At first glance, you might recognize Christine Reichelt Pepper from photos in The Director magazine, where she has been featured alongside an abundance of funeral directors past and present. Others may have become familiar with the longtime chief executive officer of the National Funeral Directors Association by hearing her speak at various conventions held around the world.
While funeral directors exclusively comprise the association’s executive board and its officers, with many becoming known nationally and recognizable among colleagues, Pepper’s role is accomplished largely behind the scenes.
Orchestrating annual conventions, overseeing advocacy initiatives, developing educational programs, along with supervising the funeral syndicate’s legal aid and public relations divisions, are a few of the wide-ranging administrative responsibilities she maintains.
Often mischaracterized as a funeral director by her children’s friends, Pepper does not hold a funeral director’s license in any state, nor has she attended mortuary school, but has attended the MATC Funeral Apprentice Course and hundreds of seminars and workshops. However, the first-generation immigrant is arguably one of the most powerful and influential funeral service professionals in the world, serving as chief executive officer since 2001 and having been employed with the nonprofit organization for more than three decades.
“Funeral directors as a collective are great people. We have a very committed team. Each day is new and different. My job today is not the same as I had a year ago, and I continue to love what I do,” Pepper remarked, crediting her long tenure to the devoted NFDA staff and members.
Born and raised in Heidelberg, Germany, Pepper immigrated to the United States when she was just 2 years old. Her parents, William and Erna, were both German natives.
“My dad wanted to join the U.S. Army, so he became a naturalized citizen, while my mom, older brother, Daniel, and I had green cards. Mom was one of seven children and the only one that wanted to move to the United States, given the opportunity,” Pepper explained.
Following her father’s enlistment in Texas, the family was deployed to Germany and welcomed twins, Patricia and William. Less than six months later, the marriage ended.
“When my parents divorced, my dad abandoned all contact with us,” she recalled.
When they returned to Texas, her mother’s health suffered. After a rapid and severe onset of asthma, Erna was hospitalized for three months, requiring her four children to be split among the households of friends.
“My older brother and I stayed with one family, while my younger siblings lived with another. My mom recovered, and, although she spoke no English and had just a fifth grade education, supported us through the help of friends and by cleaning beauty shops and other businesses that allowed her to bring the twins to work,” Pepper remembered. Erna remarried, and, in 1972, she and her now husband, Tom, moved to Wisconsin, where they have remained.
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