Women at work: Female funeral directors say our empathy, listening skills help

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When Marya F. Gibbons, co-owner of Gibbons Funeral Home, attended a recent continuing education class for funeral directors, she wasone of only about 10 women out of 225 people there.

“It doesn’t bother me at all; I’ve been doing this for 20 years,” Gibbons says.

More women are going into the funeral and mortuary science industry. But Gibbons, who’s 40 and the mother of six, says the need for women in the funeral-home business is still largely unfilled.

“I’m not man-bashing, but families find a comfort level with a female funeral director sometimes quicker and easier than with a male because a woman has a tendency to open up about herself and become a relatable person,” says Gibbons, who co-owns the Elmhurst funeral home with her husband, Thomas A. Gibbons Jr.

The Gibbonses met while students at Immaculate Conception High School and bought the business eight years ago from his parents. His grandfather started the business in 1936.

Becoming a funeral-home director and embalmer wasn’t easy,Marya Gibbons says. She and her husband both graduated from the Worsham College of Mortuary Science in Wheeling.

“Having never been exposed to the embalming procedures or the deceased’s remains, there is a natural scariness about it,” she says. “It’s something you can get over and move forward.”

Gibbons sees the kinds of personal strengths many women have as a natural fit with the priorities of a funeral director: like being patient and putting grieving relatives at ease during a tension-filled time.

“It’s like planning a wedding in three days, and absolutely nothing can go wrong,” she says.

Being a mom can help, says Gibbons. She recalls telling a family that she had to go to her son’s football practice, and that turned the conversation to where he played and set everyone at ease.

The Gibbonses live across the street from Marya’s parents, and Thomas’ mother lives upstairs in the funeral home. Those close family ties have allowed Marya Gibbons to work while raising Thomas III, 17; Daniel, 15; Evan, 12; Maren, 10; William, 8; and Declan, 5.

“It’s so much a part of your life,” she says of her work, recalling how she’s gotten to know people — potential customers — at high school football games and neighborhood events with her children.

“I enjoy being out there and talking with people,” she says. “Women are geared more that way.”

Women comprise 16.5 percent of all members in the National Funeral Directors Association as of 2014, compared with 9.7 percent a decade earlier, according to the Brookfield, Wisconsin-based group, which represents more than 10,000 funeral homes worldwide and 48 percent of funeral homes in the United States.

And the number of women is expected to grow. Women now account for a majority of students in mortuary science school, according to the association: up to 62.7 percent in 2013 from 35 percent in 1995.

There are 58 accredited mortuary science programs and 10 schools nationwide, including Worsham and programs at Malcolm X College in Chicago and at Ivy Tech Community College of Indiana-Northwest in East Chicago, Indiana.

Jessica Koth, of the funeral directors association, says the group first noticed an increase in women’s membership in 2007, as the Great Recession took hold.

“We see lots of nurses, social workers and, at times, police officers and firefighters — those in caregiving roles — who found a calling in the funeral home service,” Koth says.

Many people view the role of funeral director as something that’s traditionally been filled by a man, in part because the work involves lifting and moving bodies, says Robert C. Smith III, executive director of the American Board of Funeral Service Education, based in St. Joseph, Missouri. the accrediting agency for schools that teach mortuary science

“But that’s not something that a funeral director spends the entire day doing,” he says.

Kristen Garrett, a funeral director and embalmer with Glueckert Funeral Home in Arlington Heights, says some of her fellow female alumnae from Worsham College turned to the profession as a second career, then found they couldn’t get past the odd hours and having to spend a lot of time moving and standing, so they quit.

“One woman from my class is a [sales] representative for a chemical company, and another is a nanny,” says Garrett, a native of New Glasgow in Nova Scotia, Canada, and mother of two.

Funeral director Kristen Garrett at Gluekert Funeral Home in Arlington Heights. | James Foster / Sun-Times

Garrett, 31, came to the Chicago area after Lake Forest College recruited her to play goaltender for its women’s hockey team. That was good preparation, she says.

“You have to have a thick skin, be clear-headed and focused,” she says of playing goalie. “You have to be passionate, dedicated and a little crazy.”

At Lake Forest, where she got a bachelor’s degree in biology and chemistry, Garrett was intrigued by a “Reality: CSI” lecture given by the Lake County coroner and asked him for an internship.

“He had cool stories,” she says. “I thought it was different and might be a good opportunity.”

Garrett enjoyed the variety of cases the coroner sees and the skill needed to deal with family members of the deceased.

“You are sometimes talking them off of the ledge; some you needed to be firm with, and others you needed to tread lightly,” she says. “Those skills help me now.”

Garrett found she fit in just as easily at the family-owned Glueckert Funeral Home. She appreciates the funeral home’s involvement in environmentally friendly trends, including offering such options as flameless cremation, “natural” embalming products and bamboo and banana-leaf caskets.

Garrett says she uses a female funeral directors’ group on Facebook as her sounding board. Its members discuss things like juggling work while pregnant or raising small children, as well as how to dress.

“Men wear suits, but women have more options,” Garrett says. “I check in with these women and use them for advice.”

Garrett sees her role at the funeral home as a helper for grieving families.

“I try very hard to separate my home life, but sometimes, when parents come in and have experienced a horrific loss, it’s hard,” she says. “We have little babies who were sick and didn’t have a chance. It makes you hug your kids a little harder at night.”

Beth Stolte, funeral director, embalmer and cremationist at Sax-Tiedemann Funeral Home in Franklin Park, says she first became intrigued with the profession when she heard a funeral home director speak to her junior-high school class in Stanwood, Iowa, a farm town about 30 miles east of Cedar Rapids.

After Stolte was graduated from high school, she attended community college in Cedar Rapids but felt “a little bit lost.”

“I decided I needed to get serious about what I was going to do, so I called Worsham College,” Stolte says.

She moved to Chicago to attend the school in 2007 and worked as a student and an apprentice at Sax-Tiedemann before being hired in March. She’s the only woman doing the job there.

Stolte, 35, says she worried at first how people would react. “A lot of the reaction was ‘Why? Why would you want to do that? That’s morbid or depressing as a job,’ ” Stolte says.

She appreciates when grieving families hug her after a service and tell her how glad they were to have experienced the difficult time with her.

“You realize that you were able to guide a family through a difficult journey,” she says.

At times, she’s been mistaken for a secretary when she goes to a hospital to pick up a body. And she’s been advised never to tell someone what she does on a first date.

“I have just come to the conclusion that people understand or they don’t,” she says. “It’s the only thing I can really imagine myself doing.”


Funeral director Beth Stolte of Sax-Tiedemann Funeral Home in Franklin Park. | James Foster / Sun-Times

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