Funeral Divas: a Support-Group Sisterhood of Undertakers

September 6, 2011
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The trajectory of Muneerah Warner’s career aspirations is a matter of life and death and life.

She wanted to be a doctor when she was growing up in North Philadelphia, until she learned that medicine couldn’t always stop people from dying. A couple of years later, she got a real-life lesson in that truth.

When she was 13, three of her relatives passed away within a few months, an uncle from violence and a grandfather and great-grandfather from natural causes. Employees at a funeral home helped soothe her sorrow.

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So, by age 15, Warner had decided to become a funeral director. Now, the Northeast Philadelphia resident, 30, is in the vanguard of young women in a profession that long has been dominated by older men. Her businesses – none of which has made her rich – include a funeral service, Funerals Today magazine, and a social and support group she created called Funeral Divas. Its colors are black (not surprising) and hot pink (very surprising).

“A Funeral Diva is a strong, confident, and successful woman who works in the funeral industry. She is not ashamed of her career!” the group’s website reads.

There are about 400 divas in the United States and around the world, including Bermuda, Australia, and South Africa. Social events include birthday celebrations, movie nights (members of the Pennsylvania chapter recently saw Horrible Bosses), and educational programs that individual chapters organize.

Women funeral directors’ happy hours, Warner says, are just like anybody else’s.

The group has a blog, information on conferences, and other funeral-service resources, and, of course, black-and-pink Funeral Diva items are for sale.

Funeral divas don’t think there is anything ghoulish about their career choice.

“When I hang with my friends who are not in the funeral industry, I seem just a little weird,” Warner says. “I don’t think it’s weird to help people at the worst time of their lives.”

Still, the Funeral Diva motto hints at the difficult moments she and other women who are the first in their families to be funeral directors have had.

Of the 18,500 members of the National Funeral Directors Association, 16 percent are women. Fifty-six percent of all members are 50 and older.

Women weren’t always in the minority of those who cared for the dead. In ancient Greece and colonial America, as well as in some religions, women were tasked with washing and dressing the dead, says the International Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association.

The watershed period for undertaking as a profession was the Civil War.

“Everything changed when all of a sudden we had enormous numbers of dead to move from the battlefield,” says Kim Stacey, chief executive officer of the Association of Women Funeral Professionals.

Undertaking generally became the work of men, who took the lead in the science of embalming, necessary to preserve soldiers’ bodies until they were returned home for burial, Stacey says.

Numbers are tilting back toward women – they represent 52 percent of graduates last year of U.S. funeral service and mortuary science programs.

Though proud of her now, Warner’s mother, Lana, 48, initially was unsettled that her daughter was “working with dead people. I’ve always been spooked by the funeral industry.”

But Muneerah Warner isn’t surprised that women are attracted to a job that emphasizes easing the pain of others. For her, it goes beyond nurturing.

While interning at Philadelphia funeral homes during her high school years, she says, “I was intrigued by every aspect, from the time families came in, to putting cremated ashes in urns, to watching the body go in the grave.”

She also is not surprised that some men think women should stick to nurturing roles, a bias she encountered when she arranged an apprenticeship after graduating in 2002 from the Pittsburgh Institute of Mortuary Science.

“I called 33 homes, sent out 33 resumÈs,” she says. “They all told me no. They said, what could I do at the funeral home, how could I help them?”

The implied question: Could she lift a 200-pound body? The assumed answer: No.

She finally was hired, then became a licensed funeral director and embalmer. At conventions, she heard men say “women can’t hack the funeral industry.”

When Ashley Rose, a Funeral Diva member and funeral home supervisor in Somerset County, Pa., began attending mortuary science school, she wasn’t so sure she could handle it either – especially in embalming class.

“In the beginning, I was, like, ‘This is gross,’ ” she says.

Now, she can describe in graphic detail how embalming is done.

“I do enjoy it. I love to see the effects it has,” says Rose, 26. “It brings the person back to a more natural state.”

She had little trouble getting hired at a funeral home, though her family had no tradition of being morticians – the more common and easier route to becoming a funeral director. After school, she returned to her hometown of Hollsopple, Pa., where an acquaintance’s father, who owns several funeral homes, hired her.

Claudia Saraceno was a makeup and hair stylist and an insurance agent before her brother and then-boyfriend-now-husband persuaded her to join them in the funeral industry. Now, she has her own funeral home in Egg Harbor, N.J.

Her profession has created some awkward situations with family and friends.

“All my relatives know I won’t come visit them in the hospital,” says Saraceno, 53. “They’ll see me and say, ‘I’m not ready for you yet.’ “

She has heard it all over the last 32 years.

When she started out, male colleagues would test women and expect them to fail.

Early in her career, her male colleagues left her to move an empty casket from a dolly onto a bier. Usually, that’s a two-person job.

Saraceno remembers saying to herself, “They’re not getting me down.” She moved the casket on her own, slowly, lifting one end at a time.

She still gets comments, some from the grieving.

When she went last year to a home to remove a body, the deceased’s daughter thought she was the funeral home’s secretary. Saraceno, a licensed embalmer and funeral director in New York and New Jersey, had to persuade the woman otherwise.

Warner started Funeral Divas in 2010 so women could swap stories like that. Saraceno and Rose, years apart in age and experience, are both in the group. Rose likes being part of a circle of women who have the same experiences.

Saraceno, the veteran, likes sharing her experiences with younger women in the business – and making sure they feel welcome.

Says Saraceno: “I never make them feel like the underdog.”

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CDFuneralNews

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