Editor's note: Information in this story about the number female African-American funeral directors in Wichita was originally reported incorrectly.
The funeral business is a calling for Leigh Ann Warren.
As a teenager, Warren lost a close friend and the funeral process made an impression on her.
“I had a very good friend of mine pass away of a violent death,” said Warren, who became a licensed funeral director at Robert J. Bethea Jr. Funerals and Cremations, 615 W. Maple, in July.
“At that time I had a lot of questions: What happens to the body during the embalming process and how do you run a funeral home? The whole process was intriguing to me. The funeral director asked, ‘What are you going to go to school for?’ I had no idea. So he said, ‘I think you should go to mortuary school.’”
Warren graduated from Wichita South High School and has a degree in mortuary science from the University of Central Oklahoma. She has completed apprenticeships in Oklahoma City with Bill Eisenhour Funeral Homes and in Wichita with Robert J. Bethea Jr., formerly of Biglow-Bethea Funeral Directors.
Warren is married to Travis Warren and has two children, Mikalah and Morgan, and a granddaughter. When she’s not working, she likes to go fishing with her husband and spend time with her family.
“The funeral service industry is a male-dominated field,” Warren said. “I wanted (my children and granddaughter) to know and show them that women can do almost any job they want now.”
Warren is one of a few black women in Wichita who is a licensed funeral director.
Q. 1 What is the most enjoyable part of your job?
A. I enjoy helping families get through the grieving process. My job is to do the hard work for them and let them spend time with their families and loved ones and grieve properly. I get my joy helping people, like to be able to have someone tell me, “My mother looks good.” I want them to remember their loved ones the way they were.
Everyone grieves differently. A lot of people don’t want to set foot in funeral homes. I want people to view their loved ones without being terrified, nervous or scared. Every family member is different.
Q. 2 What are some of the biggest challenges?
A. Babies. No one ever wants to see a baby pass away. Because I have two daughters and a granddaughter, it touches my heart. I just have a special place in my heart for babies. Anytime there is a grieving parent from a miscarriage or SIDS or anything, I do whatever I can to help ease a little bit of the pain.
That has to be the absolute toughest thing. They haven’t had a chance to live their life. That never gets any easier for me.
Q. 3 What is the most unique funeral or celebration of life that you’ve seen?
A. I’ll go back to the kids. There was one instance where we had a child pass away. I wanted his parents to remember him the way he was. We had him in a toddler bed with SpongeBob pajamas and SpongeBob cartoons on the TV. The mother was thanking me, saying, “I couldn’t bear to see my baby in a casket.” It never gets easier, but it allows us to remember him like he used to be.
There was a gentleman who passed away not too long ago who worked in a car wash and loved the outdoors, so instead of a service in the church, we went to the park and after the service had a balloon launch.
One man was a Dallas Cowboys fan, so we had his Dallas Cowboy hat and jersey on display with him. We just try to celebrate each individual life.
Q. 4 How do you deal with being surrounded by death every day?
A. I don’t think of death as the end, I think of it as the beginning. Once we leave this life, we’re in transformation to a whole brand new life. While we here on earth may be sad, they’re actually in a whole new place in heaven. I want people to understand there is a life after this and to be comforted and to know their loved one is resting comfortably with the Lord.
Q. 5 What advice do you have for people planning their funeral or that of a loved one?
A. Don’t put off what you can do today. You never know what may happen or what life may bring us. I want to encourage everyone – young, middle aged or elderly – to come in and have a conversation and pre-plan because that’s the one greatest gift to give to your family members. You don’t want your children to take on that burden alone.
A lot of people don’t want to come to the reality that we’re all going to come face to face with death at one point in our lives. A lot of people are afraid of the unknown.