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The future role of women in the funeral industry

      
Date Published: 
November, 2005
Original Author: 
Ellen Broaddus
Original Publication: 
ICFM Magazine, November 2005

Comparing the past, present and future

Historically, women have been the caretakers of the sick, but they also played a large part in the care of the dead. For example, women were responsible for preparing the remains of the ancient Greeks, included washing, dressing and anointing the body Christian families saw it as their duty to take care of their own dead, and it was usually the women who handled this.

In Hebrew tradition, women did the washing and dressing because it was considered unclean and distasteful work for the priestly class. Likewise, colonial American women prepared their dead, unless the family was well-to-do, in which case a nurse could be hired to wash and lay out the body. Either way, it was still most likely a woman doing the job. All of these customs heavily influenced modern American funeral practices.

During the 19th century, when carpenters and cabinet-makers began practicing undertaking, nurses and midwives were acting as layers-out of the dead. This carried on through the late 1800s and into the early 20th century, when most deaths still occurred at home.

It was during this period that undertaking was first emerging as a distinct occupational specialty. Newspapers advertisements refer to both male and female tradesmen. Although they were ''tradesmen" and belonged to ''brotherhoods'' such as Steward of the Guild, the funeral service industry was one of the few trades that welcomed women in the days when the business world was dominated by educated, land-owning, white men.

Of course the 19th-century Victorian notions of decency were strict, and by this time women were only allowed to handle the remains of other women or children. (It was considered inappropriate for a man to embalm an unclothed woman he did not know.) Still, women were not prohibited from entering the trade, even though they were not commonly seen in the ranks of undertakers in the early years.

This brings us to the 20th century and one of the pioneer women of embalming, Lina D. Odou. Odou was born in Spain, but ended up in London at the age of 15. She acquired her passion for nursing when she met Florence Nightingale, who took Odou as her protégé and sponsored her training as a nurse.

Odou worked as a Red Cross nurse in the French Army and then became a private nurse to several royal families. Around this time she began advocating the use of female embalmers to handle the remains of women and children. She was once quoted as saying, "Over and over again have I heard mothers ask undertakers if they could not furnish women embalmers for their dead daughters, and many others to whom the dead are sacred have asked the same question, and I have invariably heard such men say there are no women to be had for such a purpose."

This is what motivated her to become an expert in the practice herself. She studied in Switzerland and then in 1899 moved to the United States, where she opened a school for women at the undertaking establishment of the Rev. Stephen Merritt. Her first class graduated 10 students. After two years, she went on to establish the Lina D. Odou Embalming Institute in early 1901 at Frank E. Campbell's establishment.

Due to Odou's work, writings and example, training of women embalmers gained increased support. She submitted editorials to trade journals advocating the use of female embalmers in undertaking firms and even the giants in the field supported the concept. Still, many establishments would not allow women to handle the remains of men.

As the "Superintendent of the Women's Department" at her own mortuary, Odou also organized the Women's Licensed Embalmer Association to furnish female embalmers to families and undertakers. She blazed a trail for other women to follow and they did, opening other institutions
that trained a pioneer corps of female embalmers that would practice at firms throughout the country.

Not everyone was receptive to the idea of women joining the trade. I'm sure the trend in the '50s of women typically holding "womanly" jobs such as nurse, teacher and stay-at-home mom put a wrench in the works. Women were second-class citizens and were thought to have no place in the business field.

The further the funeral industry headed toward becoming a profession, the further women were left behind. If you weren't family in a family-owned business, it was most likely unheard of for a woman to be in the prep room unless she was on the table. This mentality is still held by some of the older generation of embalmers today.

Whatever setbacks women might have seen, women's liberation sure changed all that, in this industry as well as many others. Now women are allowed to work on men as well as women and children. As the inclusion of women has increased, so has women's interest. In my class alone, the women outnumber the men at least two-to-one.

I think it is part of that innate desire in women to help others, carrying on the tradition of women being the primary caretakers in our society. Stereotypes don't come about without a reason, and whether it is true or not, people believe women are better at consolation.

I believe women have a very solid future in the funeral industry because of these notions. Some families will open up more and generally feel better with their loved one in the caring hands of a woman. I believe people today, as in Odou's time, want women to handle their sacred dead.

Women are also generally considered to be honest and innocent, even though we know that is not always the case. Families feel like they can trust a woman and won't be taken advantage of, as could easily happen during the arrangement process.

Bottom line, women have the talent and the care to be at the top in this field. Though only an estimated 10 percent of our class will stay in the field, I for one can attest that we women will make our mark on the future, following the legacy of pioneering female embalmers.

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

Historically, women have been the caretakers of the sick, but they also played a large part in the care of the dead. For example, women were responsible for preparing the remains of the ancient Greeks, included washing, dressing and anointing the body Christian families saw it as their duty to take care of their own dead, and it was usually the women who handled this.

In Hebrew tradition, women did the washing and dressing because it was considered unclean and distasteful work for the priestly class. Likewise, colonial American women prepared their dead, unless the family was well-to-do, in which case a nurse could be hired to wash and lay out the body. Either way, it was still most likely a woman doing the job. All of these customs heavily influenced modern American funeral practices.

During the 19th century, when carpenters and cabinet-makers began practicing undertaking, nurses and midwives were acting as layers-out of the dead. This carried on through the late 1800s and into the early 20th century, when most deaths still occurred at home.

It was during this period that undertaking was first emerging as a distinct occupational specialty. Newspapers advertisements refer to both male and female tradesmen. Although they were ''tradesmen" and belonged to ''brotherhoods'' such as Steward of the Guild, the funeral service industry was one of the few trades that welcomed women in the days when the business world was dominated by educated, land-owning, white men.

Of course the 19th-century Victorian notions of decency were strict, and by this time women were only allowed to handle the remains of other women or children. (It was considered inappropriate for a man to embalm an unclothed woman he did not know.) Still, women were not prohibited from entering the trade, even though they were not commonly seen in the ranks of undertakers in the early years.

This brings us to the 20th century and one of the pioneer women of embalming, Lina D. Odou. Odou was born in Spain, but ended up in London at the age of 15. She acquired her passion for nursing when she met Florence Nightingale, who took Odou as her protégé and sponsored her training as a nurse.

Odou worked as a Red Cross nurse in the French Army and then became a private nurse to several royal families. Around this time she began advocating the use of female embalmers to handle the remains of women and children. She was once quoted as saying, "Over and over again have I heard mothers ask undertakers if they could not furnish women embalmers for their dead daughters, and many others to whom the dead are sacred have asked the same question, and I have invariably heard such men say there are no women to be had for such a purpose."

This is what motivated her to become an expert in the practice herself. She studied in Switzerland and then in 1899 moved to the United States, where she opened a school for women at the undertaking establishment of the Rev. Stephen Merritt. Her first class graduated 10 students. After two years, she went on to establish the Lina D. Odou Embalming Institute in early 1901 at Frank E. Campbell's establishment.

Due to Odou's work, writings and example, training of women embalmers gained increased support. She submitted editorials to trade journals advocating the use of female embalmers in undertaking firms and even the giants in the field supported the concept. Still, many establishments would not allow women to handle the remains of men.

As the "Superintendent of the Women's Department" at her own mortuary, Odou also organized the Women's Licensed Embalmer Association to furnish female embalmers to families and undertakers. She blazed a trail for other women to follow and they did, opening other institutions
that trained a pioneer corps of female embalmers that would practice at firms throughout the country.

Not everyone was receptive to the idea of women joining the trade. I'm sure the trend in the '50s of women typically holding "womanly" jobs such as nurse, teacher and stay-at-home mom put a wrench in the works. Women were second-class citizens and were thought to have no place in the business field.

The further the funeral industry headed toward becoming a profession, the further women were left behind. If you weren't family in a family-owned business, it was most likely unheard of for a woman to be in the prep room unless she was on the table. This mentality is still held by some of the older generation of embalmers today.

Whatever setbacks women might have seen, women's liberation sure changed all that, in this industry as well as many others. Now women are allowed to work on men as well as women and children. As the inclusion of women has increased, so has women's interest. In my class alone, the women outnumber the men at least two-to-one.

I think it is part of that innate desire in women to help others, carrying on the tradition of women being the primary caretakers in our society. Stereotypes don't come about without a reason, and whether it is true or not, people believe women are better at consolation.

I believe women have a very solid future in the funeral industry because of these notions. Some families will open up more and generally feel better with their loved one in the caring hands of a woman. I believe people today, as in Odou's time, want women to handle their sacred dead.

Women are also generally considered to be honest and innocent, even though we know that is not always the case. Families feel like they can trust a woman and won't be taken advantage of, as could easily happen during the arrangement process.

Bottom line, women have the talent and the care to be at the top in this field. Though only an estimated 10 percent of our class will stay in the field, I for one can attest that we women will make our mark on the future, following the legacy of pioneering female embalmers.

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

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Code: 
A1439