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 those who passed. Women who were themselves widows or previously bereaved washed, dressed, and posed corpses of friends and extended family for their at-home ceremonies. This included grooming, removal of organs, and applying preservation techniques to stave off rot.*
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 been historically women’s work. Dating as far back as the seventh century women earned money by mourning loudly at Irish 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 agreed to share profits from burial fees.
Vocational options for women in the death industry were initially blighted by economies of war. During the Civil War formaldehyde embalming procedures became the norm because it allowed fallen soldiers to be returned to their families with less decomposition after lengthy train rides home.
By mid-1800s women were not present among growing ranks of mortuary science graduates and funeral duties were shuttled away from the home almost entirely. Instead they became relegated to parlors where undertaking was established as a formal occupation dominated by men. In 1867 Philadelphia reported 125 professional male undertakers and only four female shrouders. Women’s access further diminished at the hands of trade journalists who routinely published on the topic of women’s ineptitude for embalming careers.
Like other industries that have pushed women out as soon as it became a lucrative and respected job (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. However, these statistics do not always equate to real jobs. Women’s employment continues to rank well below their male counterparts. The Chicago Sun-Times reported that women make up less than 17% of NFDA’s overall membership.
Women’s rights movements of the 1970s and 80s have been 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.
Fortunately, more women have become funeral directors and owners of their own facilities allowing women’s employability to increase. Green and independent burial practices have also created opportunities for women interested in professions like death doulas and funeral celebrants. Fortune magazine stated in an article over two years ago that an increasing number of mortuaries “will probably be run by a woman.” As inevitable consumers of the death industry, we can help support this reality by choosing women and minority-owned business for our own end of life plans.