Death becomes her

By SARA FAITH ALTERMAN  |  February 27, 2009

"Funeral service in America is largely white, mature-male dominated," says Jacquelyn Taylor, the executive director of NEI. "It's similar to what we used to think about when we thought of physicians. It's no longer true in medicine, but that took a pretty long time for that to be the case. Interestingly enough, women have always been in funeral service, but the men were the business owners, the face of funeral service, whereas their spouses — and, later on, their female employees — were the support staff."

Taylor, like Peterson, experienced a "calling" to the industry at a young age; her family lived next to a funeral home, and a brazen 10-year-old Taylor knocked on its door as a dare. Once she caught a glimpse inside, Taylor was hooked. She spent nearly 30 years working as a funeral director and (the first female) branch manager of Uniservice Corporation, owner of mortuaries and cemeteries in the Pacific Northwest. She came to Mount Ida College in 2001.

Taylor describes three primary barriers that have traditionally prevented women from advancing in the funeral-service industry: a perception that they had physical limitations; a perception that they did not have the emotional suitability; and the perceived "danger" of a woman working in close quarters with a man who is not her husband. (Nothing like a corpse to ignite corporeal lust.) "Now, in the 21st century, we may scoff at that, but those were very real concerns for a long time," says Taylor. "They were artificial barriers, but they were persistent. And that is just utter nonsense — the idea that people can't work together and not control their animalistic urges."

As seen on TV
Urges of a more cerebral nature have attracted many young women to the funeral industry; namely, the urge to help distressed mourners navigate one of the more difficult milestones of life. Dealing with the death of a loved one can be facilitated by a competent and sympathetic funeral director. "The perception of the general public is that women tend to be more compassionate," says Dr. Lyn Prendergast, founder (with her husband, Dr. Louis Misantone) of FINE. "A lot of women do have compassionate sides, and I think it's one factor that draws them into the industry, but it shouldn't be a blanket statement. Unfortunately, though, it's mostly true."

The success of pop-entertainment phenomena like HBO's Six Feet Under (2001–2005) — featuring an adorable Lauren Ambrose — and A&E's funeral-home reality series Family Plots (2004) has helped, too, by demystifying (de-creep-ing?) the stereotypes often associated with funeral direction: oil-slick comb-overs, impossibly erect posture, cheap black suits, and eerily wringing hands. And, though it's unfortunate that television was an impetus for gender empowerment, once young women had "normal" funeral-service role models to identify with, it became easier to reconcile pursuing funeral service as a career.

Still, the reality of funeral service has none of the existential angst of Six Feet Under.

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