Growing up in Winston-Salem, Carmen Russell Bonham decided early on that she did not want to join the family business – Russell Funeral Home. After graduating from Tennessee State University, she moved to Los Angeles to carve her own path.
In the late 1970s, however, she returned home when her father and founder of the business – Carl H. Russell Sr. – health began to decline. She moved into the funeral home, soon became a funeral director, and has been at the business ever since.
“I didn’t want any part of this business – none of the girls wanted to be in the business,” says Bonham about her and her five sisters. “It was no place in this business for a woman. It was a very male-dominated industry… and for the most part, it still is.”
Bonham is partly correct. Although just a few decades ago it was rare for anyone but men to work in the industry, women today are being drawn in record numbers to the profession. The industry was male-dominated, in part, because men were deemed more capable of handling the physical activity required in planning a funeral service. There also were concerns about exposing pregnant workers to embalming chemicals.
However, the paradigm has shifted. According to organizations that track such data, 60 percent of today’s mortuary science students are female; the number of women enrolled in the nation’s 59 accredited mortuary science programs in the past decade has surpassed the number of male enrollees; and in 2017, nearly 65 percent of graduates from funeral director programs in the U.S. were female.
Although the number of women funeral directors in the U.S. has increased from 5 percent to 43 percent in the past 40 years, 74 percent of morticians and funeral directors are still men, according to 2016 U.S. Census Bureau data.
Bonham, one of 11 children to Carl Sr. and Florrie S. Russell – admits that the job of a funeral director is demanding.
“I used to do all of the things the boys did,” she says. “Wash cars, home removal – I did it all.”
She says got her inspiration from her mother, who took over running the funeral home in 1987 after Russell Sr. passed away and she ran it until her death in 1997.
One of the more challenging aspects to the business, Bonham says, is having to respond regardless of the day or the hour. Although it presents a challenge, she says, it’s also a necessity.
“You have to be ready and available at all times,” she says. “We only got an answering service a couple of years ago. Before that we would get phone calls all the time in the dead of night and usually it was me who got them. I was the one who got up and made sure the call got addressed.”
Part of the reason she says she’s been able to have success for more than 40 years in a male-dominated industry is because being a woman gives her an advantage over most men – the empathy and compassion to console and comfort families in times of sorrow.
“My daddy would say a woman’s touch is very necessary in this business,” Bonham says. “He would talk to me often about that.”
― Richard L. Williams