The funeral service industry is taking on a new look.
The number of women attending mortuary school to become funeral directors has exceeded the number of men in what had been a traditionally male-dominated profession, officials said.
"I recently told my faculty, funeral services will have a heavy feminine accent," said John Lunsford, director of funeral service education at Northampton Community College, Bethlehem, and funeral director at Snyder-Hinkle & Lunsford Funeral Home. "I've been here for 15 years and there has been a consistent increase every year."
(Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski)
Shirley Cooper (left), funeral director at The Good Funeral Home, shows a casket to Dick and Delores Sell of Hollidaysburg.
"When I went to school , there were between 50 and 60 in my class and only two were female. Now it is over 50 percent," said Janice Mannal, funeral director at Robert L. Mannal Funeral Home in Philadelphia, who will be first woman president of the Pennsylvania Funeral Directors Association.
The trend toward more women started around 2000.
"That was the first year females eclipsed males at 51 percent of the student body. It grew to just less than 60 percent in 2008 and for 2010, it was just over 57 percent," said Gene Ogrodnik, president and CEO of the Pittsburgh School of Mortuary Science.
Many women who enter the business have a family connection.
Deborah Santella said her mother-in-law, Mildred Santella, was the first licensed female funeral director in Blair County.
"My mother-in-law was my inspiration. She took over the business in 1962 when her husband [Guido Sr.] died and she kept the business going. She inspired me to go into the business," said Santella, funeral director (along with husband Guido Jr.) at Santella Funeral Home, 1106 Eighth Ave. and Leslie E. Axe Funeral Home, 1520 Fourth St.
Shirley Cooper said her father, Thomas Cooper, worked for many years at the Barefoot Funeral Home in East Freedom.
Cooper, funeral director at The Good Funeral Home Inc., Altoona, started her career in nursing and enjoyed her time as a hospice nurse.
"I have seen this from both sides working as a hospice nurse when they are dying. I know what the family has gone through. I understand what the last couple of weeks was like for them," Cooper said. "I love what I do. I love to go to the different churches, learn about their different customs and how they deal with death."
Today, more women without a family connection are going into funeral service.
"It used to be you were either married to a funeral director or you were a daughter or your family was involved in it and that made you think about it," said Debbie Ashton-Chase, a fifth-generation funeral director at Ashton Funeral Home, Easton.
"Now we are seeing some women who may have had an experience with a death, and because of their own experience look at it as they [funeral directors] are helping people in a tough time and think 'I could do that.'"
Funeral service is a natural profession for women, said Patty Hutcheson, funeral director at Hutcheson's Memorial Chapel in Buchanan, Ga., and president of Gupton-Jones College of Funeral Service in Decatur, Ga.
"It is a natural profession for women because it is a caring profession. I believe women have that caregiving compassionate side that comes naturally," Hutcheson said. "Women bring to the table those qualities we believe funeral directors must have."
You need to be compassionate and a good listener and be able to offer professional advice, Santella said.
"Each family's situation is different and yet similar. You are dealing with families under grief and you have to guide them through the funeral process and the healing process," Santella said. "I believe a woman has a role to play in this profession. They can do a very good job with motherly compassion and give expert advice at the same time."
Almost all of the funeral homes in the Lehigh Valley have a woman on staff, Lunsford said.
"Funeral homes like a female touch, the comfort they give, the nurturing women give. It is all about making the family feel comfortable and women do a better job of it," Lunsford said. "I don't have a woman on staff but I would certainly like to have one."
Funeral service is a wonderful career with many benefits, Hutcheson said.
"The greatest compliment a person can give a funeral director is 'I could not have made it through this time without you,' or 'She is so beautiful,'" Hutcheson said. "We work very hard to make sure that each and every family is taken care of during their darkest hour. Care, compassion and attention to detail are the most needed characteristics in this career. Many people choose this field because they have been helped by someone at their most difficult time."
Mirror Staff Writer Walt Frank is at 946-7467.