions in the U.S. to offer a bachelor of science degree in the field. 

She says it’s “heartening” to see her students — most of whom are female — pursue mortuary science because they feel compelled to do so instead of merely obligated to continue the family trade.

“The majority of our classes have been female for 15 or more years,” Woosley said, adding, “All of our students, regardless of their gender, are caring and compassionate and dedicated to helping families.”

 This file photo shows students in the Program of Mortuary Science at the University of Minnesota Medical School. The program is celebrating its 110th anniversary in 2018. (Courtesy Regents of the University of Minnesota)

This file photo shows students in the Program of Mortuary Science at the University of Minnesota Medical School. The program is celebrating its 110th anniversary in 2018. (Courtesy Regents of the University of Minnesota)

Donita Greene wants people to know morticians mirror the nurturing students Woosley describes — not the ghastly men often depicted in popular culture.

“It was always considered a male job,” said Greene, a director at Greene Funeral Home in Alexandria, Virginia. “(We) were portrayed as these almost non-human beings. You wore these dark suits and you never laughed and you never smiled and you were serious.

“And it’s not like that anymore.”

On May 6, 1960, an episode of “The Twilight Zone” called “A Stop at Willoughby” aired on CBS. At the show’s end, an overworked Gart Williams (James Daly) leaps from a commuter train to his death. In the final scene, the hearse door slams, unveiling the logo of Willoughby & Son Funeral Home.

Fifty-eight years later, the small screen recognizes the patriarchal decline within the funeral service trade. In the new Netflix Original Series “The Haunting of Hill House,” inspired by the 1959 Shirley Jackson novel of the same name, a main female character is a funeral director. 

A flashback scene from episode “Open Casket” shows young Shirley Crain (Lulu Wilson) at her mother’s wake, afraid to look at her body. Eventually, she lets the funeral director walk her up the chapel aisle. Her eyes widen as she sees her mother, beautiful in the casket. “You fixed her,” Shirley says in disbelief, to which the male mortician responds, “That’s what I do.” As an adult, Shirley (Elizabeth Reaser) offers the same solace to a boy whose grandmother has died: “I’m gonna fix her — that’s what I do.”

Greene, who turns 62 next week, embodies the evolution of the American funeral director. According to the ABFSE, 18 percent of today’s mortuary science graduates are African American and in 2014, 39 percent of funeral service graduates were over the age of 30. Greene checks both boxes.

Her husband, Nelson Greene Jr., has spent his career working in the funeral home his father, Nelson Greene Sr., founded in 1954. 

When she married, Donita Greene was working in human relations. Though she never imagined she’d become a funeral director, Greene fell in love with the profession. In her late forties, she enrolled in the Mortuary Science Program at the Community College of Baltimore County - Catonsville in Maryland, where she now teaches thanatology, the scientific study of death and dying.

Greene has no trouble staying upbeat in an occupation stereotyped as macabre.

“Everybody’s gotta go,” she said. “But you don’t have to be morbid and whatever about it. It’s just — it’s a part of life.”

I think sometimes females have a leg up in that [they] come across as a little more caring, a little more safe at a vulnerable time.
— David Storke, Storke Funeral Home, Bowling Green, Va.

At Storke Funeral Home in Bowling Green, Virginia, two of the funeral directors are women. Owner and president David Storke is keen on hiring more. 

“They’re the best funeral directors, really,” said Storke, a first-generation mortician who has been in the death care industry for 34 years. 

“I think sometimes females have a leg up in that [they] come across as a little more caring, a little more safe at a vulnerable time,” he said. “We deal with people on their absolute worst day.”

Storke recalls having few female classmates when he was in mortuary school in the mid-1980s. He calls today’s majority-female class of mortuary science graduates “awesome,” adding, “that’s a total flip-flop in 30 years.”

Storke notes that his female funeral directors tend to get as many or more compliments from families as his male ones.

“Men die before women die,” he said. “A lot of the people that we’re meeting with and planning funerals or cremation are the spouses, the women … I think a lot of them feel more comfortable with another female.”

Joanna Ellsberry’s favorite part of being a mortician is embalming. She takes pride in “transforming a decedent (deceased person) from their initial death appearance … to present a pleasing look for family and friends in the midst of life’s most difficult events.”

The ABFSE says it’s not uncommon for people to start second careers in the funeral service profession. Ellsberry, director of the Mortuary Science Program at the University of the District of Columbia Community College, completed mortuary school in her mid-thirties.

“I worked various jobs which, in hindsight, were preparing me for funeral service,” she said. “I knew that I wanted a career that would incorporate a high level of customer service and a medical/surgical aspect.”

There are still those who believe that a woman does not have the physical, mental and emotional strength and stamina to work in the funeral industry.
— Joanna Ellsberry, Mortuary Science Program, University of the District of Columbia Community College

The 55-year-old says women aren’t new to funeral service; rather, they’re coming out of the shadows.  

“We have just expanded our roles with the advent of educational opportunities,” Ellsberry said, “from being office workers in a funeral home to being funeral directors, embalmers and primary decision-makers in the funeral home operations, including owning funeral homes.”

In April, female morticians from across the country will convene in Annapolis, Maryland, for the National Funeral Directors Association Professional Women’s Conference. The Funeral Service Foundation has awarded scholarships for the event for two decades and estimates hundreds will attend next year.

“Women must continue to be (the) biggest supporters of one another,” Ellsberry said. “There are still those who believe that a woman does not have the physical, mental and emotional strength and stamina to work in the funeral industry.”

Lindsey Leake