A History of Women as Funeral Directors

Mar 29, 2011 | 0 comments

There’s a great story by Vinnie Rotondaro on Salon.com titled “Funeral Divas: How women are returning to the death care industry in droves.” The history is fascinating! From the article:

Before the 1860s, caring for the dead was viewed as a woman’s role. Death care tended to take place in the home, and the cultural perception of women as more intuitive and emotional made them an obvious choice for the job. Additionally, because women were the ones who helped deliver infants, and the infant mortality rate was high—in 1850 it was 216.8 for every 1,000 live births among whites and 340 for every 1,000 live births among blacks—dealing with deaths was seen as part of the birthing process.

Colloquially, women in death care were known as “shrouding women.” They collected the corpse, washed it, rubbed it with herbs to reduce smell, dressed it, and posed it for its wake and burial. In most cases, men were responsible for constructing the coffin and digging the grave only.

All this changed during the Civil War. With thousands of American men dying far away from home, families began requesting that their loved ones be embalmed and shipped from the battlefields. Up until then, most Americans viewed the practice with suspicion. It was seen as unnatural, something that took place in medical schools. But the realities of war helped to soften attitudes about what would be acceptable to do to bodies for the sake of a ceremonial goodbye. And then, crucially, on April 15, 1865, when President Abraham Lincoln died, top advisers decided that he be embalmed and toured on a funeral train. It proved embalming’s shining moment.

From that point on, undertaking slowly grew into a commercial enterprise, and women were pushed out in the process. To some extent, it was the business aspect of the funeral business that worked against them. During the Victorian era and into the 20th century, women generally weren’t allowed to be in business. They were left on the sidelines.

Furthermore, as the funeral industry burgeoned, editorials in trade journals, such as The Casket and Embalmer’s Monthly began arguing that women were especially unfit for the funeral industry. The industry’s cornerstone was the science of embalming, the editorials contended, and women don’t do science; nor were women emotionally fit to deal with death itself, or the physical demands of funeral work (e.g., picking up dead bodies.) According to Georganne Rundblad, a sociology and anthropology professor at University of Illinois–Urbana, these articles tended to focus on women who tried to move into the industry. The attitude of these publications was, “How can these women think about possibly moving into this occupation? Women are too timid, too sweet,” Rundblad explained.

Read the whole story at Salon.com.

A Good Goodbye