Funeral Divas

How women are returning to the death care industry in droves.

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In October 2010, Muneerah Warner founded Funeral Divas Inc., a social group for women in the death care industry. At the Divas’ website black and pink coffin mugs, hoodies, and umbrellas can be bought, and members can enroll in a funeral director mentorship program. According to the site, the group’s mission is “to encourage and uplift every woman in the funeral service industry and have fun at the same time!” So far 300 women have joined. This July many of them will be meeting in Laguna Beach, Calif., for the Funeral Divas’ first-ever retreat.

A bevy of women whooping it up at a spa and resort in the golden state is hardly the image that comes to mind when one thinks of funeral work. For most, the stereotype of undertakers, morticians, and embalmers as men—often old men—still applies. Think Dan Aykroyd as Harry Sultenfuss from My Girl, or Clarence Williams III’s Mr. Simms, a batty, salt-and-pepper-afroed mortician in Tales From the Hood. As one funeral worker put it, “It’s not a boys’ club so much as it’s an old man’s club.” But in fact, death care is becoming less and less of a man’s world: Today 57 percent of U.S. mortuary school graduates are women, up from 5 percent in 1970. Though this influx is stereotype bashing, it’s also something of a homecoming. Today’s women funeral workers aren’t moving into death care so much as they’re moving back into it.

Before the 1860s, caring for the dead was viewed as a woman’s role. Death care tended to take place in the home, and the cultural perception of women as more intuitive and emotional made them an obvious choice for the job. Additionally, because women were the ones who helped deliver infants, and the infant mortality rate was high—in 1850 it was 216.8 for every 1,000 live births among whites and 340 for every 1,000 live births among blacks—dealing with deaths was seen as part of the birthing process.

Colloquially, women in death care were known as “shrouding women.” They collected the corpse, washed it, rubbed it with herbs to reduce smell, dressed it, and posed it for its wake and burial. In most cases, men were responsible for constructing the coffin and digging the grave only.

All this changed during the Civil War. With thousands of American men dying far away from home, families began requesting that their loved ones be embalmed and shipped from the battlefields. Up until then, most Americans viewed the practice with suspicion. It was seen as unnatural, something that took place in medical schools. But the realities of war helped to soften attitudes about what would be acceptable to do to bodies for the sake of a ceremonial goodbye. And then, crucially, on April 15, 1865, when President Abraham Lincoln died, top advisers decided that he be embalmed and toured on a funeral train. It proved embalming’s shining moment.

From that point on, undertaking slowly grew into a commercial enterprise, and women were pushed out in the process. To some extent, it was the business aspect of the funeral business that worked against them. During the Victorian era and into the 20th century, women generally weren’t allowed to be in business. They were left on the sidelines.

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 Illinois Wesleyan University, 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.

Of course, things have improved for women since those days. In the funeral industry, traditional as it was (and is), it was particularly difficult for women to erode workplace barriers. It wasn’t until 2000 that the number of women equaled the number of men graduating from U.S. mortuary schools.

Interviews with women funeral workers today yielded two main reasons for their wanting to move into the business: First, it’s a stable, well-paying job. The mean annual wage of a funeral director is just over $60,000, and there will never be a shortage of deaths.

The second reason hearkens back—somewhat ironically—to the archetype of the nurturing woman from the pre-Civil War days: Women funeral workers believe they outperform men when it comes to comforting and listening to surviving family members, and at using their feminine touch to create memorable, meaningful funeral services. Where men coldly push paper across tabletops, they say, women give hugs.

“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.

However, death care isn’t a woman’s field just yet. Most estimates put the number of women working in the funeral industry well below that of men, despite women’s high mortuary school graduation rates. The fact remains that many funeral homes remain small, family-run businesses in which fathers have passed down ownership to sons over generations. And some prejudice still exists. Many women looking to move into the funeral industry say that male owners overlook them. Employers won’t harbor doubts about a man’s ability to pick up a 300-pound body, but they will with a woman. Those already working in the industry say they feel as though they constantly have to prove themselves.

Women death care workers may not have to put up with these hurdles in the future. For the first time ever, as evidenced by the Funeral Divas and the Association of Women Funeral Professionals, they are organizing and, in turn, developing a group consciousness. As the old guard dies off, the idea of a funeral worker enjoying a giggly getaway in California may not be so far off after all.

Correction, March 26, 2011: In the original version of this article, the author’s name was misspelled.

Correction, April 1, 2011: This article originally misidentified Georganne Rundblad as a professor at the University of Illinois-Urbana. (Return to the corrected sentence.)