Death & Feminism: The History of Funerals as Women’s Work

Women have always played an important role in handling the deceased. Yet funeral customs throughout history reflect significant labor shifts. In the mid-1800s women called “shrouders” or “layers-out of the dead” offered their services as primary caretakers of the dead. Women who were themselves widows or previously bereaved washed, dressed and posed corpses of friends and extended family members for their at-home ceremonies. This included grooming, removal of organs and applying preservation techniques to stave off rot.81fyOIpqtnL.jpg(The Shrouding Woman, by Loretta Ellsworth tells the story of Evie, whose aunt with a strange profession comes to live with them after her mother’s death. Credit)

Since antiquity women’s burial duties have consisted of much more than body preparation. They also presided over ancient funereal rites. Greek and Roman women carried out the iconic Charon’s obol, or placing of a coin over the deceased’s mouth in payment for a last ferry ride.

Even the display of grief has historically been women’s work. Dating as far back as the seventh century women earned money by mourning loudly at wakes in performances called “keening.” Folklore of the banshee stems from this tradition of wailing women. The practice still exists in many forms throughout the world. Women in Ireland abandoned the keening marketplace during the 1950s when Catholic priests no longer shared profits from the burial fees.Banshee.jpgCredit

Vocational options for women in the death industry have been further decimated by economies of war. During the Civil War, formaldehyde embalming became the favored practice because it allowed fallen soldiers to be returned to their families less decomposed after lengthy train trips.20817221746_8ac22794ec_o.jpgCredit

By mid-1800s women were not present among the growing ranks of mortuary science graduates and funeral duties were no longer being performed primarily in the home. Instead they were relegated to parlors where undertaking became a formal occupation dominated by men. In 1867 Philadelphia reported 125 professional male undertakers and only four female shrouders. Women’s access to the industry was also hampered by journalists who published on the topic of women’s inadequacy for funeral arranging careers.

Like other industries that have pushed women out as soon as it became a lucrative and respected career path (see the Medieval beer trade as another example) the world of deathcare is shifting again. The National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA) reported in 2010 that 57% of mortuary science students in the US were women. That figure was up 60% from 1995. But it does not equate to actual jobs. The vast majority of available mortuary positions are still secured by men. The Chicago Sun-Times reported that women today make up less than 17% of NFDA’s overall membership.Millais_-_Das_Tal_der_Stille.jpg

Women’s rights movements of the 1970s and 80s were certainly influential in reshaping demographics of the American funeral industry, but there are still battles to be won. Funeral homes remain conservative institutions due to their clientele. Getting hired is especially difficult for women of color, women with visible tattoos, and trans people. Continued support from the feminist community is needed now more than ever.ElizabethMayMangan.pngCredit

As women become funeral directors and owners of their own facilities, women’s employment will likely increase. Green burial practices have also given rise to professions like death doulas and funeral celebrants. Fortune magazine wrote in an article two years ago that an increasing number of funerals “will probably be run by a woman.” As eventual consumers of death we can assist by keeping women and minority-owned businesses in mind for our own end of life plans.


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