Funeral business no longer all-male preserve

Posted: Sunday, March 26, 2000

An Alaska AP Member Exchange

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Daubing her cosmetic brush vigorously into a palette of thick colors, Jessica Walker applied them to the face of her subject -- a man whose thin, sunken face told of the toll taken by pain, infirmity and, finally, death.

At times lightly resting an elbow on the man's chest, Walker applied layer after layer of makeup. Her touch faded dark bruises around eyes, returned color to cheeks and lips.

Applying cosmetics was once one of the few funeral home tasks considered appropriate for a woman. But, like a growing number of women entering the funeral business, Walker does more than makeup.

As an apprentice funeral director and embalmer, she is among those who have breached the inner sanctum universally known in funeral parlance as ''the back room,'' where embalming occurs and which has long been considered male territory.

The state has 46 licensed funeral directors and 48 licensed embalmers. Eight of these are women. Of these eight, most are licensed in funeral directing, not embalming. But that may soon change.

Walker, 23, is among two female apprentices in the past year who have held permits here in both funeral directing and embalming, said state licensing examiner P.J. Gingras. A third woman has a pending application.

''Women belong in all rooms of a funeral parlor,'' said Walker's boss, Scott Janssen, president and general manager at Evergreen Memorial Chapels, who is directly supervising Walker throughout her apprentice year.

Having a female embalmer, said Janssen, ''gives us a well-rounded family at the funeral home,'' he said. ''The back room isn't just an area where the guys hang out.''

Traditionally, those rare women who ended up in the funeral industry got there by default.

Kodiak resident Mildred Muller, 82, who holds Alaska embalming license No. 6, said she never had a particular calling to enter the funerary field. She only obtained her license to carry on her husband's business after he died.

At the time, his was the only funeral home in Kodiak, she said.

Another who helped pave the way for women like Walker was Hillside resident Geraldine Lockhart Pechin, who learned the trade as a teen in the 1950s. When she entered the field, said Pechin, she was one of five female embalmers in California.

Back in her day, recalls Pechin, harassment from men was part of the job.

''It was a fight all the way with the men,'' she said. In her early days working in San Francisco, Pechin and the two other women in her union were paid a bit more than half of what the men were paid. The women objected, she said, but not too loudly. ''At the time, we were (just) happy to have our jobs and all.''

Other bias showed itself in the form of practical jokes and other behavior. Pechin doesn't divulge details, except to say jokes were played, passes made and things happened that today would provoke lawsuits.

''It definitely was a man's world,'' she said.

By the time Walker got to the San Francisco College of Mortuary Science, the same school Pechin had attended, instructors were still warning female students of job bias. But Walker said she saw no evidence of it.

Her North Pole High School friends probably couldn't have guessed she'd go into mortuary science, said Walker, though she's ''always kind of wanted to do something different.'' Specifically, she entered the field because she enjoys chemistry; as an embalmer, she works with chemicals daily.

Of course, the chemistry involved in this work is more than most people could handle. In general, it involves understanding some delicacies of what happens to bodies after death, then learning to deal with these often unsightly conditions using chemicals designed to sanitize, preserve and restore the appearance of ''the remains.''

A person who dies of kidney failure, for example, might end up with swollen hips and legs from retained fluids. One of the chemicals at the embalmer's disposal can help reduce the swelling. Others help restore lifelike color.

The increasing involvement of women in the chemical-filled back rooms has caused the industry to raise new concerns about the health of female embalmers.

A December article in the trade journal Funeral Monitor, for example, focused on the possible hazards of formaldehyde exposure for women of childbearing age.

Embalmers also run the risk of being exposed to infectious diseases. But Walker says she doesn't focus on the dangers. Working in Evergreen's well-ventilated lab, she takes the same precautions as any embalmer, covering herself first from head to foot in special protective gear designed to protect her from both bodily fluids and noxious chemicals.

Her main concern, she said, is ''to see that the family is satisfied with the way that their loved one appears.''

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