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August 28, 2020 Brigitte Ganger

How Women Disrupted the Funeral Industry

Is the future of death care female?

How Women Disrupted the Funeral Industry
Women are at the forefront of recent disruptions in the death care industry. From doulaship to environmental efforts, the future of funerals is taking ethics and harm reduction seriously (Getty Images)

The undertaking profession is seeing a change in culture and visibility — largely brought about by higher numbers of women entering the field. While still not yet considered female-dominated, the fresh infusion of death-positive philosophy, life celebration, and death doulaship by women is changing the face of the death industry. Shifting values, technology, and optics have created a disruption — and women are at the forefront. 

Women-led death care in history

Women in death rites is not a new phenomenon. In Ancient Greece, women were in charge of preparing the bodies of the dead for burial. They led ceremonies, dressed the dead, and oversaw viewing and burial rituals. Before the American Civil War, almost all funerals were conducted in the home by women.

During the Civil War, American funerals shifted from the home to the funeral home. Though people back then were used to seeing frequent death, the casualties of the war "upset conventional patterns of disposal, as well as established attitudes about communal duties, religious rituals, and personal respect in the face of death." Families wanted a final chance to see their loved ones before burial, and the sheer volume of corpses made quick burial impossible in some cases, leading to sanitation concerns. Embalming emerged as a way of solving these problems.

Funeral homes, undertaking, and memorialization became an industry and a profession. A false idea that bodies were dangerous to public health pushed embalming forward, as many believed this was the only way to safely sit with the dead. Funeral directors themselves upsold the value of embalming, as this procedure led to more profits. Women were often still involved in home death care, and even moved into the commercial funeral industry. However, they were rarely designated as professional morticians, and a culture of women-led death care largely fell by the wayside.

A culture of death-aversion 

Funeral homes nowadays offer more options than ever, but the industry has been slow to embrace change. A new wave of women working in mortality has refreshed public interest in the ethics, approach, and purpose of the death industry.

Conventional American funerals of the past century have focused on religion, tradition, and masking the unpleasantness of decay. By default, funeral homes offer grieving families the option to keep death at a distance. While this is the preference of many mourners, some argue  this distance from death has created a culture of death aversion and unpreparedness:

Americans’ fear and loathing of death poses major consequences for the future; the fact that our life spans have been dramatically extended over the last century does not make the impending arrival of death any easier. In fact, many if not most of us are dreading the day this most unwelcome guest will knock on our doors, as our youth-oriented society casts death as a threatening foe or adversary. With the biggest generation in history already in or rapidly hurtling toward its sixties, America is on the brink of becoming a death-oriented society, I contend, something that we are not at all prepared for. Baby boomers are especially unready for this day; their individual and collective deaths may become one of the most important chapters in American history. 

— Lawrence R. Samuel Ph.D., Psychology Today

Being unprepared for the universal reality of inevitable death harms the quality of life of those living in a death-averse society. It can lead to a culture of fear, inadequate end-of-life care, more expensive and impersonal funeral arrangements, and also has environmental implications. 

Disrupting the death industry

Modern mourners need more from the funeral industry, and women in death care have answered the call. Efforts to provide more personalized, casual forms of memorialization, eco-friendly disposition options, and an open dialogue about harm reduction in death care have been led by women in the death care space in the last twenty years.  

Many are surprised to discover that it is still perfectly legal for a viewing to be held without embalming, for a body to be buried without a casket, and even to conduct a home funeral without using the services of a funeral director. These options have always been available to families, but are regaining popularity in a world that increasingly demands ethical options. 

Modern death values bring old and new practices together. Natural burial is valued as an environmentally sound alternative to burying embalmed corpses in metal caskets, or emitting crematory fumes into the atmosphere. Services that reflect an individual's values and personality are becoming more preferred than the impersonal, formal nature of a 'traditional' funeral ceremony. Greater physical and emotional proximity to death and dying reduces harm caused by a culture of silence. 

These disruptions to industry conventions of the past century are changing the cultural landscape, and creating new opportunities for mourners to find meaning in memorialization.

The women leading the movement

Women are driving western funeral practices into the 21st century by once again bringing mourners closer to their deceased loved ones by offering modern, practical alternatives to the age-old issue of how to handle death. 

Artist Jae Rhim Lee took her innovative mushroom burial suit mainstream when she appeared on the TED Talk stage wearing the mushroom-seeded, biodegradable outfit. She is just one of the many female thought leaders in the death space who is leading disruption of an industry that has been slow to go green.

By trying to preserve our dead bodies, we deny death, poison the living, and further harm the environment.

— Jae Rhim Lee

Funeral Director, Death Community Advocate and founder of DeathCare BC Emily Bootle says women are indeed disrupting the funeral industry. 

The celebrant space, as well as end-of-life doulas, it's basically all women. It's a very women-centred movement, for sure. And women were the original people who did the bathing, who did the shrouding, for the most part. And then the Quaker traditions were also women. It's really important to remain inclusive. Women are now entering the space and asking, 'Why is this such a sales approach? Why are we doing it this way?' 

—  Emily Bootle, DeathCare BC

She points to disrupters like Katrina Spade and Caitlin Doughty for leading a less commercial and more ethical approach to death rituals. One of the most influential women in the death industry today is Caitlin Doughty: mortician, author, and founder of The Order of the Good Death, which provides a ideological framework for the death positivity movement:

The Order is about making death a part of your life. That means committing to staring down your death fears — whether it be your own death, the death of those you love, the pain of dying, the afterlife (or lack thereof), grief, corpses, bodily decomposition, or all of the above. Accepting that death itself is natural, but the death anxiety and terror of modern culture are not.

Order of the Good Death

LOS ANGELES, CA - MAY 25: Mortician Caitlin Doughty attends Fast Company Creativity Counter-Conference 2016 on May 24, 2016 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Vivien Killilea/Getty Images for Fast Company)

According to Bootle, recent disruptions in the industry may be more related to generational differences than gender differences. "I keep thinking of all the men I've worked with who also have the same characteristics that people assign to women." She says the men she works with share the same ideals as herself and other female professionals, caring for the dead and grieving with compassion, respect, and professionalism.

One of the reasons women seem to be leading innovation in the death space may simply come down to numbers. While men still represent the majority of working funeral directors, the tides are changing:

In the past decade, the number of women enrolled in the nation’s 59 accredited mortuary science programs began to meet and then exceed the number of their male classmates. In 2016, 61 percent of students in college and university programs were female.

— Kevyn Burger, Next Avenue

Making waves

Christina Andreola, founder of New Narrative Memorials in Vancouver, BC, is another example of a  woman who is disrupting the funeral industry — and making waves in the process. Known as a "polarizing figure" in the death community, she plans bereavement events like memorial services without status as a licensed funeral director. 

She says that many traditional funeral providers "feel threatened that there is somebody else providing a different solution in the industry, they feel that this is their sacred territory that they want to keep, and they don't like [new] people coming in." 

Ceremonies by New Narrative often don't feel like funerals. Depending on the family, a celebration of life could look like a disco, jam sesh, theme party, or sharing circle. Embracing family participation and autonomy, New Narrative services offer greater flexibility and freedom for those who want something different than a traditional funeral experience. 

According to Andreola, the regulatory body that oversees the funeral industry has provided her with mixed messages about whether her work encroaches on the duties of licensed funeral directors. She is not a mortician, and does not carry out any of the duties of a funeral director that include handling of bodies, including cremation, burial, or preparation of the body. But because she participates in bereavement rites or ceremonies, the funeral events she facilitates walk the line between the old and new schools of thought surrounding death and memorialization. 

"There are people who want to go outside of the funeral home and who are actively seeking out other avenues [for their loved one's memorialization]. They may have a preconceived notion of a funeral director. Some think they're scary. They see it as being really sad and depressing, and they want  a different experience for their families," she said.

"The more people that know it's okay to wait, and it's okay to plan the event they want to, the more we'll see the normalization of event planners handling memorials." 

Breaking norms

The breaking of conventions in the death industry is shifting the ways families and funeral homes are approaching death. Women appear to be leading the innovation, which may be related to the high number of women entering the funeral profession compared to men. 

A new generation of death care practitioners, from funeral directors, to end-of-life doulas, to innovators and entrepreneurs, is normalizing end-of-life issues and discussions. The result is  funerals that are more family-centered, ethical, and ultimately more meaningful.  

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