Emma Keffer moved swiftly across the carpeted, muffled floors of the funeral home. The 11 a.m. service was beginning, and she needed to hit the lights.

At 22, Emma is tall like her father and a senior at Mount St. Mary’s College where she’s finishing up her business degree. In her free time, she takes care of her adopted horse named Captain Underpants or makes extra money house-sitting. 

Beyond that, Emma can be found working at her family’s funeral home. That’s where she was on a recent winter morning, in the middle of her college holiday break.

It was cold that mid-December morning. But the funeral home soon filled up with family and friends of a woman who had recently passed, her cremated remains held inside the warm, brightly lit open room that Emma stood behind.

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Grace Keffer Ireland — Emma’s 28-year-old sister — stood outside, her gray gloves and a long peacoat that stretched down to a pair of closed-toed heels keeping her warm against the 15-degree temperatures. Both greeted the mourners with a smile and friendly “hello’s.”

The Keffer women grew up around death. Some of their earliest memories include sitting in a room with their mother at the funeral home as she did makeup and hair for women who had recently died. 

At funerals for family members, the girls weren’t kept back from walking up to the front of a church and viewing an open casket.

“I don’t remember having the whole talk about it,” Emma said. “I remember it being there and knowing it’s part of life.”

She continued, “We’re not scared or afraid of the whole idea of death, but we know that people need help understanding it.”

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Emma Keffer and her sister, Grace, grew up in the family business at John W. Keffer Funeral Home and now that they are older, plan on joining.
Jason Plotkin, York Daily Record

That’s the role that the funeral director can play, and that’s the path both Emma and Grace are on.

But while they may simply be following in the family business, the sisters’ career choice reflects a bigger trend in the death industry.

They will be joining the ranks of more and more women across the country who are becoming funeral directors and certified crematory operators.

The scales have tipped 

“I’ve been in the business 20 years,” said Jan Smith, a funeral director in Indianapolis and a spokeswoman with the National Funeral Home Directors Association. “When I first started, there were a handful of us in the class.”

She was referring to her first mortuary science school memories where there were not a lot of women.

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Today, that’s simply not the case. More than 60 percent of students are female, according to the association. And more and more women who don’t belong to long-standing, generational funeral homes are joining, too.

“Women bring a level of compassion” Smith continued. “For me to sit down with a mother who lost her child, I can connect on a different level than a man can, just being a mother myself.”

No longer the ‘man in the black suit’

The Keffer sisters have plans to attend mortuary science school, a step that would allow them to become the third generation to work at the John W. Keffer Funeral Homes & Crematory. The home was started by their grandfather 50 years ago.

Grace, a West Chester University graduate, and Grace’s husband, Chris, 29, recently moved back to York County and took up jobs at the funeral home.

The young couple realize that the job’s long hours and frequent on-call weekend schedule comes with challenges to raising a family in the future. 

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But they like working in the industry. It’s home, after all. 

Grace’s father, Joseph Keffer, 57, the home’s supervisor, is flexible when it comes to time off. They notice, too, how respected their father and grandfather, John W. Keffer, are in the community.

“You can’t put a price on that,” Grace said.

John Keffer just turned 83, and continues to work at the home.

The sisters take pride, too, in helping families move through what can be their most difficult times, the days spent mourning combined with the business-like decisions that come with arranging a memorial service.

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At funeral services, where they work as greeters, they also have a window into York County’s most intimate moments. They learn about the people in the community through the voices of loved ones, a virtual obituary of sorts.

So while the job of funeral director can mean going to a home or hospital to pick up a dead body, it also means being a comfort-provider, the calm, nice voice on the other end of the phone to help a family through the process.

A career of helping

Brigitte Morgan is a 26-year-old U.S. Army Reserves broadcast specialist from near Latrobe, Pa. She joined the Army after graduating with a degree in social work from Chatham University in Pittsburgh.

A roommate she had after graduation was going through mortuary school, and she decided, at the last minute, to stop by the Pittsburgh Institute for Mortuary Science, where she would eventually attend.

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She’s now a licensed funeral director and crematory operator who interned for Heffner Funeral Homes in York County before she was transferred to one of its homes in northern Pennsylvania.

“I was all set to go to another school for a master’s,” she said. Soon, she realized, being a funeral director was the job she had been looking for all along.

“It really was that helping career that I was looking for,” she said.

Starting off in the death industry as a woman had its challenges, Morgan said. One time, early on in her career, when she showed up at a home, she was asked if the funeral director was coming, too.

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“I learned to quickly say instead of, ‘I’m Brigitte from Heffner,’ ‘I’m Brigitte, a funeral director from Heffner,'” Morgan said.

“People aren’t necessarily expecting a woman,” Morgan said recently. “I think when you go to the door at 2 a.m., they’re expecting a guy in a black suit.”

Such perceptions are changing.

For Joseph Keffer, there are other perceptions about the evolving industry. A couple times a year, young men and women will reach out to him to tag along while he works.

“They think it’s CSI or one of those kinds of things,” Keffer said.

The reality — as his daughters can attest — is that there is more waiting than working with fancy technology alongside scientists.

The sisters are also accustomed to having people come up to them and ask: “Are you Joe’s daughter?”

In the future, their answer could change to: “Yes, I’m Emma, a funeral director from Keffer.”

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