More women are entering the once male-dominated funeral service industry.
An estimated 57 percent of current mortuary science students are female, compared to 5 percent in 1970. Gross Funeral Home in Hot Springs employed the first female embalmer in the state of Arkansas, and continues that tradition today.
Katie Gordon, licensed funeral director and embalmer, and Robynn Sheets, funeral director intern, are two women who are excelling in the funeral service industry right here in Hot Springs and have been nationally recognized for their work at Gross Funeral Home.
“These women do everything the men do, from going to the home or hospital
and bringing the deceased into our care, the embalming, making the arrangements with the family and directing funerals,” said Justin Nicklas, general manager of Gross Funeral Home. “I firmly believe that because they are women they have a certain sensitivity and attention to detail that makes them exceptional caregivers in an otherwise male-dominated industry.”
Gordon has been in the funeral service industry for about six years, having gone to mortuary school in Arizona before moving to Arkansas three and a half years
ago to be closer to her parents. As she was growing up, Gordon’s mother was a hospice nurse, and she said she always wondered what happened to the patients after her mother’s job was done.
“I really, really believe in my head that (this profession) picks you in some weird way, because this isn’t something that just everybody would want to do,” Gordon said. “I’ve known for a long time that this is what I wanted to do. When I went to college I started in biology and ended up going to mortuary school, which my parents were thrilled about.”
Sheets has a degree in literature and a minor in art and had never been around this kind of work until she began working at Gross Funeral Home on the insurance side of the business over three years ago. She said she quickly realized she had a calling to work on the other side as a funeral director and began interning with Gordon a little over a year ago.
“It takes a special person and it is a calling — some people say a ministry — and I knew I wanted to do it too. When I was doing the insurance part I was around families, but the tone and everything was a lot different because, a lot of times, no one had passed yet,” Sheets said. “I think people have the idea of what happens here completely wrong, because what you’re doing most of the time is
you’re sitting with grieving families, people with the worst broken hearts you can imagine on the worst day of their lives sometimes, and you’re trying to figure out how to make it better.”
Gordon said they never know what their day is going to look like when they arrive at work in the morning. They begin their work day by checking to see if anyone has passed away and calling to check on the families that have been assigned to their care. The family of the deceased will then visit the funeral home and be seated in one of the two arrangement rooms where the funeral arrangements will be made.
“My favorite part of the job is that we work for hugs, if that makes sense. We’re a team, so it doesn’t matter if she’s waiting on the family or if I wait on the family, as soon as they leave here we go to each other with our file and we say, ‘this person really loved fishing,’ or poodles, or whatever it is, and ‘what can we do for them?’ It’s the teamwork of us trying to figure out some new way to really honor this person and to make it special and different and not make this a terrible experience,” Gordon said. “Because no one wants to be here, so we want to make you as comfortable as possible but we want to do something really special so that when you drive by here it’s not a bad memory.”
Nicklas said Gross Funeral Home specializes in creative and personalized services that break the traditional funeral mold, no longer just doing “your average funeral.”
Gordon and Sheets recalled one funeral in particular that they said they will always remember. The owner of National Park Duck Tours had just passed away suddenly and Gordon said it was a terrible, rough situation. She said she was in the shower one night trying to think of a way to honor the man who brought so much tourism and happiness to Hot Springs when the idea came to her: they would rent a Duck to lead the funeral procession.
“We called and we rented the Duck and we had banners done and we decorated it with flowers and we actually put it in the newspaper about the procession, so it was almost like a parade,” she said. “His wife rode in the car with me and we took the procession downtown and around the fountain. It was awesome.”
Sheets recalled a time when they called the Hogs during another service for a young man who passed away suddenly.
“We called the Hogs at the end of the service,” she said. “He was a young guy and it was very special to the family because it was sudden and a shock, and he
was a Razorbacks fan.”
Sheets added that even though she and Gordon are complete opposites, they are both incredibly creative and work well together while planning and personalizing the funeral services.
“We have had knock down, drag out fights in Hobby Lobby,
though,” Gordon jokingly said. “I think that for a long time, and I could be wrong about this, but, I think the perception of Gross is like this super, not uptight, but it’s a very respectable name and firm and there’s just a certain way that funerals have always been done. There’s a box they go in — this is what you
do in the beginning, these are the songs you play, these are the verses you use, do you want us to read the 23rd Psalm, do you want us to sing ‘Amazing Grace’ — and we don’t do that anymore. It’s totally all about you. When you come here, we want it to be all about you,” Gordon added.