Death Becomes Her
“Why?” is the obvious question: dead bodies of all ages (arriving daily), grieving families, being surrounded by sadness and despair, not to mention dealing with the more unseemly but necessary “physical” aspects of the job. As a family business—sure, that makes sense—family pressure can go a long way, and there is no shortage of customers, with most funeral homes thriving businesses.
Death comes knockin’ on everybody’s door eventually. But still, a funeral director? Who freely chooses this career?
Emily Swartz doesn’t see it that way. Quick to smile, young, petite, pretty, with jet black pin-straight hair, blunt bangs and shocking pink lipstick, she just doesn’t fit the mold of your typical funeral director. Mostly because she’s a woman, and up until the last decade or so, she was a rarity. According to New York State Funeral Directors Association, less than 40 years ago only 5 percent of U.S. funeral directors were women, and today that percentage hovers at 43 percent. In 1995, 35 percent of all students in mortuary school were women; now that number is around 60 percent.
This makes Emily a trailblazer of sorts.
Has she had any disparaging comments from men who weren’t so comfortable with a woman succeeding in this male-dominated field?
“Sure, when I was tearing up at a service we were having for a five-year-old, one man took me aside and whispered that if I “couldn’t handle it maybe a man could take over for me.” But those instances are rare.
“I get to help families get through a very difficult time,” is how Emily respectfully describes her job. That is putting it lightly. There are endless details involved in planning a funeral service—I like to think of it as a kind of three-day-long “death pageant,” complete with a creepy cocktail party that culminates with the guest of honor (dead quiet in the casket in the corner of the room, but still being “greeted” by guests) being buried.
When I met with Emily at Jobe Funeral Home in Monroeville, I was expecting her to be a bit somber and serious, but she was neither. And surprisingly enough, aside from the pall of death blanketing the building, it seemed a pretty fun place to work.
About halfway through our visit, a family brought in some detailed dioramas and homemade dolls created by their recently deceased grandma. Emily scurried around the room, setting up the fragile displays with care and making sure every detail was right, patiently going over the final timeline and arrangements with the teary-eyed family members.
The strangest part of the tour was “Casket Row.” Quite the selection, and ranging in cost from the 20-Gauge Steel Spectra Black with Crepe lining—a steal at $1,995.00—to the 48-Ounce Promethean Bronze with Velvet lining at a mind-boggling $58,000.00, or as Emily calls it, “The Michael Jackson Special.” But how to show samples to customers? A small hallway on the second floor of the funeral home has a ton of “trial-size” caskets that jut out of the wall, the perfect size for viewing the different colors, finishes, and accents. It just made me giggle—all those teeny little quarter-sized caskets lined up. I told Emily maybe a few could have a little motion-sensor like at “Spirit Halloween” stores—you walk by and BANG! Cue the crazy music, the spring-loaded mini casket lid pops open and a tiny little mannequin corpse sits up. It would put the “fun” in “funeral.” Emily was skeptical.
Our tour complete, I asked Emily if she always had aspirations of being a funeral director. Not by a long shot.
On September 11, 2001, Emily was 16, living in New York City and attending the School of American Ballet, the feeding school for the prestigious New York City Ballet. From her dorm room, she witnessed both Twin Towers collapse into a pile of rubble and decided she wanted a change. Leaving the “family “business” was the first step, as her older brother and sister were both graduates of SAB and members of the New York City Ballet.
Back home in Carlisle, while deciding her future, she bussed tables at Rillo’s Restaurant, coincidentally the site of the monthly meetings of The Cumberland County Funeral Directors. Fascinated, she made a point to linger. After landing a job as a secretary at Neill Funeral Home in Harrisburg, Emily learned the mortuary business first-hand, and found her calling.
The next logical step for a funeral director is a degree in Mortuary Science, so on to Pittsburgh to attend The Pittsburgh Institute of Mortuary Science (PIMS). Chemistry (“different chemicals for different embalming needs” is how Emily eloquently phrased it) and Psychology (especially grief counseling) a large part of the course-work.
But it wasn’t all work at the PIMS. In between all the classes and lab work, she met and fell in love with her future husband Mike, also a student. They got their Funeral Director’s licenses in 2010, got married in 2011, and began working together at Jefferson Memorial Funeral Home in Pleasant Hills. After a few moves to a few funeral homes around Pittsburgh, she has landed at Jobe’s.
She doesn’t deny it’s a difficult, stressful vocation, with high turnover, and it can be hard to not take the job home with you. But it’s very rewarding, and having a spouse in the business makes it easier.
I had to ask her—does she tell people what she does for a living? Not always. And yes, she has heard all the nicknames—Morticia Addams is a common one—and people still make the same worn-out jokes and assume she has an obsession with death. “If anything,” states Emily, “this job makes you appreciate life.”
“Plus, people are dying to be your customers,” I tell her.
Emily sighs and gives me a look. “Oh, that’s a new one…”