Women In Funeral Industry Stress Caring
By SHARON SCHLEGEL
Toni Gruerio compares her work to that of a painter, first carefully planning, then adding each detail to the canvas until a complete work has been finished.
Toni Gruerio is an undertaker. The goal of her creation is a perfect funeral.
Since her father's death in 1977, she has owned and operated Gruerio Funeral Home
in Trenton's Chambersburg area, which he founded in 1929, a profession she sees more as a calling than as a job.
"You don't learn it: you either have the gift or you don't," she says.
Gruerio oversees every aspect of 100 funerals a year, from casket selection and embalming to reconstructive cosmetic art, viewing and interment.
While she believes women may have an easier time dealing with emotions than men, she doesn't think success in her business is necessarily
"What matters is that you are a person with compassion and love for people, and that you're not afraid to show it," she says.
According to the National Funeral Directors Association, an industry organization whose current membership is only 5 percent female the change will show in the next decade, when the 25 percent of today's mortuary school classes which are female move out into the business and make their mark, a percentage almost four times greater than it was 20 years ago, and still growing.
At Mercer County Community College, coordinator Robert Smith himself a mortician in Gloucester County, helped design in 1975 what remains the only curriculum in the state for studying mortuary science.
A THREE-YEAR PROGRAM, it includes classes in chemistry, anatomy, cosmetic and restorative art, embalming, public health, business management, and social sciences, including psychology, religious and ethnic customs, and a history of the field.
Today, he says, women account for 35 percent of his 31 full-time and 50 part-time night school students.
He finds nothing surprising about a growing number of women entering the field.
"The biggest misconception is that people assume it's all about the disposal of a human being. It's really a people business." Smith stresses.
"Dealing with the living is the majority of our work and an ability to communicate, and to recognize and deal with issues of grief is essential. I stress the importance of sensitivity to such things as an appropriate vocabulary, and an understanding of differing religious customs."
Smith sees the influx of women into the business as typical of their inroads into every profession these days. What is more newsworthy, he says, is that when he started teaching, 70 percent of women entered because it was a family business, owned or passed on by a husband or father.
Now, he points out, that statistic is actually reversed and only 30 percent of his women students have a family connection.
Undertaking was the family business while Toni Gruerio was growing up. When she eventually decided to enter the field in the 1960's, she was the only female student at the now-defunct Eckel's College of Mortuary Science in Philadelphia, a huge change from her all-female classes at Villa Victoria
"IT WAS TERRIBLE. I was teased in class all the time, and outside, some people even looked at it as abnormal."
A divorcee, whose son Jude, 30, is now her right hand in the business, Gruerio says some men she has dated had difficulty understanding her job, which she says must come first.
"For me, it's a 24-hour, 7-day-week commitment," explains Gruerio.
EACH WOMAN, of course, brings something of herself to work. At Gruerio's, where Toni Gruerio had to go into deep debt to rebuild, after a disastrous fire shortly after she took over, she chose to eschew the dreary image of what a funeral home should be when she personally refurbished it.
The mirrored walls, iridescent silver wallpaper, dozens of bulb-lit entryway artificial flowers, and imposing crystal chandelier, in her office reflect her personal sense of style, as does the prominent rhinestone pin she had made to order and often wears with the one word, "Gruerio" on it.