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Female funeral directors changing the face of the industry

Funeral service is in the midst of a gender reckoning as young women enter the work force and tear down the stereotypes of a traditionally male-dominated profession

A new generation of women are rising to the challenges of the funeral service industry.

The funeral-service industry has long been a male domain, but times are changing. Currently, two colleges in Ontario offer funeral director programs – Collège Boréal in Sudbury and Humber College in Toronto – and an estimated 70 per cent to 80 per cent of students enrolled in those courses are women.

However, just because there are more women involved in the funeral profession, that doesn't mean they have more power. "I wouldn't necessarily say that the industry is female-dominated," says professor Michelle Clarke, co-ordinator of the funeral director program at Humber College. "It still tends to be mostly men in leadership positions."

But more women are stepping up these days.

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Although the funeral-service industry has historically been male-dominated – largely because men were deemed more capable of handling the physical activity required in planning a funeral service – a new generation of women is rising to the challenge.

Four young women from Ogden Funeral Homes' share why they chose to work in funeral service.


Justine Dominique Johnson, 29

Justine Dominique Johnson, 29, is a funeral director at Ogden Funeral Homes. Ms. Johnson started at Ogden in 2014 as an intern and became a licensed funeral director in 2015.

Why funeral service?

Since she was a little girl, Ms. Johnson has been curious about what happens after someone passes away. Her interest was heightened once she completed the mandatory 40 hours of observation at a funeral home, which is part of the application process for the Humber College program.

Favourite part of the job

One of Ms. Johnson's favourite aspects of her job stems from the diverse Scarborough community in which she works. "You get to experience many of the traditions from other cultures," she says. "You meet so many different people, you help so many families."

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Hardest part of the job

By necessity, Ms. Johnson had to overcome her own natural shyness after assuming the full duties of a funeral director. "I have never liked being the centre of attention, even in school or at parties. But this job requires so much public speaking and talking to strangers, and I know when I need to step up," she says.

Challenges and stereotypes

As a smaller woman, Ms. Johnson says her stature can occasionally be an issue in her daily work. "There is a lot of heavy lifting within this job," she says. Fortunately, there are mechanical lifts available when needed. Ms. Johnson also brushes off the stereotype of the dour funeral director that has long been perpetuated on TV and in movies. "A lot of people paint us as sombre," she says, "but we're really funny and warm people."

What would surprise people most about her job?

People regularly ask Ms. Johnson whether she experiences nightmares from working with the deceased. She admits she does have the occasional bad dream, but it's not the kind most people would expect.

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"It's not about death, ghosts or dead bodies. But I do have nightmares about talking to strangers during such difficult times; I don't want to make a mistake, you can't redo a funeral."


Alyssa Komar, 24

Alyssa Komar, 24, is a funeral director at Ogden Funeral Homes. Ms. Komar started at Ogden in 2016 as an intern and became a licensed funeral director in 2017.

Why funeral service?

A psychology graduate from Western University, Ms. Komar studied to become a funeral director following her dissatisfaction with her own father's funeral. "I'm a natural perfectionist and when my dad died, there were a lot of things about his funeral that I didn't necessarily like," she says. "On my dad's prayer cards, the date of his death was wrong."

Favourite part of the job

Ms. Komar derives personal satisfaction from consulting closely with the deceased's family, both on the embalming process, which she describes as "artwork," and in helping to assure their late loved ones look the way they want them to look. "It's really beautiful in a weird way," she says. "You're front line for the family, you're there for everything they need."

Hardest part of the job

On occasion, Ms. Komar has to help plan a funeral for a person who has no family, which she finds difficult. "That's sad, because that's grandma, that's somebody's family member. It's really hard to understand and wrap my head around it."

Challenges and stereotypes

Ms. Komar does not hesitate when asked if the funeral industry presents challenges to women: "Absolutely, 110 per cent," she says. "Our industry is so traditionally run by men and they are old school. We need to wear heels and pantyhose, we need to wear a skirt, our hair needs to be done nicely … Is it fair that men can wear pants and comfy shoes all day when we're stuck wearing pantyhose and heels and a skirt?"

What would surprise people the most about her job?

Ms. Komar believes the general public has no perception of what funeral directors have to cope with on a regular basis. "Nobody really pays attention to what happens after death and I'm a firm believer that we need to take the taboo out of death," she says.


Iris Ordonez, 19

Iris Ordonez has been a receptionist at Ogden Funeral Homes since late 2017. She plans to attend the funeral director program at Humber College in September, 2018.

Why funeral service?

Following the death of her great aunt, Ms. Ordonez set her sights firmly on the funeral-service industry. "It was this 'ah-ha' moment for me, that people actually do this for a living. I said, 'I can do this.'"

Favourite part of the job

Although she hasn't been in the funeral-service industry that long, Ms. Ordonez says her experience has already taught her to stop and smell the roses. "I appreciate life more because of where I work," she says. "You might think I would be depressed, but, no, I'm more eager to take on what the day has for me."

Hardest part of the job

Unavoidably, Ms. Ordonez says, there are days when the reality of dealing with life and death can take a toll. "I remember seeing a stillborn [baby] for the first time and nobody could talk to me for the rest of the day. But for every bad scenario, you know there is some kind of light at the end of it."

Challenges and stereotypes

Ms. Ordonez is a realist when it comes to physical strength. "I'm obviously not able to lift a 500-pound man the same way a man can," she says. "Realistically, with my height and my build, I just can't do that." She also suggests that unrealistic stereotypes of funeral directors are responsible for making some people uncomfortable with many aspects of the industry. "The reality is, it's the most beautiful job, with so much integrity and life … I'm proud to talk about it."

What would surprise people the most about her job?

"Funeral directors are the funniest people I know," Ms. Ordonez says. But, of course, there is a time and place for all forms of humour. "Everyone who works in the industry is here for a reason," she says. "The staff know when to laugh, and when to be serious."


Kennedy Bacher, 20

Kennedy Bacher is an intern at Ogden Funeral Homes who has almost completed the mandatory full year of internship. She is scheduled to write her funeral-board exam in May, 2018.

Why funeral service?

After studying psychology at university for a few months, Ms. Bacher shifted her career sights toward the funeral industry. "Funeral service has a lot of aspects that psychology does, such as helping other people," she says. "You are serving the community around you, it's an amazing thing to be part of."

Favourite part of the job

Working closely with the families of the deceased provides the source of Ms. Bacher's career satisfaction. "I can see how rewarding it is for more senior directors here, when they have families that come and thank them for all the amazing things they do."

Hardest part of the job

In Ms. Bacher's view, becoming a successful funeral director means maintaining good mental health. "Sometimes, we take things home that can be upsetting at the end of the day, we're just human like everybody else. Some days are just sadder and harder, but it's our job to put that aside, she says.

Challenges and stereotypes

Ms. Bacher is well aware of the challenges that exist for women in the funeral-service industry. For starters, many people are expecting a man when they show up to plan a loved one's funeral. "I know a lot of people don't really acknowledge women in the industry as much as they do men," she says. And on occasion, age can also become a negative factor: "Getting people to take you seriously, especially because I am so young, is difficult. I got into this when I was 19, and I just turned 20, so, it's already hard to get some people to take me seriously."

What would surprise people most about her job

In a word: scope. Ms. Bacher has already learned that most of the general public have no idea about the details involved in planning a funeral – from the first phone call to the transportation of the deceased to the embalming and cosmetics – which becomes immediately evident when they show up to plan a service, almost all of which is handled by the funeral director. "Most people know really nothing about funeral service, which is disheartening, because people need to be educated and everyone is going to come across it at one point in their life."

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