Shae Perratto has always had a sunny personality, so her friends and family were surprised when she announced her plans to pursue a career in what seemed like a depressing industry: funeral service.
But Perratto, 19, now in mortuary school and working as a funeral attendant, says that's a misconception.
There are hard parts, of course, but the work is more rewarding than sad. She's built strong connections – to the community, to her co-workers, to the families she works with, and, in some ways, even to the deceased.
"You see the life they lived and almost feel envious you didn't get to meet them," she said.
Perratto is one of a growing number of women poised to take over what has long been a male-dominated profession.
The U.S. is struggling with a critical shortage of funeral directors, and nearly half of those still working are planning to retire in the next five years, according to the National Funeral Directors Association. Less than a quarter of those retiring have a succession plan in place.
Finding a successor isn't as easy as putting up a help wanted sign. Funeral directors require extensive training. In Maine, the job requires an associate's degree in mortuary science, 2,000 hours of apprenticeship training and several rigorous state and national exams. No Maine colleges offer the necessary degree, so students either have to commute to Massachusetts or take classes online.
Then there's the work itself, which demands being on call 24 hours a day and is often emotionally exhausting.
Still, the field is changing, and many who are doing the work say the rewards of helping families through their darkest days outweigh the challenges.
Maine has 258 licensed funeral homes, but only 221 licensed funeral practitioners, according to data from the Maine Bureau of Licensing. The average age of a Maine funeral director is 54, five years above the national average, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Comparatively, the average age of all employed people in the U.S. over 16 is about 42.
In Maine, where the annual number of deaths has increased by 28% over the last decade and the general population has grown by only about 4%, a shortage of funeral directors would spell bad news.
But a new demographic is ready and waiting to take up the mantle.
Last year, the American Board of Funeral Service Education reported more than 7,000 students enrolled in the 58 U.S. colleges with accredited funeral director/mortuary sciences degree programs. That's the highest level of enrollment since the organization began tracking in 2010.
According to the annual report of the board, which accredits academic programs, 72% of graduates and 75% of new enrollees last year were female.
"Women are taking it by storm," Perratto said.
'THE LAST RESPONDERS'
Funeral director is a broad job description that can encompass all services after a person's death. These include overseeing, directing and coordinating all aspects of funeral services, visitations and burials, as well as retrieving and preparing the bodies (embalming, dressing and sometimes reconstructing).
Providing support and advice to families and friends of the deceased is also a major part of the work.
Jim Fernald, a funeral director at Brookings Smith Funeral Home in Bangor and public relations director for the Maine Funeral Directors Association, said funeral workers are caregivers not so different from nurses and hospice workers.
"We're just the last one you get to on that roadway," he said. "We're the last responders. We really give them the last chance to say goodbye."
Doug Bibber, funeral director and co-owner of Kennebunk-based Bibber Memorial Chapel, said people often assume he spends most of his time working with the dead, not the living. But it's the opposite.
"Ninety-five percent of my time is spent with the family members who've survived and walking them through their grief," he said. "It's a rewarding career, and you're given a lot of trust. You earn that trust every day."
It's not a job for everyone, but it's one that is integral to the community.
And without an accredited program, Maine has been at a disadvantage when it comes to recruiting would-be new funeral directors who aren't succeeding their relatives in jobs.
That could be changing.
A bill introduced in the Legislature last session would authorize the National Institute of Funeral Services to start an associate's degree program in Applied Science in Funeral Service in Maine.
"This program is needed," said Rep. Victoria Doudera, D-Camden, in testimony introducing the bill. "It will be sustainable and will help address the severe shortage of funeral directors here in Maine. It will give students who take the program an entry into a well-paying profession that will never be short of new business."
Funeral managers or directors have an average salary of almost $85,000 while morticians, undertakers and funeral arrangers average about $58,000 a year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Doudera's bill was carried over to the next session, which convenes in January.
THE FUTURE IS FEMALE
For centuries, caring for the dead was done at home and seen as women's work, but that shifted after the American Civil War when embalming and funerals were industrialized. Undertaking became a career, and for most women, employment was frowned upon.
According to the National Funeral Directors Association, these shifts reinforced gender-biased traditions and made way for the male-dominated funeral industry of the early 20th century.
It's not clear what spurred the recent influx of women into funeral service, but practitioners and families welcome it.
Rilee Newhall, a recently licensed funeral director in Augusta, said families already have begun requesting female funeral directors.
"I don't think that's because of anything a male funeral director has done," she said. "But I think because ... we have that different instinct that's maybe a little warmer."
Meghan Donnell, a funeral assistant at Dobson Family Funeral and Cremation Services in Arundel, said women also have a technical advantage: they are more likely to have experience with makeup and hairstyling, which is helpful when preparing a body for viewing.
"There are some men who can put down a good contour, but the majority of the men in this age range in this job are old-school," she said.
They may seem small, but those little details matter.
"It’s a dignity thing, how you can represent that person when they’re not there to do it themselves," said Donnell, who also has another job in health care.
But change comes slowly, and both Perratto and Donnell say they sometimes are underestimated.
“I am a 5-foot, 120-pound woman, and I definitely notice that some of the men of the industry don’t think I’m as capable as I am,” Perratto said.
She’ll get questions like, “Are you sure you can handle that?” and “Do you want help?”
It's never meant with any malice, but she often feels she’s the last person turned to in the room.
Donnell, 30, said she tried to get an apprenticeship seven years ago. She was turned down several times and, while it was never expressly said, she felt her gender and young age were strikes against her.
"With all the experience I've had in postmortem care and end-of-life care, I basically felt like I was being judged off my gender," she said. "I've always been in health care, where it's the opposite."
When the position at Dobson opened up, she got a completely different reception. Now, she's reignited her plans to go to mortuary school and hopes to be enrolled in a program in about a year.
For now, she works as a medical assistant at Southern Maine Health Care Medical Center in Sanford during the day and responds to calls for the funeral home on nights and weekends.
"It's quite the experience dealing with the living during the day and the deceased at night," she said.
THE FAMILY BUSINESS
Bibber, 58, is a third-generation funeral director. Fernald, in his 60s, is the fifth generation in his family to take up the trade.
But the days of passing down the family business are slipping away, said Chad Poitras, who owns Chad E. Poitras Cremation & Funeral Service in Buxton and Poitras, Neal & York Funeral Home & Cremation Service in Cornish. The vast majority of funeral homes (89%) are still individually owned, but more are now being sold to corporations.
“It’s a lot of hours, being on call 24 hours, always having to be ready to go. A lot of the younger generations realize that’s a tough life,” Poitras said. “Therefore, you get kids that grow up in the business watching their parents doing it, realizing this just isn't for me."
For most of her life, Newhall swore she would never go into funeral work.
Her family owned a funeral home in Massachusetts and she saw how exhausting and time-consuming it could be.
Her dad worked grueling hours and missed out on a lot of family and school events.
“I didn’t see my dad as much as other kids got to,” she said.
But when she later took a job as a funeral attendant at Conroy-Tully Walker Funeral Home in Portland to earn money while she pursued a degree in criminal justice, she loved it.
Newhall, 21, received her funeral director's license last December and she now works alongside her dad at Knowlton and Hewins Funeral Home and Cremation Care in Augusta.
While she still works long and often unpredictable hours, she said, Knowlton and Hewins, which is owned by Family First Funeral Homes and Cremation Care, has worked to hire people to respond to nighttime calls to lessen the burden on those who work daytime hours. And she's encouraged to take vacations.
"I can’t picture myself doing anything different," she said.
Some days, of course, are especially difficult.
"You're never going to get used to hearing poor parents scream and cry after they just buried their child," she said. "But the families are so thankful for what you do for them. People will tell you how much you helped them, and hearing that we were able to make someone's life a little bit easier in what’s probably the most difficult aspect of their life, is so rewarding."
A CHANGING INDUSTRY
Bibber remembers his grandfather driving down to Boston in the rare instance that someone chose to be cremated. But now cremation has surpassed burial as the most popular choice after death, and there are at least four crematories within a 20-minute drive from their Kennebunk location.
Bibber estimates that between 75% to 80% of families at Bibber Memorial Chapel choose cremation.
Green burials, human composting and aquamation – a water-based process similar to cremation also called "alkaline hydrolysis," – are all growing in popularity, with people drawn to the environmental benefits and often lower costs.
The nature of services is also changing.
The typical church-to-graveside-to-reception model is less common, with more memorial services, fewer religious elements and more personalized locations.
When Bibber was first licensed in 1988, he'd take in a body one day, meet with the family the next and plan the service for two or three days after that. Today, families are taking a few days to recover and scheduling services two or three weeks after the death.
"Families are taking an opportunity to not rush through their services but to reflect on what would be important to have as elements of their loved one's service," he said.
Bibber recently hosted a celebration of life with a cocktail party and a bagpiper. The deceased had been a huge Eagles fan, so they broadcast the 2018 Patriots vs Eagles Super Bowl.
Fernald, in Bangor, said one woman at his funeral home wanted her husband rolled up in a beloved rug. A scuba diver asked that his cremated remains be mixed with concrete and turned into a living reef for fish near the Florida Keys.
"It really is what is meaningful to the families," Fernald said.
But not all industry changes have been positive.
Family dynamics seem to be more complicated than ever, and the decisions around money or even just planning can become contentious fast, Fernald said.
The pandemic was challenging, with the surge in deaths and the limitations placed on people saying their goodbyes.
The ongoing opioid epidemic has been even worse.
"I'd much rather help someone that's a 90-year-old and had a full life versus a 30-year-old mother of two who, while watching the kids, went into the bathroom to shoot up and the kids found her," Fernald said. One year they had 60 or 70 overdose deaths. It took an emotional toll.
There hasn't been much research on PTSD and burnout in funeral directors, but Fernald said he's known a few who've died by suicide – especially shocking since they know the devastating impact on those left behind.
Working around death and grief every day can be draining, but it's given some funeral directors a new view of mortality.
"I'm not scared of dying," said Perratto, the mortuary student. "Nobody looks forward to death ... but I'm not necessarily petrified by it in the way most people are. ... I know what'll happen to my body after I die."
And that brings her comfort.
Newhall, on the other hand, said she is terrified to die.
"It's weird to hear a funeral director say that after dealing with death day in and day out," she said. "Everyone is going to die one day, and that never really settled with me entirely."
It sounds cliche, Newhall said, but the job is a constant reminder to live every day fully because no day is promised.
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