‘A funeral isn’t just a day in the life — it’s a life in a day.’ Women in the funeral industry are finding their calling.

Ellen Wynn McBrayer’s grandparents and parents ran a funeral home, but she had no plans to enter the family business. She went to college to major in marketing and intended to work someday for the Atlanta Hawks basketball team. 

It wasn’t until her father died on her parents’ 30th wedding anniversary that she found her true calling: to become a licensed funeral director and embalmer and join the family business in Georgia. 

She went back to her college and created a funeral internship program for herself so she could return home and learn everything she could about the family funeral business.

She never left. She’s now president of the Jones-Wynn Funeral Home and Crematory and Meadowbrook Memory Gardens, representing a wave of women in recent years who have entered the once male-dominated field.

“It created my purpose in life,” said McBrayer, now 44. “A funeral isn’t just a day in the life — it’s a life in a day. I’m honored to be part of that, in some small way.”   

Ellen Wynn McBrayer.

Courtesy image

Now, significantly more women than men are enrolling in funeral service programs. The tipping point came in 2000, when women enrollees first surpassed men, enrolling 51% to 49%. In 2022, the number of women entering funeral service programs was more than 2½ times the number of men — 72% to almost 28%, according to the National Funeral Directors Association.

“It’s a beautiful industry that helps people where they are,” McBrayer said. “We help people take a moment to honor a life so they don’t have unresolved grief.”

The first funeral home was established in 1759 in Williamsburg, Va., by a cabinetmaker named Anthony Hay who made coffins as a side business. Now, there are more than 19,000 funeral homes in the U.S., according to the National Funeral Directors Association. The association does not disclose data on how many are owned or operated by women.

“People are often surprised I’m the funeral director and will gravitate to the man I’m standing next to,” McBrayer said. “But women naturally are very good at empathy. Women tend to be very natural at that. Men and women have natural skill sets that complement each other.”

Historically, women often dealt with the dead in terms of washing, anointing and shrouding bodies to prepare them for burial. Embalming is as old as the ancient Egyptians, but in the U.S. it took hold during the Civil War, when embalming was introduced as a way to preserve soldier’s bodies for the trip home. Then the rituals around death and dying became more of an industry with men taking the lead.

Read: ‘So many people are terrified of death.’ Death doulas provide end-of-life support.

Despite more young women entering the field now, McBrayer said it still feels like a male-dominated business from the top down — with other funeral directors, embalmers, sales representatives and crematory workers all often being men.

“A lot of the people I’m interacting with are men,” McBrayer said. “Being female — there is a challenge to that. It can be intimidating. But the challenge is all about people’s perception, not my abilities.”

Moving into the industry can be difficult without a family connection and it can be hard to break into the business without one, McBrayer said.

“Women going into the industry need to do the research. Go to visit funeral homes. Find one where you think you fit and can make a difference. Don’t just go once. Never give up. Show up. Speak to everyone. Show up every week. Have a mentor, someone you can talk to and help you,” McBrayer said. 

Read: What should I do with my body when I die? The options go way beyond burial and cremation.

The funeral industry overall faces changes, with cremation rates in the U.S. increasing sharply from 3.5% in 1960 to a projected 59% in 2023, according to the Cremation Association of North America.

“The cremation rate is on the rise but a service can still be a part of it. And I feel women are very good at meeting those needs in a service where the skills of empathy come into play,” McBrayer said.

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