Gwen Mooney knew what her career path was going to be when she was only 17. Several people in her life had passed away — a grandfather and two uncles as well as a close friend who committed suicide. While Gwen and her family were spending countless hours in funeral homes, she began to notice the homes were primarily run by men, plus, the rooms looked rather dated. Gwen already had a love for interior design and restoration, so she pondered how she would renovate these old-fashioned funeral homes to make them more welcoming. She also began thinking about what kind of impact she could have upon families if she were a funeral director. Gwen reached these goals by studying mortuary science in college, and 27 years later, she now holds the position of President and CEO of Cave Hill Cemetery, the resting place of notables such as boxer Muhammad Ali, KFC founder Colonel Harland Sanders, and Louisville founder George Rogers Clark. This year she was honored with being named a Kentucky Colonel. Let’s meet this week’s FACE of Louisville, Gwen Mooney.   

Gwen Mooney is President and CEO of Cave Hill Cemetery. She’s also this week’s FACE of Louisville.

How did your journey into mortuary science begin?

I was sitting in the library one evening, and I happened to be in the college section. I began noticing the college manuals on the shelves and saw one for the Cincinnati College of Mortuary Science. I got up, pulled it out, and I went through the book cover to cover. I began considering other schools, but Cincinnati really had the best program. Some schools only offer an associate’s degree where you can become a funeral director, but you can’t do anything in terms of embalming or preparation of the deceased body. So when I went to the Cincinnati College of Mortuary Science, I was able to get my bachelor’s degree. I’m a licensed funeral director and embalmer in Ohio and Kentucky.

What was it like in your mortuary science classes, specifically working with cadavers?

It was a little uncomfortable since I was not in familiar territory. There were students who’d grown up in funeral homes and had been around the embalming rooms and helping their parents. It was a reality shock to all of a sudden be in an embalming lab where there were deceased people and working on them. As I learned and got into it, I began enjoying it.

“It’s such an honor to work at Cave Hill Cemetery. When I drive in every day I have to pinch myself and say, ‘Do I really get to come to work here?'” Gwen shares.

Where did you work after college?

I did an apprenticeship for a year with Bolton and Lundsford Funeral Home on the west side of Cincinnati, and then went on to work at Spring Grove Cemetery in Cincinnati. The president, Andy Conroy, pulled me aside one day and told me it was his vision to build a funeral home on the grounds of Spring Grove. He suggested I leave and go out to gain further experience, which I did. I worked at Routsong Funeral Home for three years. Andy contacted me and wanted me to return to be an officer and help start the funeral home. I went back as a manager in the pre-planning department. After six years I was named president, and they eventually named the funeral home after me.

How did the move to Cave Hill Cemetery come about?

I was approached by a headhunter who I’d actually known for some time. They were looking for a new president at Cave Hill as their previous president was retiring after 42 years. They had 40 candidates in the first round, then narrowed it down to 10 and asked if I wanted to do another interview. I began to discuss it with my husband, then interviewed with them again, and I was offered the job.

“My parents were a little shocked when I told them what I wanted to do, but they stood behind me 100 percent,” Gwen shares.

What enticed you to make the move and take the job?

There’s the uniqueness of Cave Hill and how it’s been taken care of. It’s a historic garden cemetery, and you just don’t see cemeteries with this kind of Victorian garden.

What was also so appealing about Cave Hill Cemetery is that it put me in a management position. I’m still in the death care industry, and I can still make a difference on impacting people’s lives when it’s one of their worst days. This has been a good move for me.

Tell us what’s involved with your position.

I oversee the Cave Hill Cemetery Company, the Cave Hill Investment Company and the Cave Hill Heritage Foundation. I also do a lot of public relations work, go to meetings and touch base with employees and all of my supervisors. We have 74 employees, which includes the office, sales, CFO, and managers of all of the departments.

Two of the more famous graves that can be found in Cave Hill Cemetery: Col. Harland Sanders and boxing legend Muhammad Ali | Image: Ashley Haugen

Have you implemented any changes at the cemetery?

I’ve been able to go through the entire company to create an organizational chart. Before I came on board all the employees were reporting up to the president. There really wasn’t a true layer of management where there was a chain of command. We’ve built strong supervisors and managers.

I’ve really worked with the horticulturists and arborists to help them spread their wings and be more creative in terms of bringing in not just trees and shrubs but adding more flower material and bringing in brighter colors. I’ve also done a complete restoration on the administration building, and we’re restoring the memorial mausoleum.

Does the cemetery offer any special events, programs or displays?

We have an array of tours, everything from Civil War tours, history tours, horticultural tours, just lots of really fun subjects. Something else we’re doing that’s really exciting is we started our own beehives a couple of years ago. We have 11 hives now. We took an old gardening shack and turned it into an apiary.

It’s rare to find a cemetery that produces honey from its own beehives.

Switching gears, do you have any restaurants you enjoy in Louisville?

We like Butchertown Grocery and Hammerheads.

Do have any places you enjoy visiting around town or in our area?

We like to go to Slugger Field and see the Louisville Bats. We love the parks here like Bernheim Forest, and we like to cross over the bridges and go into Indiana.

If you hadn’t gone into this line of work, what would you be doing instead?

I probably would have gone into historic home restoration.

Gwen enjoys the company of a four-legged companion in the Cave Hill offices.

What’s your best piece of advice?

My advice to people is to work on your travel bucket list, don’t procrastinate and put that off. Also, put your affairs in order before your death occurs, because it can really give your loved ones a lot of peace of mind if you really think ahead.

Besides faith, family and friends what are three things you can’t live without?

My dogs, my trainer and my team of employees.

Thank you, Gwen. And thanks to Gretchen Bell for the beautiful photos. To learn more about Cave Hill Cemetery, visit cavehillcemetery.com.

**********

Meet more amazing Louisville women in our FACES archives. Click HERE!