Women’s History Month: Women Are Changing The Face Of The Once Male-Dominated Funeral Industry

By: Brianna Smith-Herman

The funeral service industry has long been a male-dominated one, but times are changing as more women are entering into the profession and breaking down stereotypes. While still not yet considered female-dominated, the fresh infusion of death-positive philosophy, life celebration, and death doulaship by women is changing the face of the death industry. Shifting values, technology, and optics have created a disruption — and women are at the forefront.

As the licensed funeral director and embalmer at R.S. Lewis and Sons Funeral Home for almost 9 years and the youngest at her firm, we were excited to sit down with Ternisha Smith to get her thoughts on how women are disrupting the funeral industry.

What made you go into the funeral service industry?

In 2005, my freshman year of high school at Whitehaven High, my aunt passed away unexpectedly and during her first viewing with the family I didn’t like the way she looked. She was a small/medium built lady; however, in that casket she was HUGE! She didn’t look like herself at all. I made up my mind that funeral service was the field for me. Human anatomy has always been intriguing to me; therefore, I knew my calling/dream and what I had to do to make it my reality.

What is an average day to day working as a licensing manager at RS Lewis & Sons Funeral Home?

As the licensed funeral director and embalmer, I’m tasked with responding to first calls, making funeral arrangements with families, scheduling funeral services, both traditional (burials) and non-traditional (cremation), preparing the remains for services, ensuring the daily operations of the firm are completed and in compliance with the state board.

How do you maintain your peace having to care for so many grieving families?

Prayer, I grew up in the church and was always taught to keep God first. I take my weekly scheduled off days to rejuvenate and decompress; take a trip to the spa, get my nails done, impromptu trips to the Children’s Museum with my children, day-date with my husband or day of doing nothing.

Why do you think the funeral industry has become more women leading in the last few years?

In my opinion, women are more compassionate, detail oriented, attentive to detail, and organized. We naturally have a nurturing spirit. Historically, it is known that women were the ones who cared for the family – both the deceased, and the survivors. It’s not that we do it better than men, or men can’t do it, but for it to be such a male-dominated industry, we are coming in and literally taking over. We can do everything a man can do from removals, lifting, embalming, dressing, casketing, etc. Intellectually, women have a higher altitude when it comes to taking the national or state board. Back in 2011 when I graduated from John A. Gupton College, there were approximately 46 people in my graduating class with 22 being women. The numbers are steadily increasing each year.

What is the most rewarding thing about your job?

The most rewarding thing about my job is the thanks that I receive at the end

of a service. Knowing that I have made the worst moment in a families’ life easier is good enough for me. I don’t do this for recognition, I do this because it’s my passion and I absolutely love what I do. In addition, when someone calls looking for “the funeral director” and I explain that they are speaking to HER, there is a brief awkward silence that tickles me, especially in the older generations. The awe in their eyes when I’m seen in person is just as hilarious. It’s the “ooh, you’re Ternisha, I’ve heard so much about you” for me; even a lot of my fellow colleagues know me by name, but haven’t seen me in person. People have this conception that a funeral director or mortician is an older man, tall and speaks monotone, to their surprise, I’m the complete opposite. I’m 5’4, female and speak enthusiastically. I’m the youngest at my firm and I take pride in knowing that I can perform just as well as the oldest person.

What are you most passionate about in the funeral service industry?

I’m most passionate about helping people. Whether their funeral is $3,000 or $30,000, I give the same level of compassion and professionalism. I love the bond that is built with the families. A family will always remember how you treated them and how you made them feel throughout the process.

What has your profession taught you about life?

Funeral service has taught me that death has no limits. You can be old, young, rich, or poor. Death is inevitable. Most importantly, have insurance. The most irresponsible thing a person can do is put the burden of having someone plans a funeral for you with no money or insurance. Insurance is everything. Having your affairs in order will make the process easier for your loved ones. Inform your loved ones of what you want for your service, from casket color to the style of dressing, make it plain and clear.

You might also be interested in: Giving Back is the New Black: Volunteer Opportunities in Memphis

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