When facing a tragedy such as the loss of a loved one, the support and guidance provided by those coordinating the funeral services can play a key role for families who are grieving.
The daily grind of working in a funeral home is filled with unexpected phone calls, body retrievals, meeting with the deceased’s family members to make funeral arrangements, preparing bodies for services, writing obituaries, taking care of the business aspect of the funeral home and being available around the clock.
According to the National Funeral Directors Association, the funeral service has been traditionally dominated by men, but today more than 60 percent of mortuary science students in the United States are women. High Country funeral homes are now reflecting this nationwide trend.
Some of the women of the High Country have been in the funeral home business for decades, and others are just beginning their careers. But, at the heart of each of these women is a passion to help grieving families. This passion propels them through the daily grind of working in the mortuary business.
Women of the High Country
Margaret Lusk, a funeral director at Yancey Funeral Services in Burnsville, said the lack of monotony in her job is why she loves what she does.
“I guess the reason I love it so much is that it’s not actually the same thing every day,” Margaret says. “If you’re a life-long learner, this is the profession for you because (there are) so many different levels — the science level, the embalmment, the anatomy. You have the religious aspects of that, all the different types of religions. You have the psychology of that. You have the business part where you’re doing contracts … There’s just so many different levels.”
Margaret’s curiosity into the funeral industry began when she attended her aunt’s funeral at age 14. She wandered into the prep room and saw the tools used to prepare the deceased, and her interest was piqued. But time went by and Margaret got married, had two children and she worked in a factory for more than 16 years.
Employment in the funeral industry had always been on her heart, but as time passed she was not sure if she was capable of a career shift.
Then after her father passed away and she was at a funeral home, she had a conversation with the funeral director that shifted the course of her professional career. She began working part time at a funeral home and decided to get the schooling she needed for a career in the mortuary business. For the past 18 years, Margaret has cared for grieving families through working at different funeral homes. For the past nine years, she has served the Burnsville community while working at Yancey Funeral Services.
Autumn Huffman Elledge, an apprentice at Badger Funeral Home in West Jefferson, has just begun serving her community, but her interest to work in the funeral home industry began as a child when she would play “funeral” with her friends — such as in the instance if a neighborhood pet died. The passion for the field continued to grow after she completed an internship in high school at Badger Funeral Home. She then headed to college to learn business skills and complete mortuary school training, and now Autumn is an apprentice at Badger Funeral Home. In the coming months she will complete her embalming licensure.
Across town at Boone Family Funeral Home in West Jefferson, Linda Absher Holman has been serving the area for 26 years. She is the general manager, a funeral director and insurance licensee at the funeral home.
Linda describes her entrance into the funeral home industry as non-traditional. She was working in a finance office when she met with the owner of Boone Family Funeral Home. She was asked to do the books and assist with finances for the funeral home. After helping with the funeral home’s accounting matters, she obtained her insurance license, her funeral director license and went back to school to gain the needed certifications for a full-time career in the mortuary business.
She says she loves her job even with the hard work, long hours and dedication it requires. Linda adds that she’s developed deep relationships within her community, and feels a responsibility to be there for them in their time of need.
“I just love it because when I leave at the end of the day I feel like I made a difference for somebody,” Linda says.
Down in Avery County, Brandy Hampton, a funeral director and embalmer at Reins-Sturdivant Funeral Home in Newland, is also helping families who are hurting through some of their most difficult moments.
Brandy entered the mortuary business because of her husband, who was a funeral director at the time. She saw the gratification he received from helping grieving families, and she wanted to join him. Brandy then went to mortuary school and also received her embalming licensure.
After losing her husband in a motorcycle wreck last year, Brandy said she is able to use her grief to better serve the families who walk through the doors at Reins-Sturdivant Funeral Home. Additionally, she’s gone though the death of a parent, a sibling and her son.
“I think I have kind of seen just about every aspect of somebody that walks through my doors (dealing with) their loss,” Brandy says. “Not that everybody’s loss is the same, but I kind of have a general idea where they’re coming from.”
Carolyn Austin, president of Austin & Barnes Funeral Home in Boone, has been in the business for almost five decades. Carolyn said she and her husband Johnnie purchased a funeral home in 1975 and began operating it. Then in 1993, they changed the name to Austin & Barnes as it remains today.
Carolyn began working at the funeral home in the evenings after her day job of working as a secretary and bookkeeper at Hardin Park School. Now, Carolyn operates Austin & Barnes Funeral Home with her son Michael.
Carolyn said working in the funeral home business has been extremely gratifying.
“All I can say then is the funeral business, it’s the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done because it’s fantastic to know that you’ve helped somebody after they’ve lost a family member,” Carolyn says. “I just hope that I have brought a little encouragement to our hurting families.”
Passion for the Job
Ranging from less than a decade of experience to almost five decades, each of the High Country women have a deep passion to serve their community.
“It’s such a gratifying job, career,” Brandy says. “It is tough. You have to learn to put this wall up and separate your emotions from what the family is going through. But when a family comes back a couple weeks later, whether they’re picking up death certificates or if they’re picking up cremains, and they come up and say ‘we don’t know how we could have gotten through all this without you’ — that for me is what makes my day.
Brandy says she is most proud of the families she is still connected to years after she helped arrange their family member’s service.
“When they call me back or send me an email or just a message and let me know how they’re doing, that just makes my heart full; it really does,” Brandy says.
A deep sense of accomplishment is felt as these women play a vital role in the grieving process of families in their community.
Earning Their Place in the Industry
In a business filled with men in previous years, Autumn said some of her customers are taken by surprise when they see a woman arrive at their home. They’re surprised that a woman can handle the physical aspects of working in the mortuary business.
These women often have to transport the deceased or prepare graveside services in a variety of weather conditions.
Linda describes the skepticism she has faced as a woman in the business, especially in recent years in the High Country where the mortuary business was dominated by men. Yet, she believes women bring unique and needed gifts to the business.
“I’m gonna be honest with you because it was a man’s world up here,” Linda says. “But now … here you’re seeing more women get into the field. I honestly think they add that personal touch. It’s like wrapping a gift. My husband can wrap a gift, but I think I wrap better. The woman can add that personal touch, and I think that makes all the difference in the world.”
Margaret says she has noticed mothers and grandmothers feeling more comfortable to talk to a woman as they navigate the funeral process for their loved ones. Autumn adds that she has seen widowers sometimes prefer to speak with a woman at the funeral home as he decides arrangements for his late wife. Brandy believes some women’s ability to be able to sympathize outwardly with grieving families allows them to deeply connect with their customers.
Yet as women with responsibilities often involving the home and children on top of work, a career in the mortuary business comes with sacrifices.
“You are dedicated to your profession,” Linda says. “We do not know when death will occur. It could occur on Christmas, Thanksgiving, on your child’s birthday. It’s a lot of give and take.”
Linda’s hard work was rewarded in 2018 when she won runner-up for Funeral Director of the Year as awarded by American Funeral Director magazine. Yet, she said her biggest accomplishment is the staff she has around her at Boone Family Funeral Home.
“A woman has to be a little bit tough, but she can make it,” Linda says. “If I can, anybody can.”
Overcoming COVID-19 Challenges
COVID-19 has changed every aspect of life in recent months, and the funeral home industry is no different. Each of these women have had to adjust to meet safety requirements while still giving families a time to say goodbye to their loved ones who have passed away.
Masks, social distancing and hand sanitizing stations have become standard practice for funerals homes. Brandy says Reins-Sturdivant became creative during the pandemic and hosted drive-by visitations for families in which cars would line up and occupants would be able to give their condolences to the grieving family in a safe manner.
Linda expressed the challenge of not being able to physically comfort a grieving family through a hug or handshake during this time of COVID-19. Autumn says she and her coworkers at Badger Funeral Home have worked to make the necessary safety changes because “everyone needs that chance to have a service if they wish.”
Yet despite these unexpected challenges, the women of the High Country have shown why they belong in the mortuary business. They’ve made a name for themselves as they’ve provided high quality care to grieving families.
“It’s definitely changed because years ago, it was just a man’s world, but I think women (are) an asset to the funeral industry,” Linda said.