When Danielle Andy Belusko was a teenager, she announced to her family that she wanted to become a funeral director. Her parents repeatedly asked if she was certain about her career choice.
“They still say, ‘Are you sure this is what you want to do?’ laughed Belusko, 41, owner of an all-female funeral home, Cremation & Funeral Care by Danielle Andy Belusko, in McMurray. “It was a male-dominated industry. I faced a lot of obstacles when I started.”
Until recently, few women were funeral directors in the American funeral industry. In 1991, one-third of mortuary students were female; in 1971, just 5 percent were.
But that is changing.
Today, nearly 60 percent of mortuary science students are female, and women make up more than 16 percent of all National Funeral Directors Association members – a nearly 7 percent hike over a decade before, according to the association.
At the Pittsburgh Institute of Mortuary Science, about 62 percent of students are women.
Belusko, a graduate of PIMS and Robert Morris University, where she earned a business degree, thinks it makes sense that more women want to be funeral directors.
“I do think that women are nurturing by nature. Everybody turns to us when they have a boo-boo or need dinner, or anything, really. We turn to wives, mothers and sisters. This job is really meant for women,” said Belusko. “It’s not that we do it better than men, or men can’t do it, but for it to be such a male-dominated industry and just now making that turn is crazy to me because we are caregivers, that’s who we are.”
Dr. Joseph Marsaglia, dean of students at PIMS, said that the increase in female funeral directors reflects the strong caregiving component to funeral planning – something at which women excel – and changes in attitude toward women who work in traditionally male jobs, such as police officers, ministers, firefighters and engineers.
For much of history, Marsaglia noted, it was women who cared for the dead. They washed and dressed bodies for burial, and cooked and cared for families of the deceased.
But undertaking became a profession – and the work of men – during the Civil War, when surgeons began embalming the bodies of soldiers, and women’s participation plummeted.
Said Joseph Salandra, owner of Salandra Funeral Home in Canonsburg, “Most funeral homes today have a female funeral director, but for years, if you were a female in the funeral service, your grandfather started the funeral home. People didn’t want to hire women. They didn’t think they could do things like lift bodies or move caskets. But I’ve always been outspoken about the fact that women can do everything – dressing, embalming, lifting caskets, cosmetology, and, the most important thing, meeting with and comforting families.”
Darla Tripoli, a funeral director at Salandra Funeral Home, said her job is “a calling on my heart.”
Tripoli considered becoming a funeral director in high school, but her career counselor steered her away from the field, telling her that “women aren’t really in the funeral service.” Consider nursing, the counselor said.
Instead, Tripoli attended business school, earned a cosmetology license, and worked for the Pittsburgh Symphony.
After her son was born in 1995, Tripoli quit the symphony and worked part-time at her father-in-law’s physician office.
In 1998, Tripoli confided to her husband that she had always wanted to be a funeral director. He encouraged her to attend PIMS.
Tripoli also called Beinhauer’s in Peters Township to see if they had any job openings, and, in fact, a funeral attendant had just quit.
“The minute I walked in and interviewed, I knew this was for me. I knew it in my spirit,” said Tripoli. “The beautiful thing about it was that all the skills that I had acquired, including business and cosmetology, all fit perfectly in this business. It appeals to me and fulfills me spiritually, physically and creatively.”
Tripoli, a member of the faculty at PIMS, where she teaches restorative art, said she initially encountered some resistance to female funeral directors, and spent months looking for an internship – necessary to obtain a funeral director’s license.
She said she now sees more funeral directors like Salandra, who accept and welcome women.
Tripoli believes that families sometimes find a comfort level with a female funeral director more quickly and easily than with a male.
It’s not surprising, Marsaglia said, that many female funeral directors have experience in nursing and other medical fields.
Funeral director Susan Falvo Warco, 64, co-owner of Warco-Falvo Funeral Home in Washington, earned a nursing degree from St. Francis Hospital in the 1970s, but quit working full-time to care for her three children and to help her husband, Tim, after the couple bought the funeral home in 1978.
She began attending mortuary science school when she was in her 40s, and was one of four women in her class at PIMS.
“I wanted to do it. I enjoy working with people, I enjoy helping people. But it’s probably the most difficult thing I ever did in my life,” said Warco, who left the funeral home by 5 a.m. every morning and often grabbed only three hours of sleep while she juggled mortuary school, the children, responsibilities at the funeral home and assisting Tim with his Washington County coroner duties.
“It was worth it. I’m glad I did it. It definitely is a satisfying career, knowing that you helped people at the worst time of their life,” said Warco. “I loved nursing and this work is similar because it’s humanitarian work. You’re giving comfort.”
Two of Warco’s children, including a daughter, followed her footsteps into the funeral business.
Female funeral directors realize they are role models, trailblazers for other women looking to enter the field.
Said Warco, “If a young woman would come up to me and ask about being a funeral director, I’d tell them to go for it, follow your heart. But this can never just be a business. It becomes your life.”
Belusko remains thankful to a first generation female funeral director at Jefferson Memorial Funeral Home, where Belusko worked for several years.
“She was a huge role model for me at an early age. There she was, this working mother who had two children, who was running this funeral home perfectly,” said Belusko, the mother of four children. “She was a hero to me, the first woman to say, ‘It’s OK, look at me, I’ve done it, you can do this.’”
Belusko will tell you it’s no easy job, with odd hours, grieving customers, and, often, incredibly sad stories.
But her job has its rewards.
“I willingly chose this job. I’m very passionate about what I’m doing,” said Belusko. “I do believe I’m a true caregiver. You cannot do this business unless you want to do it and are committed to it. It’s very demanding, but I love what I do. This is my passion. I have never wanted to do anything else.”