History of Women in the Funeral Industry

by M-Gillies

Although degree requirements differ between states and provinces, college degrees in mortuary science can usually be earned in two to four years of study. A license in embalming requires additional studies.

If there’s one thing to be said about the funeral industry, it is a business of equal opportunity for both the consumer and the wholesaler, and with an increase in change, the once male-dominated enterprise of death-care services is seeing a progressive feminization in its industrious ranks.

Before 19th century, when carpenters and cabinet-makers began practicing undertaking, it was the role of women to act as caregivers to the dead; collecting the deceased, washing it, rubbing it with herbs to reduce the smell, dressing it and posing it for its wake and burial. It was through this act that they earned themselves the title of shrouding women, or as time passed, the layers-out of the dead.

However, as undertaking began emerging as a distinct occupational specialty in the early 1800s, the funeral service industry was one of the few trades that extended a warm welcome to women in the days when businesses were dominated by educated, land-owning men.

Due in part of 19th century Victorian notions of decorum being strict, women were the only ones allowed to handle the remains of other women and children, as it was considered inappropriate for a man to embalm an unclothed woman he didn’t know.

Still, not seen in the ranks of undertakers during these early years, it wasn’t until the turn of the century that a shift in funeral industry took place.

During this time, embalming had been approached by many with skepticism. It wasn’t an uncommon thought for people to look at embalming as an unnatural practice, wholly reserved for medical schools. However, with thousands of American men dying far away from home during the Civil War, families began requesting their loved ones be embalmed and shipped from the battlefields for a proper interment.

It was through these casualties of war that the public’s attitude toward embalming shifted for the sake of a ceremonial goodbye, further encouraging undertaking to slowly grow into a marketable commercial enterprise.

Nevertheless, the funeral industry was still young, and the use of female practitioners was unheard of, especially with trade journals, such as The Casket and Embalmer’s Monthly publishing editorials to wholly discourage female interest in the trade.

In their editorials, they argued that women were unfit for the funeral industry, claiming women to be emotional unfit to deal with death and the physical demands requested for funerary practices, and to further add insult to injury, contended that women don’t do science, concerning the new cornerstone niche of the science of embalming.

However, all this changed when Spanish-born nurse Lina D. Odou became known as the pioneer for female embalmers. It was only after Odou, a former nurse for the Red Cross turned private nurse to several royal families, began advocating the need for women embalmers in the funeral industry.

Using that notion for motivation, she moved to Switzerland, where she became an expert in the practice of embalming. However, it was her relocation to the United States in 1899 which established her as a pioneer for women in embalming, after she opened a school for women at the undertaking institute of the Rev. Stephen Merritt. Two years later, in 1901, she formed the Lina D. Odou Embalming Institute.

Through her writings and example the interest of many woman was sparked and many enrolled for training to become licensed and practicing embalmers. As Superintendent of the Women’s Department at her own mortuary, Odou organized the Women’s Licensed Embalmer Association to furnish female embalmers to families and undertakers.

Not everyone was receptive to the idea of women joining the trade; particularly during the 50s, when women were regarded as second-class citizens, holding womanly jobs such as a nurses, teachers or stay-at-home mothers.

When the second-wave of the feminist movement began in the early 60s, which drew large concerns over the issues of equality, this liberation helped force a change upon the male-dominated sectors. With many industries adopting to the change, the funeral industry saw an increase of women practitioners

Since these pinnacle moments in history, Mortuary Science programs are seeing more women enrollees nationwide, making up 56.9% of attendees according to the American Board of Funeral Service Education.

“The public wants a funeral director who is competent in meeting their physical, psychological and sociological needs, and we will not let them down,” wrote Ellen Broaddus for ICFM Magazine in 2005. “There will be a whole new face to the funeral industry and it is going to have a lot less facial hair.

Read more:

Women in the American Funeral Industry | Transitions

Women Funeral Directors: Starting to Dominate the Funeral Care Industry | Slate Magazine

The Future Role of Women in the Funeral Industry | ICCFA

A History of Women as Funeral Directors | The Family Plot

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