Surprisingly, Women Choose Funeral Studies

Article excerpt

Burned out in administrative work, Lynne Dewey walked away from her 9-to-5 desk job and went back to college. Not for some high- paying executive job, but for a career in funeral directing.

Yes, funeral directing.

"I had two major losses within a year," says Ms. Dewey, who is working on her bachelor's degree in bereavement studies at the New England Institute at Mount Ida College in Newton, Mass. "I depended on the local funeral director. I saw him in action and I thought, 'I could do that.' "

After reading about increasing numbers of women going into the industry, Ms. Dewey decided to go to mortuary college - and says she found the perfect career.

She is not alone. Women make up more than half the students at the 54 mortuary colleges nationwide today, compared with 5 percent in 1970, says George Connick, executive director of the American Board of Funeral Service Education.

Although it's still more common to see male funeral directors, that's changing fast, says Jacquelyn Taylor, executive director of the New England Institute. And while there is no direct evidence tying the increase in female students to the popular HBO show "Six Feet Under," some suggest the program has helped portray the gritty business as more loving.

"And that certainly doesn't hurt," says Ms. Taylor. "Death continues to come out of the closet and more people are talking about it."

Some students are career-changers looking for a more meaningful line of work. Others have simply been intrigued by the business since they were teenagers. But the bottom line for many women in the field is a deep desire to help people during an emotionally difficult time.

While the funeral industry is often believed to be a family business - attractive largely to those who grew up with connections to the sometimes mysterious line of work - that's not always the case. A vast majority of Mount Ida students came to mortuary studies on their own. Two-thirds of 2003 graduates had no prior family relationship with funeral homes.

"I've always been interested in it since I was a teenager," says sophomore Allison Taylor, who left behind a career managing a medical practice.

Female students admit that often the most challenging part is telling their parents or friends about their career choice.

"My family was not thrilled," says Ms. Taylor, who's studying for her bachelor's degree in bereavement studies. They asked, 'Why on earth would you want to do something like that?' But I love the science of it, and helping people deal with things in their lives when times are the hardest."

Historically, women were the first caretakers of the dead in the United States. They were called "layers out of the dead," says Jacquelyn Taylor. "This was consistent with their role as midwives and nurses. It was only when the education became formalized that it was deemed inappropriate for women."

Until the early 1960s, the curriculum was exclusively technical - embalming, biology, and chemistry classes. …