04/17/2015 05:29 EDT | Updated 07/02/2015 12:59 EDT

Nova Scotia funeral homes increasingly run by women

For decades, the funeral industry has been a male-dominated profession, but there's been a significant shift happening in the industry, with the face of funeral directors and embalmers in Nova Scotia becoming largely female.    

The proportion of women working in the funeral industry has nearly doubled across the country since 1995, according to Statistics Canada. In Canada, women now make up one-third of funeral directors and embalmers. That number is growing quickly.  

The work shift Thursday morning at the Atlantic Funeral Homes branch in Dartmouth is staffed entirely by women. The team is led by a female embalmer, a female funeral director and a female apprentice.

That group includes funeral director and embalmer Patricia De Freitas, who has been working at the Dartmouth branch since 2011. There are three branches of the funeral home chain across the city, all of which are mostly staffed by women.

De Freitas joined the industry after experiencing several tragedies of her own, including the death of her 13-month-old son. De Freitas relied on the guidance of funeral directors to get her through those tough times.

She was so impressed with their guidance, De Freitas decided to go into the business herself. She says it's her calling.

De Freitas took the online Funeral and Allied Health Services program from the Nova Scotia Community College's Kingstec campus. It's the province's only program for aspiring funeral directors and embalmers.

"I think since the [U.S.] Civil War, funeral directors have been men," she said Thursday. "They've been cabinet makers who could build caskets and dig graves.

"Women more recently have immersed themselves into it and proven they could do it."

'Why would you want to do that?'

De Freitas doesn't know why there's been the increase in women. She says women are natural caregivers and full of empathy and compassion, all mandatory traits for the job.

Many are shocked when they hear what De Freitas does for a living.

"People say, 'Why would you want to do that?'" she said.

"I think people are so fearful of death in our society that they think it's just crazy for someone to want to do it."

The number of women in the industry is growing at a rapid pace. In Nova Scotia, that's most noticeable in the gender breakdown of the NSCC's funeral and allied health services program.

This year's graduating class in the full, two-year program is 80 per cent female, 20 per cent male. They'll graduate as certified funeral directors and embalmers.

Jean Gorham, who teaches the program, says the numbers are a complete reversal of what she saw when she started teaching 10 years ago. She's been in the industry for over 20 years.

"When I first wanted to go into funeral service, I was told to forget it," she said.

"[They said] that it wouldn't be possible, [that] I couldn't lift the weight nor could I handle the stress."

She says the stigma surrounding women in the industry has been longstanding.

"I've had clergy who refuse to do funerals with me because they don't think I'm competent enough because of my gender," she said.

"It's so traditionally male, to see males in the church, to have a male funeral director meet you at the door, that they just don't think it's acceptable."

Women in Funeral Services

Gorham says the stigma is starting to fade as more women get involved.

To tackle the stigma, Gorham helped start a group called Women in Funeral Services. They meet one or two times a year with women in the funeral business from across the Maritimes. The group chats about the challenges they face.

It's the first time a support group like this has existed here. And Gorham says she started seeing its impact.

"[Now] I've had [funeral homes] that will only ask for women. There are funeral homes now that are owned by women that are staffed only by women," she said.

"I think now the door for opportunity's been opened."