My friend Kimberlee Baer says her response is sometimes a conversation starter. At other times it can bring a conversation to a screeching halt.
The question: “What do you do for a living?” Her response: “I’m a licensed funeral director.”
Presently most funeral directors are male. The percentages vary depending on a) whether you’re looking at just the United States or the world, and b) whether the site combines funeral directors with morticians and/or undertakers.
The National Funeral Directors Association, whose members are from the US and 49 other countries, states that 16% of its membership is female. But in an article from NextAvenue.org titled “Why Your Funeral Director Will Likely Be Female,” the author tells us a strong shift is occurring. In the last few years, more women than men have enrolled in America’s 59 accredited mortuary science programs. And in 2016, 61 percent were female.
Kimberlee’s mom (a registered nurse) had encouraged her daughter to find her life’s calling in the medical field. As a science buff while in high school, Kimberlee thought that embalming was a fascinating topic. On senior career day, she chose to shadow a funeral director.
Earning a B.S. in biology, she spent two years in mortuary school and did a two-year residency in Chester, Virginia. Shortly after that, she responded to a funeral home’s ad of looking for an apprentice. She took that position and has been with the independent family-owned funeral home ever since.
Kimberlee has seen many changes over the years, and if we ourselves think about it, we can realize how end of life services have evolved. They used to be somber events, no photos or videos, with just sad music.
Now “celebration of life” services often replace a funeral. There are photos and videos showing the person when he or she was enjoying life. Playlists enable us to hear the person’s favorite music. Often people will include warm or funny stories in their eulogies. People attending the reception share favorite moments of the deceased and laugh as they remember the best times, the most poignant times, of the person’s life.
When I asked Kimberlee to share the most unusual service she had directed, she didn’t pause. This particular man had loved being on his sailboat. His life had basically revolved around sailing so he had left specific instructions for his celebration of life service. Palm trees with tiny lights and antique rum bottles decorated the room. A band played Jimmy Buffet music. Guests were requested to wear shorts, t-shirts, and flip flops. Apparently, it was quite the send-off and everyone agreed that the deceased would have thoroughly enjoyed it.
As for the most difficult moments she faces in her role, she named three. The first instance she referred to is a sudden tragic death such as from an accident; the person was here one moment and the next they were dead. Family and friends are in shock and are sometimes barely able to focus.
A second has to do with her location in a small town; often the deceased is someone she knows and/or she knows their family. The personal connection makes it much harder.
And then, coming as no surprise, is the death of a child. Regardless of how old that child is, comforting a bereaved parent is the most difficult aspect of her work. Kimberlee shared the story of a baby who had died of SIDS. The mom had come in to plan the service and the two of them were still standing when the mom just collapsed into her arms. Kimberlee lowered them both to the floor where they stayed while the mom cried and they talked. Together they got through the planning of the service.
Kimberlee feels it is her life’s purpose to be with those who are facing the finality of death. She is able to remain calm, yet loving and compassionate, with those who need her. While seeing so many different sides of grief (anger, denial, heartbreak), Kimberlee has the ability to gently guide people through their most difficult time.
The two of us are new friends who were brought together on a Facebook community page. But that’s a story I’ll tell another time. For now, I’ll simply say that the world is a better place because of her.