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The Funeral Divas

      
Todd Van Beck's picture
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Throughout my career I have gotten into trouble because I simply did not behave properly according to a few people, sometimes people who held power and prestige, and they used it.  There have been times I just said the wrong thing, and there have been times I have paid the price for saying and writing certain things.  This might well be another one of those times.

Some topics that have gotten me into hot water:  I said several times publically that the minimum educational standard for licensed funeral directors and yes, embalmers, across the United States should be the bachelors degree.  I said publically that I felt that funeral service was fractured because of the many different associations that we have and publically asked the question “Who speaks in the end for funeral service?”  I wrote an article once where I said that caskets might be sold at wholesale cost to the public to respond to the Wal-Mart phenomenon.  I wrote that funeral directors and cemeterians ought to just get together and look at the future together, finding unity in diversity – a thought that did not go over very well in some quarters. 

I am not a terribly courageous person, and certainly these issues have been bantered around for years, but when I have publically spoken or written about these and other issues I have paid a price.  However when you love something, and I certainly love funeral service, there is always a price to be paid.

Now all this introductory material is being presented because I read a fascinating piece of funeral service journalism the other day and part of the article concerned an interesting group called the Funeral Divas.  I hope I have the name of this organization correct, because if I don’t I will risk misbehaving once again, and will certainly be corrected by someone.

As I understood the article, the Funeral Divas is a group of women funeral professionals.  Let’s freeze this frame a minute.  Over the past years several many women in our profession have organized themselves into groups which reflect their need, I believe, for a venue for the expression of their mutual concerns, and also as an opportunity for them to explore their mission and careers in funeral service, to kick around hopes and dreams, and vent frustrations – this happens in most every organization, and is, I believe, a good thing.

I can well appreciate and have totally understood why women felt the need to create their own environment.  In fact when I taught at the Cincinnati College of Mortuary Science in the early 1980s we had a organization within the college called The Women’s Club, and amazingly I was their advisor, as if I, as a man, could possibly have contributed anything of substance concerning the issues that these good people were facing. And make no mistake, they were facing issues.

When I worked in tandem with the Women’s Club at CCMS, it was clear to me that indeed there were issues and challenges that the female students were experiencing which created problems and disappointment for many of them.  They needed a safe harbor to express these concerns, and explore them together to find solutions, and truthfully solutions were sometimes very evasive and frustratingly sad.

I remember going to their meetings and listening to their stories about the roadblocks they encountered.  I listened and all the time I was haunted by the fact that I had to work at understanding these evident road blocks that they were experiencing.  I concluded that my initial difficulty in understanding their disappointments arose simply because I personally had felt from birth that having women in funeral service was a natural.

In many of these writings I have made reference to our sainted Blust Bros., who were our undertakers in my hometown of Avoca, Iowa.  I have told stories about them, and have shared many memories about these two human beings.  However what I have innocently omitted, until now, is the glaring truth that the substance and foundation of the Blust Bros. Funeral Home was not the two brothers but was in absolute truth Henry Blust's wife, Hattie.

In my years growing up, the center of the Blust Bros. Funeral Home was Mrs. Hattie Blust.  She was a licensed funeral director and embalmer.  She had embalmed my grandmother’s first husband after he died during the influenza epidemic that struck this country after the First World War.  Mrs. Blust was the business brains behind the success of the funeral home and furniture store.  Mrs. Blust was the rock solid manager of all aspects of the Blust Bros. little empire, and in truth her husband and her brother-in-law did what she told them to do.

Because of this history, I never once thought that having women in funeral service was odd or strange. Mrs. Blust went on as many ambulance calls as anybody did, and she was very strong physically.  I have tossed this tidbit in for the ancient reader who is still addicted to the ridiculous idea that “a woman can’t lift.”  In my career I have worked with a few men who couldn’t or wouldn’t lift, and I have to confess that I can’t lift the way I once did – so there.

Writing on such a topic is always risky.  The risk stems from the fact that topics such as this can easily be edging close to sexism or of being politically incorrect.  However since the Funeral Divas organization has caught this old undertaker's attention, I will take that risk.

Several weeks ago I was honored by being asked to be the commencement speaker at the graduation ceremony for the old standby Worsham College of Mortuary Science in Chicago.  I have always liked Karl and Stephanie Kann (they head up Worsham’s), and it was mighty cordial of them to ask me to speak.  The evening was successful, I believe, but what caught my attention, but did not surprise me, was the impressive number of female graduates.  I was impressed, and my heart was warmed, but I was not surprised, for some years back I saw an increase jumping in the number of mortuary science students who were women, and I thought to myself at that time, “In a short order women will be the major employment force in our line of work.”  In other words, women will become and are now clearly starting to become the managers, the owners and part of a central core of the entire funeral service workforce.

As I watched woman after woman march up to get their degree at Worsham’s, I remembered when I graduated from the New England Institute that we had about 170 graduates in our class, and there was only one, yes you read right, just one woman in the class. Her husband, who owned the funeral home, had dropped dead and she needed a license for business purposes.

While I advocate attempts to find unity within our diversity and criticize the fracturing of our profession into so many splitting groups by having so many associations, I can absolutely, and with great sympathy understand why women feel the need to get their own arena, their own territory, their own venue.  I understand it because during my career in education, I observed the abuse of many female students who were put through the wringer trying to just find an apprenticeship, let alone full time, permanent employment.  There is no need to rehash those difficult experiences, because they are fading away, and hopefully someday will be eliminated because of what I saw happen in Chicago at the Worsham’s graduation: woman after woman getting her diploma.

I believe this issue goes much further that mere employment statistics, standards and opportunities.  Every profession has its sexists, every profession has its egomaniacs, every profession has its fair share of biased and prejudiced people, and every profession has its share of incompetents, bigots and mean spirited people.  I would like to explore something much deeper than the mere fragile human condition concerning funeral service.

In my travels I have seen what I am about to say abundantly clear, and I do not need any survey or study to confirm these observations.  In its very foundational nature, funeral service is more feminine in substance and identity than it is masculine, and I am NOT referring to the traditional ancient idea as feminine being exclusively pertaining to women, and masculine being exclusively male.  I am referring to the very core nature of funeral service in the thinking of Dr. Carl Jung, the great founder of the school of analytical psychology.

Jung spoke of the anima and the animus.  He proposed, with great success, that these are two primary anthropomorphic archetypes of the unconscious mind.  The anima and animus are described by Jung as elements of his theory of the collective unconscious, which is a domain of the unconscious that transcends one’s personal psyche.  Rituals (funerals) and death are part of the collective unconscious simply because they happen to everybody on the face of the earth.  Dr. Jung maintained that in the unconscious of the male this finds expression as a feminine inner personality – the anima, which all men possess to a greater or lesser degree. Equivalently, in the unconscious of the female it is expressed as a masculine inner personality – the animus, which all females possess to a greater or lesser degree.

In other words, the basic substance of funeral service, the basic work required in funeral service, is clearly an expression of the anima – the feminine.  Not male or female in the traditional understanding, but instead just a human being, male or female, who can connect with the feminine in their being.  The archetypal feminine does not have to be female, it is anybody who can connect to their feminine characteristics such as listening and being nurturing, caring, sympathetic, gentle, understanding and accepting of others.  I have observed that the most successful men in funeral service are the men who possess these Jungian feminine anima inner being capacities.

Socialization plays a tremendous part in how we end up.  Women are many times socialized to develop this type of Jungian anima, b many time men are not socialized in this manner.  Many times, not always, but many time in our culture male sensitivity is often repressed or ridiculed or worse actually punished for being soft.  Remember the school yard lesson – socially few boys wanted to be called the “sissy.”

I have seen in funeral homes regardless of what labels were given to any of us in the schoolyard that grieving people respond most quickly and effectively with the human being, male or female, who possesses the Jungian concept of the anima – the archetypal feminine which I described above.

Grieving people, in their raw, vulnerable need, respond to any (licensed or not) human being who can naturally be nurturing, caring, sympathetic, gentle, understanding and accepting – can express the Jungian feminine.

I have tried to connect with the anima in my person.  This has not been easy, simply because I was raised socially in a rural agricultural environment which rewarded strong masculine (being in control of everything, never making a mistake, and never ever being wrong) behavior and punished what was considered weak masculine behavior, being the schoolyard “sissy” (caring, gentleness, listening, etc).

However, when I remember Mrs. Blust I can easily connect to the power and authentic connection of the anima, of the feminine in funeral service.  Clearly Mrs. Blust possessed this. Her husband and her brother-in-law had it, but they did not develop this in themselves. Looking back, the truth is that our grieving people in the village of Avoca, Iowa, turned to Mrs. Blust as their guide through their personal valley of the shadow of death.  Mrs. Blust’s husband and brother-in-law did the physical hard work – that is how they were socialized, while Mrs. Blust did the nurturing, and it worked very well.

I personally believe this is why women are doing so well in our great profession.

I also suspect that if Mrs. Hattie Blust was alive today, she just might become a member of the Funeral Divas.

Anyway this is one old undertaker’s opinion. TVB

Thank you

Mr. Van Beck,

You are correct in that women have faced some discriminative- scratch that, okay- “sexist” obstacles initially in funeral service. However, I believe, as you do, that those obstacles have been fought in all areas of business. As men were not raised to be “sensitive” and women were not brought up to be “businessmen”. Woman do have obstacles that remain in our social stratification as a whole. Yet it pains me to see such carefully regarded words from you as to not offend or bring on the torches. If there was an organization in a field formerly dominated by women called the Secretarial Studs or the Nursing Amigos, I’d say it would be hard for me to take the organization seriously. For that I applaud you. At the same time, if it was a professional field in which both genders were prevalent and there was an organization within called the Dental Huslas (“Husla” or ‘Hustler” being an equivalent to the contemporary slang to a diva) we’d all be crying for the sake of the profession.

We cannot forget that it was men that started and carried this field into what it is today. Yes, women were the nurturers through out history. We also bathed and “layed out” the dead of our families. We embrace our roles as the sensitive ones and perhaps it is the anima that allowed/allows us to comfort the families we serve. But men were the ones that probably lifted the body to its reposition. They ultimately picked up and “lifted” those dead with dignity and brought our society the service available today. It is the animus that allows us to boldly direct the dignified ceremonial importance and to carry out a formal procession. It is, after all, the directing that most of us aspire to do and outstanding service only exists if there is direction- the thwarting of chaos and dignified asylum. True funeral service requires both of these polar elements. I believe it is the balance of our anima and animus that will allow us to provide this important service as equals.

I too, hope women find their place in funeral service. Some have found it and some are only just beginning like me. I am keeping a watchful eye on these organizations, the articles about them and the way we are perceived by the media and public. I hope that ultimately we can put aside the real or perceived threat of sexism or discrimination and come together to set clear professional standards for ourselves- and for the field. One thing is certain, we cannot deny that most of these standards can be found from our forefathers (male reference intended). You, Mr. Van Beck, have been a profound influence on me no matter your reproductive anatomy and I am forever grateful for your writing.

Susan Perry

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Yeah mate I agree with you