Walk into your nearest funeral home, and you're more likely than ever to see a woman running the place—a development that some female directors attribute to traditional feminine qualities like patience and empathy. "I'm not man-bashing, but families find a comfort level with a female funeral director sometimes quicker and easier than with a male," Marya Gibbons, co-owner of a Chicago funeral home, tells the Chicago Sun-Times. "A woman has a tendency to open up about herself and become a relatable person." The trend began around the Great Recession in 2007, and as of 2014, women made up 16.5% of all National Funeral Directors Association members—nearly a 7% hike over a decade before. They also comprise more than half of all US mortuary science school students.
Men traditionally ran funeral homes in part because they could build caskets and dig graves, the CBC reports; they could also lift heavy bodies. And women in the business will tell you it's no easy job, with odd hours, grieving customers who need to be handled gently or firmly, and sad stories that are difficult to ignore. "I try very hard to separate my home life, but sometimes, when parents come in and have experienced a horrific loss, it's hard," says a woman director outside Chicago. They also encounter prejudice (like clergy refusing to do funerals with a female director) and say people can be stunned by their choice of career, but the stigma seems to be declining. And the job has its rewards: "You realize that you were able to guide a family through a difficult journey," a female director says. (Read about the funeral trend of posing dead bodies like they're alive.)