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Women in Funeral Service- Paving the Way

Women have long played an important role in caring for the dead. From nearly the beginning of civilized culture, women have been integral in the preparing and dressing of the body, the planning of food for mourners and carrying out the various mourning traditions. As we have moved into the 19th and 20th centuries, these roles have expanded into the professional sphere of funeral service. Today, we will focus on two women who helped pave the way for the role of women in the profession today.


Henrietta Duterte

Henrietta Smith Bowers Duterte was born in 1817 and was one of the 13 children of John and Henriette Bowers. She grew up in a thriving middle-class neighborhood of Philadelphia, where many notable black families called home. Henrietta was successful in her own right as a skilled tailor, but it wasn’t until her marriage to Francis Duterte, a Haitian coffin maker that she joined the funeral service. After his sudden death at the age of 45, Henrietta assumed control of his funeral business, defying the era’s gender and racial norms. With this, Henrietta became the first female owner of a funeral home in America. The business, which was operated under her name was also very successful, noted for being “prompt in her business affairs, and sympathizing and accommodating to all- rich or poor” in the March 8, 1862, edition of The Chrisitan Recorder. Henrietta learned the profession of undertaking quickly and was known for her skill and speed in burying the dead. This was important as it was a time when embalming was still in its infancy.

It would be remiss to not mention Henrietta’s role in her community in other ways, through many philanthropic acts. She supported the St. Thomas African Episcopal Church, which she was a long-time member of, the Philadelphia Home for the Aged and Infirmed Colored Persons and helped organize the Freedman’s Aid Society. Henrietta was also a member of the Underground Railroad, using her business to help escaped slaves to freedom.

Henrietta served her community in many ways and was instrumental in the introduction of women into funeral service. Her work as an undertaker remained at the forefront of her life, right up until her death on December 23, 1903, providing members of her community with the respect and dignity they deserved in life and death.

Lina D. Odou

Lina D. Odou was born in Europe in the mid-1800s and though her career in the funeral industry spanned a shorter time than Henrietta’s, it had just as many important lasting effects. Not much is known about Lina’s early life, though it is likely she spent her younger years in and around Europe, and she did have medical training as a nurse in Switzerland. It was also in Switzerland that she received her training in embalming. During this time, the need for female embalmers was growing as it was considered improper for a male undertaker to care for the deceased body of a woman or child.

In 1899, Rev. Stephen Merritt opened the Stephen Merritt Embalming Institute, employing Lina Odou as a professor, as well as Frank E. Campbell and Caroline H. LeFavre, M.D. Merritt’s school advertised boldly, “Women to teach Women” and was one of the first embalming schools to admit women. After some financial troubles, Merritt lost ownership of the school, and Lina stepped in to take full control. In 1901, the institution was renamed to the L. D. Odou Embalming Institute. The school continued to provide embalming instruction to women and by women instructors. Lina was also responsible for beginning the Women’s Licensed Embalmer Association, though little is known about the organization. There is very little recorded about Lina’s life after the embalming school, though it is known that she married an Italian man Lewis Zeccheto, who was also involved in funeral service. Lina died on October 10, 1931, and was buried at Ferncliff Cemetery.


Newspaper notice for New Corporations
Newspaper announcement of the embalming school.

Though the role women have had in caring for the dead has changed over time, it has always been hands on. From the roles of shrouders and layers-out of the dead, to today’s hospice, palliative care and funeral directors, women have been involved. Today, women are taking on leadership roles and are at the forefront of many of these industries. The role they play in caring for the deceased in any regard is an important one, and it is thanks to women who came before us, such as Henriette Duterte, Lina Odou and many others that women can continue to carry out this important role.   



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