(This article was originally published in the January 2012 issue of ICCFA Magazine by ASD Staff Writer Jessica Fowler)
For better or worse: Being a funeral director's spouse is...different
Their calendars are marked with notes and Xs labeling all the plans they have had to reschedule. They dread the sound of a ringing telephone. Their DVD players always contain a movie paused in the middle. This life is not for everyone. Yet, for the thousands of people who married into the funeral home business, it is the only life they know.
Funeral directors play a key role in how society honors life and ritualizes death. They must remain available to families 24/7. They must dress formally and maintain a composed demeanor anytime they leave home. They must be both sensitive and fastidious; a steady hand in public and a shoulder to cry on behind closed doors.
But behind these hardworking and empathetic professionals are the often overlooked wives and husbands who provide the support, reassurance and understanding to help their spouses serve families from their community.
In many cases, funeral directors grew up in the business or went directly to mortuary school after high school, so their spouses theoretically knew what they were signing up for—though “knowing” and “experiencing” can be two different things.
And these days, more people are entering the funeral service as a second career, and their spouses may find the transition overwhelming at first.
Marrying into the funeral profession
Margaret Fox never intended to become a funeral director, but falling in love can change even the best-laid plans. Fox’s life took a series of unpredictable turns that eventually led to her meeting and marrying Funeral Director George Fox of Fox Funeral Home in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
When Fox’s husband passed away many years later, she received a widow’s funeral license that allowed her to keep the firm in the Fox family and remain connected to the families in the neighborhood with whom she had built strong personal relationships.
“Becoming a funeral director was never something that was ever really on the scope for me. I didn’t pick it myself,” Fox said. “It picked me.”
Though Fox never planned to become a funeral director, she now cannot imagine doing anything else. She credits her love of people and the guidance passed on to her from her late husband. Fox remembered her husband cautioning her before they were married about the daily sacrifices a funeral director's wife would have to make.
“He told me my life was not going to be the way it was, that there were going to be social occasions I would have to go to by myself or plans that would need to be cancelled,” Fox said. “You have to be able to go with the flow and know that when that cell phone goes off you have to respond. People who have families that are rooted in this industry don’t think twice about it—it just becomes second nature.”
Remaining available and connected to a telephone 24/7 can be a strain for any person, but is especially difficult when you’re also a parent. Fox recalls heading down the shore once with her two children for an Easter holiday, only to be forced turn back around so her husband could respond to a first call.
“There is a flexibility to this business where you can run out and do errands, but you can’t simply take off—you have to have back up,” Fox said.
Fox’s story echoes the experiences of other wives that became an integral part of their spouses’ firm after unexpectedly marrying into the funeral home business.
For more than 18 years, Ronnette McCarthy has assisted her husband, Daniel McCarthy, with the day-to-day responsibilities at Heritage Cremations in Chicago. In addition to raising their two children and helping with the firm, McCarthy also works as an attorney.
Like Fox, McCarthy believes that attitude is everything, and without the right one the demands of the business can overtake even the most devoted spouses.
“It’s really important to appreciate and understand the necessity of funeral directors and the impact they have on families, because if you don’t appreciate what they do it would always feel like an intrusion in your life,” McCarthy said. “Both of us becoming one with the business was very important to me.”
In order to set time aside for leisure, many funeral families now rely on answering services on the evenings and weekends to screen their calls and contact them only for urgent messages. This ensures that the business needs are never ignored without sacrificing time with the family.
“As tied as we are to the telephone and other families, there is also a lot of freedom you wouldn't normally have in a typical 9-5 job,” McCarthy said. “Technology has also improved our lives a great deal. Our answering service can send a text message while a first call is in progress, so we stay connected even when we're at family functions or events.”
McCarthy feels fortunate to be able to work side-by-side with her husband every day, both in order to have a better understanding of the pressure he faces and to decrease the amount of time he has to spend away from home.
One's a funeral director, one's not
For some families, working together at the funeral home is not in the cards. In the past, independent funeral homes were often managed by the family, together. As dual-income funeral families have become the norm, more spouses are working full-time outside of the funeral profession.
As the wife of a funeral director and mother of two, Katy Prange has climbed numerous professional hurdles to find a job and schedule that aligns with her husband’s responsibilities at an independent funeral home in Wisconsin.
After being forced to leave a position at a large corporation due to a travel requirement, Prange eventually found a full-time job at the Wisconsin State Legislature’s Office that offered her the flexibility she needed.
“This can really impact how we see our life in relation to the business,” Prange said. “We have our own schedules, commitments and aspirations that are unrelated to the success of the funeral home; therefore the sacrifices we make are a little more obvious to us.”
Prange relies on her faith, dependable daycare, and encouragement from others in her situation for support. However, connecting with those who can relate to her lifestyle is a challenge. While funeral home spouses share many of the burdens of their partners, they are rarely acknowledged within the industry for the crucial role they play in the funeral home’s daily operations.
The lack of support groups, organizations or resources for funeral families led Prange to team up with her friend Erika Block (whose husband is also an independent funeral director in Wisconsin) to create Life With a Funeral Director—an online WordPress blog and Facebook community for anyone with a funeral director in their immediate life.
Launched in April 2011, Life with a Funeral Director provides an outlet for those with a common lifestyle to share their experiences, discuss issues and offer guidance to others. Prange had been mulling over the idea for years. Before marrying her husband, she remembers searching online for a way to connect with others who could paint a picture of what she could expect. Instead, Prange found a single, negatively written article and little other information.
Since launching the site less than a year ago, Prange and Block have received an outpouring from wives and family members who have connected with what they are writing about.
“We have been experiencing a steady growth despite minimal promotional efforts. As a marketing professional, this shows me that there are people out there literally searching for what we are offering,” says Block. “It is my hope that the blog and Facebook group will continue to grow and evolve into a family of informational products and services to further support our audience.”
While dual income funeral families have increased, it is still uncommon to find a female director whose husband works outside of the profession. For Steve Adams, adapting to his wife’s schedule at an independent funeral home in Minnesota was made easier by his own irregular schedule as a nurse. Still, her mid-life transition into the funeral business was not without its share of adjustments.
“There were times when she’d have to leave a family function much earlier and I would end up having to catch a ride back with someone,” Adams says. “I really didn’t have a chance to talk to other husbands in my situation. There really is no opportunity to get together. I think if there was, it would have been a big help for my kids when they were first getting used to her working as a director.”
Prange and Block are hoping Life With A Funeral Director will help to change that by facilitating communication between funeral families. For Prange, trying to reach out to other wives in her local area is not an option because she can’t share her personal thoughts with the spouse of her husband’s competitor.
While conventions and seminars bring together funeral professionals from across the country, Prange and Block are rarely able to attend due to their own work schedules. Even if they could attend, these events do little to capitalize on an opportunity to bring together the family members of funeral directors.
“I have gone to continuing education classes and one of the things I noticed was there are no classes or training for the many spouses who attend,” says McCarthy, who has attended funeral seminars in both Florida and Nevada. “There is no outlet for them to meet or speak to each other.”
Until the rest of the profession catches up, Life with a Funeral Director is doing a fine job bringing to light some of the unique situations that their members confront on a daily basis. The blog tackles issues from time management to raising children to handling the perceptions of others outside the industry.
Milestone events often a challenge
When it comes to holidays, anniversaries and milestone events, never has the phrase ‘until death do us part’ had a more literal meaning then for the wives and husbands of funeral professionals. There is no way to forecast how the next week or even next few hours will play out, and planning around the worst day in someone’s life is impossible.
In a blog entry for Life with a Funeral Director, Prange expresses her feelings after her husband is detained at work later than expected, nearly missing their daughter’s 7th birthday party. The post describes how important it is for family members of funeral directors to carefully choose their reactions and fight off feelings of resentment, self-pity or sadness.
“What [my husband] does is extremely important to those that he serves, and helping him serve them with peace and calm, means that I am serving them too,” Prange explains. “If he was annoyed or frustrated with them – because of the response he was getting from home – it would be my fault if the business, or another person, suffered as a result.”
For funeral families, walking that thin tightrope between personal and professional can be especially tricky. Soon after their son began walking and talking, McCarthy recalls noticing him pretending to use a cell phone, immediately alerting her and her husband that the lines between work and home were becoming too blurred. They decided to handle all future phone calls away from their children to set the example of separating their personal and professional lives.
To help maintain this balance, the McCarthys established a family rule that their dinnertime would be free of any and all interruptions, ensuring a stable routine despite their hectic schedules.
From an early age, children begin to wonder more about the world around them and question their surroundings. For parents in the funeral industry, deciding the correct approach to explain death and what they do on the job can be a daunting task.
Though they don’t take business-related calls in front of their children, McCarthy believes that it is essential for funeral families to remain open and honest with their children about their own mortality and the significance of funeral services.
“For us, it was easier than trying to shield him from it because we felt that it would give him a better understanding of what we do and death in general. It is apart of our lives so we needed it to be apart of his too,” McCarthy says. “We tell him all the time that’s why you have to live everyday to the fullest and tell everyone around you that you love them often.”
In Life with a Funeral Director, Prange confronts this same issue, describing a conversation she had with her daughters after they saw a woman lying in state at the funeral chapel. Instead of urging them to leave the room, she calmly and plainly answered her daughters’ questions about who the woman was, the nature of her death, and the importance of honoring her life with a funeral ceremony.
In the blog entry, Prange writes: “I’m glad I didn’t have the chance to make a big deal of it, or forbid them from going into that room, because I probably would have created a reaction, contrary to the one we ended up with. I’ve learned that a calm, honest approach to big-deal issues works with my kids.”
Perhaps one of the most frustrating aspects of having a funeral director in your immediate life is the assumptions made by people outside the industry. In many ways, spouses have to take on the role of a public relations manager, fielding every “I was just wondering…” inquiry so that his or her spouse won’t have to.
While Prange and Block have answered their fair share of inappropriate questions, they hope that establishing a line of dialogue for those who are related to funeral professionals will play a role in educating the public.
“I’m amazed by some of the feedback I’ve gotten from my family and friends. It has really given them a look into my life,” Prange says. “I hope someday that Life with a Funeral Director will lead us toward opportunities to share our experience with a broader audience and be a resource to help others cope and plan for their futures.”