Historically, you’d usually only get a first-hand view of what a mortician gets up to when it’s your turn to be embalmed. But now, people are getting a behind-the-curtain look at the morbid profession thanks to TikTok.
With over, 880,000 followers @funeralbabe—who goes by Melissa Jo for privacy purposes—is one of the most popular funeral professionals on the app, racking up millions of likes with videos discussing all things dead bodies, from how human remains are shipped to what happens when a body is “unviewable”.
“When I first started sharing this it felt like it was illegal because it is so unknown,” she tells Fortune. “It’s so normal yet we don’t speak about it.”
Jo started sharing sneak peeks into her job in the aftermath of the pandemic. While the rest of the world was “shut down”, she was working 80-90 hour weeks in the thick of it.
“I was processing things that my friends and family were watching on TV,” she says.
“I felt very misunderstood at the time. A lot of people were like, ‘Oh, it’s a good time, you’re making all this money’ and it was like, no, you have no idea what this is. You don’t understand this job.”
So in 2021, she started filming around her workplace to shine a light on what exactly she does for a living—and the questions kept rolling in.
“I get the most wild questions like how do you close their mouth? Do you actually drain their body? If somebody dies with their period, what do you do?”
Over two years later, interest in the topic isn’t dying down. Jo is still using her channel to answer viewers’ burning questions and the #mortician hashtag has racked up over 1.7 billion views.
Traditionally, the job was inherited—and gatekept
Like most in the industry, Michael and Conor Cooney’s funeral home in Chicago has been passed down from one generation to the next for over 100 years.
Their predecessors didn’t publicize their inner workings out of “respect” for the deceased and their family.
That all changed last year when the brothers launched a marketing company and subsequent TikTok channel, Mortuary Marketing to help other funeral homes increase their social media presence and attract prospective customers.
“We live in such an informed society that everyone wants to know what’s going on in every aspect and rightfully so,” Conor tells Fortune. “Social media really has opened up what used to be a very secretive industry and now is becoming more open which I think is a beautiful thing for families and for us, as funeral homes.”
Now if you scroll through the sea of “DeathTok” videos, as they’re called, you’ll find they’re mostly fronted by young women.
Genesis Bellafrindi is one of those women on a mission to uncover the long-gatekept secrets of the mortician industry.
“I don’t come from a family of funeral directors, I was not raised in a funeral home, so I look at it from a different angle to someone who has to worry about growing their family business,” Bellafrindi says. “Oftentimes, they’re not willing to educate people on a public platform like I am doing.
“I’m not biased about protecting the industry. I’m willing to really answer just about any question, even if it’s gory, even if a lot of details are involved.”
For the Cooney’s, at least, opening up their world for the public to see has given them the opportunity to squash any assumptions that they’re robbing grieving families.
“There’s a misconception that funeral homes are gouging families on the bills, but really, there’s so much work that goes behind it,” Conor says. “Funeral directors, by majority, are really great people and they’re doing their job just to help their families and make a difference in their lives—they’re not doing it for the money.
“Now that we’re able to show a little bit more of what we are doing, people can understand the value that we do provide for the family and for their whole grieving process.”
As well as satisfying their morbid curiosity, viewers have also been flocking to their profile page to find out how they can join the unusual trade.
The next generation of morticians are young women
When Melissa Jo went to grad school at 19 years old, she recalls that most of her peers were decades older than her. “I was the youngest one in my class by a lot,” she stresses.
But now she can’t keep up with the constant stream of messages from young women asking for mortuary school recommendations.
“I get a lot of messages from people saying, ‘You’re the reason I went to school, you’re the reason I started’, and it blows my mind blows my mind,” Jo beams.
“We get questions all the time of what the process looks like becoming a funeral director and which schools we recommend,” Michael Cooney echoes, adding that TikTok users have even asked to shadow him.
Since morticians started showing glimpses of their jobs online during the pandemic, there’s been a huge spike in interest in the career: In 2021, nationwide new student enrollment in accredited mortuary science programs jumped 24% over 2020, according to the American Board of Funeral Service Education.
“TikTok has helped some people think, this is an opportunity for me or this is a career path that I had never thought about and I think that’s a beautiful thing,” Michael Cooney adds.
“It’s great to have people involved in the industry that are passionate about it and want to make a difference versus you know, being passed on just because of their family’s last name.”
Moving away from tradition—where funeral homes were passed on from father to son—now the next generation of morticians are female.
In 2021 accredited mortuary-science programs churned out more than 1,500 embalmers and funeral directors, and around 70% of them were women. A big jump from around just over 57% in 2015 and 50% at the turn of the millennium.
At Arapahoe Community College—where its mortuary class is so popular that only 30% of applicants get in—the male-to-female split is currently around 80:20.
“Part of the application criteria is to submit a statement of purpose and I would say more than half of them mentioned having seen something on TikTok or social media,” Faith Haug, the mortuary science program’s chair tells Fortune. “Social media has really been a driver in highlighting that this is a career that exists – and here’s what we do.”
Haug rubbishes the common assumption that women are enticed to the morbid profession because they’re more of the “nurturing” gender. Instead, she firmly believes, it’s because social media and the likes of TikTok have only just made them realize it’s a viable career for them.
“More women are going into tech, right? More women are going into manufacturing even because they see these careers on social media and online,” she adds. “Women are just more able to pursue things that interest them personally now. I really don’t think it’s because women have any more suitable personality traits inherently than men.”
Social media is attracting—but not retaining—female morticians
Although mortuary classrooms are bursting at the brim with women who want to be morticians, on the field it’s a totally different story. Over 70% of morticians, undertakers and funeral directors are men.
“In any male-dominated industry, it takes longer for the men that have been in the field longer to leave the field—they haven’t retired or aged out yet, at the same rate that women have entered the field,” Haug explains the gap.
Previously this gap could have been explained by the very real difference between studying the theory of mortuary and the on-the-job experience.
“It’s not for everyone—people learned that the hard way,” Michael Cooney jokes. “In school, they don’t realize what goes into it. We always recommend shadowing a funeral director so they can really understand what they’re getting into.”
But now with social media, the new wave of female wannabe morticians know exactly what they’ve got themselves into.
What they perhaps didn’t take into account when fresh-faced and signing up for college was the lion’s share of responsibilities bestowed onto women as they settle down—and not even TikTok can help shift that.
“I don’t know that social media is really going to help retain women because the reasons for poor retention are the demands of the profession that just by the very nature of what it is can’t be mitigated,” Haug stresses. “There’s no way to make funeral service a 9 am to 5 pm job. It’s just not the nature of it.”
But she remains hopeful. As more women rise to positions of power, she predicts the industry will experience a much-needed shake-up.
“Just because we’ve always done it that way doesn’t mean as much to women, as it does to the older men,” she adds.
“I think the future of the industry is female,” Haug concludes. “We’re just not as visible yet as we will be.”