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mortician with client comforting and advisingAccording to the National Funeral Directors Association, in 2010, 57 percent of mortuary school graduates in the United States were women, up 60 percent since 1995. Despite the increase in numbers, however, women face challenges in succeeding as part of an industry that for the past hundred years or so has been dominated by men. It has not always been the case. Before widespread industrialization, caring for the dead had been women's work. Now, new technologies and a burgeoning network of female leaders in the funeral industry are opening the field back up for women.

From Family Affair to the Family Business

Prior to the Civil War, the women of the household were the ones who prepared the body of a deceased loved one for viewing and for burial. At the time, funerals, like births, were events that occurred in the home. In 1850, the two happenings were often related: Slate Magazine reports that the infant mortality rate at the time was over 20 percent for whites, and well above 30 percent for blacks. Women who attended births had the unfortunate task of preparing for many infant funerals, as well as those of older family members. "Shrouding women" washed and rubbed the body with herbs then dressed it for viewing and for burial. It was left to the men to build the coffins and dig the graves.

This situation changed during and after the Civil War, when thousands of soldiers died away from their homes. Up until then, the process of embalming, though available, had been viewed as suspect. During the war, embalming became accepted as a way to preserve the body of a loved one so that it could be returned to the family for burial. The process was further validated when it was used to maintain President Lincoln's body during the train procession that took him from the Capitol to Springfield, Illinois. From the late 19th century and throughout the 20th, funerals became an industry. The ritual moved out of and away from the home and into the domain of professional male directors. In the process, the business has developed a reputation for being comprised of family-owned operations passed down from father to son or nephew.

Shifting Perceptions of Women

During the Victorian Age and for decades beyond, the role of women in the United States underwent a significant shift. While women may have always been perceived, appropriately or no, as more emotionally sensitive than their male relatives, they were now newly viewed as physically delicate creatures in need of protection. Once embalming took hold, the process of preparing a body for burial was deemed unseemly and too scientific for females. Plus, women were thought too weak to lift and move heavy bodies and caskets. After the mid-20th century, women began to enter into the field and work in the industry, usually as a member of a family business. However, the legacy of the male funeral director was a trend that held strong and continues to dominate right up to the present. Today there are several factors at play that seem to be helping to turn the tide. These include:

  • A rise in entrepreneurial efforts by women to create their own businesses within the funeral industry
  • An emergence of professional associations designed to support women in the industry
  • New technologies to help people meet the physical demands of the job

The latter includes products made by Mortuary Lift, a company owned and operated by Katie Hill, a third-generation funeral director whose father adapted a boat hoist to suit the needs of his business. Mortuary Lift is just one of the developments in the industry that is working to draw women back into the business of taking care of families when their loved ones have passed on.

Category: Funeral

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