Updated: Apr 27
In honor of Women’s History Month, today’s blog will touch on the history and importance of women in the funeral service industry. Women’s involvement in the care of the deceased is nothing new. From as early as Ancient Greece, women have been integral to preparing and caring for the dead. Read below to learn a little more about their role from the past up until modern times.
The idea of an afterlife and the rituals surrounding death and burial were well established by the ancient Greeks. These elaborate burial rites consisted of three parts, the prothesis (laying out of the body), the ekphora (procession to the place of interment), and the interment of the body. Traditionally, these were conducted by the female relatives of the deceased, with each part having clear process. Throughout the entire process, a common theme for the women involved was the performance of lamentations. During these, women would pull on their hair, tear at their cheeks and clothes and sing dirges.
Before what would become the Funeral Profession, women were the layers-out or shrouders of the dead. Much like the women of ancient Greece before them, the role of caring for the deceased was seen as an extension of a woman’s role as the caretaker of the house. They would take care to wash, dress and groom the body, while the men in the community built the coffin and prepared the space for burial. Even after the funeral procession and burial, women continued their service by preparing a feast for guests.
As we moved into the Victorian Era, funeral service gained footing as a profession, especially during the Civil War. This created the largest shift in funeral practices as men began to take the forefront is preparing the body through embalming and carrying out each step of the funeral. Gone were the days of multi-day periods of mourning and funeral held at home. Now, it was all about getting those who died in the war back to their home states for burial. A woman’s role in the funeral shifted from participating in the preparation of the body to being the primary mourners. Many strict rules were set in place about how a woman, especially a widow should publicly mourn their loved one. These rules included the clothing they could wear, when they could leave their house and who they could socialize with.
Today, a woman’s role in death and dying has changed once again as more and more women enter the funeral profession, once again reclaiming their place in death care. In 2021, the ABFSE reported that over sixty-five percent of graduates from mortuary science programs in the United States were female. With these numbers of graduates, it is not uncommon to find funeral homes owned, managed, and staffed by female funeral directors. Though women still face many challenges in the male dominated field, they continue to be at the forefront of the green burial movement, the home funeral movement, and the emphasis on personalized funerals.
Historically, women have had a very hands-on role in caring for the deceased. These traditionally female roles of midwives, shrouders and layers-out of the dead were the historical counterparts to today’s hospice and palliative care workers and funeral directors. As the funeral industry changes, women are taking on leadership roles and are at the forefront of funeral service.