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A growing trend in the funeral profession

Stepping into the family business is one thing when it's a restaurant or bakery, but it's another thing altogether when it's a funeral home. Especially if you're a female - the funeral profession has been dominated by men for well over a century. But the tide has turned over the past decade as the number of women enrolled in many mortuary science programs often exceeds men.

Mackenzie Byles of Waterford, a 2010 graduate of Mount Ida College in Newton, Massachusetts with a degree in funeral home management, is part of a growing national trend of women entering the funeral services industry that is expected to change the face of the business.

Byles couldn't help but notice that her class was about 60 percent female, a sign of changing times.

It wasn't until high school, when it came time to choose a college and career path that Byles gave the mortuary sciences serious consideration. Her father, Donald W. Byles, is president of Byles-MacDougall Funeral Service, and growing up around the business made for an easy decision for Mackenzie to enter the funeral industry.

"In the end, my upbringing and the opportunity to join the family business made the decision a natural one," she said. "It's a diverse job that I'm comfortable with and I knew I'd have the encouragement and full support of my father."

Friends she grew up with who know her family don't think twice about her career choice. It's when she meets new people that she often gets a startled reaction when she tells them what she does for a living.

ďA lot of people don't expect that to be my profession, and most of the time that opens a door for a completely different conversation in which they want to know everything," Byles said.

With an acute awareness of the importance of compassion in funeral planning, Byles makes sure those who have experienced the loss of a loved one are gently helped through the difficult process.

"Some families come in and they have no clue which way to turn. I want them to leave the arrangements meeting feeling as good as one can feel, given the circumstances. They get taken care of as if we lost one of our own," she said.

Byles brings confidence and a positive energy to the job, along with an ability to work well with people, all important attributes in her line of work. She is 24, and well poised to follow in her father's footsteps, but is not overly concerned about the distinction of being the fourth generation of her family to join Byles-MacDougall.

"There is some pressure to succeed in carrying on the family tradition, I suppose, but I don't dwell on it," she said. "We've got a great support team. I look forward to the challenge."

As required by law, Byles served a one-year apprenticeship under her father while she prepared to take the required licensing exams. Now recognized by the Funeral Service Examining Board of the United States and a Connecticut licensed embalmer, she is a hands-on, integral part of operations.

Women worldwide are realizing that they are naturals for the funeral services industry. The number of female funeral directors and funeral home owners is surging. Today, of the 220 member funeral homes in the Connecticut Funeral Directors Association, 63 have one or more female funeral directors.

"It is a natural profession for women because it is a caring profession," said Patty Hutcheson, a funeral director and president of Gupton-Jones College of Funeral Service in Georgia. "I believe women have that caregiving, compassionate side that comes naturally. Women bring to the table those qualities we believe funeral directors must have."

In the industry, taking care of the family is as important as taking care of the departed, and it's become apparent that women can be very good at that.

Through the late 1800s, female nurses and midwives were the ones responsible for preparing the dead for burial. As the funeral business became more regulated, technical and profitable, it became the domain of men, aided by strict Victorian mores of the day that helped keep men in charge. Wives and daughters helped out by carrying equipment when embalming was still done in the home. They were typically assigned administrative and housekeeping tasks.

Times have changed as women return to a principal role in caring for the departed. Patricia Moody is another licensed funeral director who works on an occasional basis at the Mystic Funeral Home. Today professional organizations catering solely to women work diligently to further their role and influence in funeral services, offering networking opportunities, education and inspiration. The Association of Women Funeral Professionals, 100 Black Women of Funeral Service and Funeral Divas are but a few.

Only two years old, yet with more than 700 members worldwide, the vivacious Funeral Divas is a women-only, comprehensive professional organization, offering continuing education seminars and events sponsored by chapters in 16 states, including "fun filled weekends" and retreats.

Featured on television, in radio, newspapers and magazines, the Divas are self-described as "profitable, productive and playful."

One inquiry on the frequently asked questions portion of their website, www.funeraldivas.com, asked: "I am a man. Can I still join Funeral Divas?" Answer: "No, because you are a man :)"

Author Ellen Broaddus, in the International Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association Magazine, said "There will be a whole new face to the funeral industry, and it is going to have a lot less facial hair."

Mackenzie Byles is one of those new faces.

When not at work, she enjoys spending time with friends, traveling, exercising, and watching sports, particularly football. And she's part of a growing trend of female funeral directors.

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