How Women Are Taking Over Undertaking


They even have their own club. With pink coffee mugs.

As a piece on Slate explains, women getting into mortuary science — 57% of grads today, as opposed to 5% in 1970 — is more a return than a revolution. Pre-19th Century, it was women (“shrouding women”) who prepared bodies for death in America. It was only the necessity of shipping bodies during the Civil War — and later, the embalming of Abraham Lincoln’s body for its cross-counrty train tour — that normalized the embalming practice in this country (since it’s obviously been practiced for thousands of years around the world.) And as it became a commercial business, it became a man’s purview.

Writes Slate’s Vinnie Rotondaro,

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.

The irony’s not lost on the author that some of the reasons given for women’s resurgence in the field (beyond the ever-popular reliability of the profession) hearken back to similarly ingrained stereotypes.

“Women are more patient and more willing to explain things,” said Kim Stacey, founder of the Association of Women Funeral Professionals. Additionally, she said, “Women are more able to break down physical boundaries. People will accept a hug from a woman far more willingly than they will from a man.” In an industry in which a myriad of consumer protection laws often bewilder surviving family members who are in the process of purchasing funeral services, a woman’s supposed superiority in the empathy department can help seal deals. Some funeral homes only allow women to field calls from prospective clients for just this reason.

As a funeral director, wouldn’t you resent the implicit pressure to emote and hug? Okay, maybe not the members of “Funeral Divas Inc.,” the above-mentioned pink-accessorized women’s funeral director’s club, who seem intent on embracing their unique place in the industry. But if women are joining the industry at such a rate, surely we’ll have all personality types, all styles, all approaches — at least, for those customers less interested in an emotive experience, one can only hope so. In any case, it will be a while yet — despite the numbers of comers in the industry, the older ranks are largely male. Hence the solidarity — and the California meetup — of Funeral Divas.

Funeral Divas [Slate]

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