Women in Funeral Service On the RiseMarch 1, 2016
As March is Women’s History Month, we’d like to acknowledge and honor the increasing number of women choosing to work as funeral directors, funeral celebrants, and funeral planners. In what was once a male dominated field, female students are now the majority of those studying the mortuary sciences – from 35 percent in 1995 up to more than 60 percent today.
Coming full circle
Prior to the Civil War in the United States, caring for the dead most often occurred in the home and was largely seen as a woman’s role as part of their household tasks. Also, women were involved in delivering babies and because of the high infant mortality rate, death was often part of the birth process. Women collected the deceased, washed the body and rubbed it with herbs to reduce the smell. The body was dressed by women and posed in the home for the wake and funeral. Men in those days were largely responsible for constructing the coffin and digging the grave.
But the War Between the States changed all that. Soldiers were often dying far from home and families began to request that the bodies be embalmed in order for their loved ones to be preserved for the long trip home to be viewed and buried. Previously, the custom of embalming was held with suspicion as an unnatural practice, but gained acceptance during the war, especially after President Lincoln’s body was embalmed and and toured on a funeral train in 1865. This shift in funeral practice and public attitudes created the birth of the funeral industry in America which was headed by those educated in the mortuary sciences – and until recently was predominantly men. Many trade journals of the time argued that women did not have the ability to study the sciences; were not physically able to lift the bodies; and were not emotionally stable enough to deal with death.
Funeral Service Has Come a Long Way
Things have improved for women since those days, but it has taken a long time to break down barriers in the funeral professions. It wasn’t until the turn of the millennium that the number of women graduating from U.S. mortuary schools equaled the number of men. While women have even exceeded the number of male students enrolled in mortuary sciences today, the number of women working in the funeral field is still below that of men. Approximately 43 percent of funeral directors in the United States are women today, up from 5 percent only forty years ago.
The same qualities that kept women out of funeral service in the past – empathy, intuition and being in touch with emotions – have now become advantages in a compassion-driven business. Many families feel more comfortable opening up to a female funeral director as well as seeking comfort and nurturing from a woman.
At Keohane Funeral Home, we are proud to have five female funeral directors and three female funeral apprentices on our staff.
If you’d like to make an appointment with one of our knowledgeable funeral directors, male or female, please contact us at any of our locations or call our main office at 1-800-Keohane (800-536-4263).
Photo Credit: Lisa Young