Nathan Bitner was told in high school that he was “nuts” for wanting to be a funeral director.
The Cumberland County native — now 42 and the owner of four Harrisburg-area funeral homes — had no family connection to the funeral business but developed an interest after attending his grandfather’s service when he was 16.
His story may be more common today. The industry is attracting more nontraditional candidates, including women and people seeking career changes.
The American Board of Funeral Service Education found that 85 percent of new enrollees in U.S. mortuary science programs in 2014 had no prior family relationship with the industry. The largest percentage of those enrollees were in their early- to mid-20s.
Jessica Smith, a funeral director with York County-based Heffner Funeral Chapel & Crematory, is living proof of the trend.
A hairdresser for 15 years, Smith decided to change careers in 2011 at age 32.
“I needed to give more than what I was doing,” she said. “I needed something a little deeper.”
Smith, who was occasionally asked to do hair for funeral services for clients that had passed away, said she saw the funeral industry as an opportunity to continue in the service industry and care for people.
She completed the mortuary science program at the Pittsburgh Institute of Mortuary Science in 2012, interned at Heffner and was hired as a funeral director in 2013.
Smith is the only woman funeral director at Heffner. But that could change with two women interns, ages 22 and 25, active in the York business.
In 2014, 16.5 percent of funeral service directors in the U.S. were women. That’s up from 9.7 percent a decade earlier, according to the National Funeral Directors Association. State-level data was not immediately available.
“It’s another option for compassionate work (for women),” Smith said. “Like nursing, you don’t have to be a man or come from a family to do this.”
Smith’s graduating class of 75 students was made up mostly of women, many in their early 20s, she said. The ABFSE found that 56 percent of 2014 graduates nationally were women.
“I think people are more accepting of women (today),” said Bitner, who has two women funeral directors on staff. “At one time, women may have been frowned upon because of the lifting we do when we do a transfer. And traditionally men were pallbearers. Now we’re seeing more women.”
There also are more female pastors today, Smith added. “The whole thing is transitioning.”
More funeral-home owners are realizing that families might be more comfortable with women during difficult times.
“We’re a little warmer and fuzzier than some males can come across,” said Erica Hallett, director of continuing care at the Myers-Buhrig Funeral Home & Crematory in Mechanicsburg.
Bitner said he has found that women funeral directors can be more understanding and compassionate with families.
New families taking over
While the funeral industry has been getting younger and more diverse, there also has been more consolidation. Social changes, including greater preference for cremations and nontraditional funeral services, have pushed operators to look for greater efficiencies.
And older funeral directors and owners without family successors have been looking more to other local independents, such as Bitner, to buy their facilities and carry on family traditions.
“For me, I never had a desire to have multiple locations. It just kind of happened,” said Bitner, who acquired John E. Neumyer Funeral Home Inc. in Harrisburg this past November.
Partnerships with other funeral directors and retirement talk from industry veterans led to his expansion in Dauphin and Perry counties.
Bitner sees the trend accelerating in the years ahead.
“I do see the single operating funeral homes slowly but surely being fewer and fewer,” he said. “I do think having the unique partnerships will help us sustain our future. In almost any industry, the ability to have multiple synergies can work for everybody. It works for the business, the industry and the customer.”
‘Meant to do this’
Bitner, who first worked as a respiratory therapist in the midstate, bought Hetrick-Bitner Funeral Home in Susquehanna Township in 2003 when he was 29.
He worked as a therapist, he said, to save up money to attend the Pittsburgh Institute of Mortuary Science and fulfill his teenage dream of being a funeral director.
“I was meant to do this,” Bitner said. “It’s self-satisfying work knowing we’re helping people.”
He first came to Hetrick-Bitner in 1997 as an intern and stayed on as a funeral director for a few years before leaving for another opportunity in the Poconos.
Bitner returned after the death of owner Graham Hetrick’s father, George. A five-year transition plan was discussed, but by summer 2003, Bitner got a call from Hetrick, who said he was ready to turn over control of the business.
In 2007, the Bitner Family Funeral Homes brand added Ronald C.L. Smith Funeral Home in Duncannon and Jesse H. Geigle Funeral Home Inc. in Susquehanna Township. In November, Bitner acquired John E. Neumyer Funeral Home Inc. in Harrisburg.
Bitner said he isn’t actively looking for more, but would consider additional acquisitions within an hour of Harrisburg, assuming it was the “right fit.”
Funeral homes also want to be the right fit for families, especially as more families seek out customized services.
Owners are investing in the look of their funeral homes, and some are adding new services such as aftercare coordinators who can work with families as they sort out estates.
Hallett, a certified paralegal, started in an aftercare role two years ago at Myers-Buhrig, where nearly half of the regular staff members are women. The funeral home is about to hire an intern as its first female funeral director.
Hallett, who was 46 when she came to the Cumberland County funeral home, thought she would end up working in a law firm after becoming a paralegal. She had been a stay-at-home mom and worked for her parents’ furniture business before deciding to pursue law.
But funeral home owner Bob Buhrig asked her if she would consider using her legal skills to help families, many facing their worst possible time.
Aftercare coordinators are not involved in the clinical aspects of the funeral business and are not licensed funeral directors. They might help a widow with life insurance or pension claims after her husband dies. And they might be there to listen as families grieve the loss of a loved one.
About 125 families each year take advantage of the aftercare services at Myers-Buhrig
“I feel like I’ve finally found my niche,” Hallett said.<