Death becomes her

By SARA FAITH ALTERMAN  |  February 27, 2009

Like mother, like daughter
When Ann Ciccarelli, director of the Bisbee-Porcella Funeral Home in Saugus, enrolled at the then-brand-new Funeral Institute of the Northeast (FINE) Mortuary College in Norwood in 1996, she was the only female member of the school's inaugural class. Today, FINE estimates that almost 50 percent of its fewer than 100 students are female.

"I didn't think much of it, coming from being the only woman sitting in staff meetings in the BU athletic department," says Ciccarelli, the former director of sports marketing at Boston University. "Plus, 25 years ago, everyone looked at John Silber like he was crazy when he hired a 23-year-old woman to be a department head."

Today, Ciccarelli is the third female president of the Massachusetts Funeral Directors Association (MFDA) — and the second in a row, having succeeded Anne Roan of Brockton's Conley Funeral & Cremation Service — and a fourth-generation funeral director at Bisbee-Porcella, a family business founded in 1886 in the North End. "The lineage of the business goes through my mom, who is a licensed apprentice. Back then [when my mother was young], that wasn't done," she says. "But I think women have to have a positive attitude to go into this business."

Byles's career ambitions, like Ciccarelli's, are born and bred — her father owns two funeral homes in Connecticut, and Byles grew up confident that she would, one day, take over the family business. But it's Peterson who epitomizes a growing industry trend: a young woman with no professional family ties who feels drawn to funeral service. "Ever since I was seven or eight years old, I knew that this was what I wanted to do," she says. "The first time I saw a dead body was when my great-grandmother died. When she was alive, I went to the doctor with her a few times, and I remember I wanted to be the nurse that took the blood from people."

PAST/PASSED: Situated somewhat unceremoniously in the basement of Dodge Chemical Co.’s Cambridge headquarters is an unpolished gem of a mortuary museum, open to the public (by appointment only).

Married to the morgue
Funeral directors often compare the act of making funeral arrangements to the act of planning a wedding — but one in which they often have less than a week to pull everything together, instead of the Bridezilla-requisite one year. (Plus, instead of a tuxedo, the bridegroom wears a shabby black cape and carries a scythe.)

In a typical instance, a funeral director might be called upon to transfer a body from its place of expiration; embalm and prepare the body for viewing by flushing out stagnant blood and pumping it full of preservatives; counsel the grieving family; design a personalized service; coordinate with clergy, musicians, florists, and drivers; prepare and distribute an obituary; procure a death certificate; notify the Social Security Administration of the deceased's passing; and help arrange for the transfer of pensions and insurance policies.

The physical aspects of the job, historically, have been obstacles for women. Not because chicks can't haul a cadaver down a flight of stairs and then slice it open and snip rotting veins and arteries without crying and gagging at the sight of exposed muscle tissue, but because men have always assumed that they can't.

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