- James Buck
- From left: Keagan Livingston, Rachel Currier and Em Pariseau at LaVigne Funeral Home
Assistant funeral director Rachel Currier usually meets her clients for the first time right after a family member or friend has died, so she gets a variety of reactions when she arrives to pick up the deceased. Some people are in shock. Others are in tears. Still others ask what they can do to help.
And, more than once, a client has looked at Currier and said, "You've got to be kidding me!"
"It takes a while for some people to get used to the idea that, yeah, women do this [work], too," she said.
In fact, Currier, who is 25, represents the new face of the funeral industry. As Vermont's 62 funeral parlors confront chronic staff shortages, shrinking profit margins and an aging workforce, they have responded by recruiting a new, more diverse generation of workers. The image of the mortician as a dour older man in a dark suit who took over the family funeral parlor from his father no longer applies. Today, it's increasingly likely that a funeral director will be a young, college-educated woman with no previous family involvement in the business.
At LaVigne Funeral Home in Winooski, where she has apprenticed since 2020, Currier works with assistant funeral director Keagan Livingston, 28, who holds an associate's degree in mortuary science. Of the five funeral directors and apprentices at LaVigne, owner and funeral director Jim Kennedy is the only man.
Kennedy has worked in funeral homes since 2003 and now owns nine of them. In all but one case, he was the first nonfamily member to own and operate the home. He believes this transition to newcomers in the field is a positive development.
"We all chose to be in this profession rather than inheriting it," he said. "Having a lot of younger people coming in has invigorated this entire industry to grow and focus more on family care and new technology."
The recent influx of young people was made possible, in part, by a new and more affordable path to state licensure. Currier herself completed a new Community College of Vermont program in the spring to become a licensed funeral director and is awaiting her credentials from the Vermont Secretary of State's Office of Professional Regulation.
Vermont doesn't publish demographic data on the entire funeral industry workforce. But, according to the Office of Professional Regulation, of the state's 123 licensed funeral directors, only 26 are women; of the 68 licensed embalmers, only 11 are women.
More revealing are the number of people training for the profession. Of the 23 funeral director apprentices currently registered with the state, 12 are women.
Those figures reflect a nationwide trend. In 1995, only 35 percent of mortuary students were women. This year, it's 79 percent, according to the National Funeral Directors Association. Daniel Shea, the funeral service program coordinator at Cape Cod Community College — the Barnstable, Mass., school that helps train Vermont students in embalming — said 97 percent of his students are women.
Adam Goss, 33, owns Goss Funeral Services in Swanton and Enosburg Falls and is president of the Vermont Funeral Directors Association. He welcomes the new faces in his business. When he entered the profession in his twenties, he said, "I was always the baby in the room. Now, we're starting to see young people enter that room, which is awesome."
Finding a Calling
To understand why someone in their twenties would pursue a career that involves daily contact with tragedy, sadness and death, it helps to know more about the profession.
A funeral director, aka a mortician or undertaker, is usually the person who transports, prepares and arranges the body for its final disposition. The skills required include event planning, grief counseling and cosmetology, the last of which is for reconstructing and making the body presentable after a violent death.
Typically, the funeral director obtains the necessary legal paperwork, such as a death certificate and burial permit, then works with the bereaved family to make funeral arrangements, including selling them a casket or urn, arranging an obituary, and transporting the body for burial or cremation. Some funeral homes have their own crematories, and many employ an embalmer, who prepares and preserves the body chemically to slow its decomposition and to allow more time for viewings. In Vermont, it's legal for the next of kin to perform all those duties themselves, except the optional embalming.
Currier's first exposure to the profession came when she was 8, when her mother handled all the end-of-life care for her grandparents, who died within a year of each other. Later, her mother worked part time in a Barre funeral home. Even as a child, Currier said, the idea of working with the dead, and their survivors, intrigued her. It still does.
"Our first contact with the family is often ... after one of the worst days of their lives has started. So you're very quickly getting to know the family," she explained. "All of a sudden, you have a place and purpose that's really meaningful."
Her coworker Livingston also learned about the funeral industry when she was in elementary school. Though no one in her family had ever worked in the business, she met a funeral director in her hometown. When the woman explained the job, Livingston tailored her studies to enter the profession, which she now describes as a "calling."
"When I was in other careers, they just didn't feel right," Livingston said. "Now that I'm in it, I'm absolutely loving it."
What's to love about such heart-wrenching work?
"I find it very rewarding to help a family go through the grieving process and to help them find closure," she added. "When a family comes up at the end of a service and tells me that everything was beautiful and they felt relieved, that makes me feel good."
As Currier noted, being a first-generation mortician frees her from many of the expectations and obligations about how things are "supposed to be done." If she were taking over the business from, say, her father who had always done funeral services the same way year after year, she said, it would be difficult to drop outdated practices and introduce new ones.
For instance, Currier said, it's far less common today for funeral services to last several days, with multiple calling hours, followed by a religious service and burial on another day. Instead, people now tend toward simpler funerals, perhaps followed by a celebration of life one year later. During the pandemic, funeral homes learned to conduct services virtually.
Looking for a more intimate connection with the ritual, some families ask whether they can help prepare the body.
"Caring for your dead used to [happen] in your own parlor instead of a funeral parlor. Family members washed the dead," Currier said. "We call it 'nontraditional' funeral care, but it's actually more traditional than what we normally do."
Currier assisted one family she called "back-to-the-earth types" who wanted a home funeral. One relative rode with Currier to the medical examiner's office to transport the body. Family and friends all participated in washing the deceased, dressing her and braiding flowers into her hair before traveling together to the crematory. Currier pitched in when asked but mostly stayed back and allowed the family to do their thing.
"They were there for every step of the process, which was really special," she added. "Any of us [at LaVigne's] would be more than happy to oblige, whereas the more old-school funeral director might tense up at even the prospect of inviting a family behind the curtain, so to speak."
A Path to a Profession
- Goss Funeral Services staff
Currier is just one soon-to-be-licensed funeral director who entered Vermont's funeral industry through Community College of Vermont's funeral director and embalmer certificate program. CCV launched the program in the fall of 2019 to address the needs of funeral homes, many of which struggle to find new employees, especially in rural areas.
In 2020, Chris Palermo retired as funeral director at Perkins-Parker Funeral Home in Waterbury; he's also a former president of the Vermont Funeral Directors Association. A fourth-generation mortician, Palermo was instrumental in creating CCV's alternative path to licensure.
Before 2019, anyone who wanted to become a licensed funeral director or embalmer had to leave the state, because no Vermont colleges offered a traditional degree in mortuary science. Typically, that meant attending a two- or four-year college, which can cost $30,000 or more per year, Palermo said.
When he led the state funeral directors' association, he added, his office received calls every week from funeral homes desperate to find staff. Because many of Vermont's morticians were at or nearing retirement age and had no family members interested in the profession, they needed to find and train new employees who could eventually take over the business.
If Vermont's electrical and plumbing trades can have their own apprenticeship programs, Palermo thought, "Why can't we do that for funeral homes, too?" So he lobbied the legislature to revise the laws and convinced the Office of Professional Regulation and the Vermont Board of Funeral Service to allow an alternative path to state licensure.
CCV's certificate program combines college-level coursework with hands-on training. At a cost of about $8,600, students can complete the program in two semesters, while simultaneously fulfilling their apprenticeship requirements as paid employees in local funeral homes.
"It essentially allows us to home-grow our own workforce," Palermo said.
Since 2019, 16 students have completed CCV's certificate program, and another 38 are currently enrolled — three-quarters of whom are women.
Why the plethora of young women? Mary Ann Boyd, a clinical social worker and CCV instructor, teaches a required course called "Death and Dying" to convey what she calls "the human side of the funeral industry." While wary of promoting sexist stereotypes, Boyd suggested that our culture seems better at preparing women for professions that require an ability to access their emotions and serve as caregivers.
Her course hones the skills students will need to work with bereaved families, including dealing with death by suicide, understanding cross-cultural rituals and practices, and processing near-death experiences. Students need to be empathetic, nonjudgmental and open-minded about alternative or unfamiliar beliefs.
Aptitude with these skills is particularly important in the funeral business, she said, where a cookie-cutter approach rarely serves the grieving family well. The funeral for an infant and mother who died during childbirth will be very different, she said, than one for the 95-year-old grandmother who died in her sleep after a long and fulfilling life.
"The grieving components need to be tailored around those different needs," Boyd added, "and women are often better at thinking outside the box."
Sometimes, an outside-the-box approach requires having a funeral director who's more attuned to the particular needs of the deceased and their community.
Em Pariseau, 29, of Canaan is an apprentice funeral director at LaVigne who recently completed the CCV program. Pariseau, who is nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns, explained that members of the LGBTQ community, particularly those who are transgender, may not give much forethought to how a funeral home will handle their loved ones.
For example, Pariseau said, a trans man who dies in his twenties may have relatives who didn't respect his gender identity but are in charge of his funeral arrangements. That could mean the deceased is buried in a dress rather than a suit, under a headstone that bears his deadname, the moniker given at birth. Similarly, obituaries written by family members may not accurately reflect the decedents' gender or use gender-appropriate photos.
"A lot of people, especially younger people, don't want to think about that," Pariseau added. "But for members of my community, it's incredibly important, because that happens way too often."
Regardless of a funeral director's gender, all young people entering the profession will face challenges. Vermont Funeral Directors Association president Goss explained that the state's funeral industry must find ways to make the profession more attractive, such as by accommodating parental schedules and providing a healthy work-life balance. Gone are the days when morticians lived in the funeral home and answered the phone at any time of day or night.
"We still have to provide coverage around the clock every day of the year. It's by far our biggest burden," Goss said. "But in order to get good people, you can't ask them to give half their life to being on call."
To address that need for his own staff — Goss has two licensed funeral home directors, both women, as well as a female apprentice — Goss bought a second funeral home, which increased h is revenue and spread the on-call duties across five employees.
Like all mom-and-pop businesses, Goss said, expenses are rising across the board, including payroll, supplies, and debt service on funeral homes and equipment. Goss noted that one of his funeral homes earned the same gross revenue in 2020 as it did in the 1970s.
"That might not sound bad," he said, "but in the 1970s, the profit margin was very high. Every family member was going into a casket."
Today, with more Vermonters choosing cremation than traditional burial, and with the expected rise of green options — including alkaline hydrolysis, aka liquid cremation, and natural organic reduction, aka human composting, which are both legal in Vermont — funeral homes must find new ways to cover their overhead.
But all the young people interviewed for this story seem unfazed, either by the financial challenges ahead or by the difficult nature of the work itself.
"There are really hard days, and those come fairly often in this line of work. But there are also a lot of really wonderful days," Currier said. "You can't grieve for a person or family. But you can be ... a lighthouse in the midst of a really dark time."