Less than 40 years ago, only 5% of funeral directors in the United States were women, and today that number hovers around 43%. The ratio of male to female students in mortuary science schools has rapidly shifted as well, from 35% in 1995 to a current rate of around 60%.
Interestingly enough, women historically played a large part in traditional death care practices. In ancient Greece, women were responsible for dressing, washing and anointing the body. In the ancient Hebrew traditions, washing and dressing the dead was considered unclean work and thus the task was delegated to women.
Colonial women were also responsible for preparing the dead for burial as it was considered to be a household task, but this tradition shifted around the time of the Civil War, when Northern soldiers were dying on Southern soil, and needed preservation in order to be sent home to be viewed by the families. Previously, Americans had no knowledge of embalming practices so this practice spread rapidly as families arranged to have their husbands, fathers, brothers, and sons shipped home from the battlefields of the South.
This shift in funeral practice marked the emergence of the American funeral industry, and while the funeral industry was one of the few trades that welcomed women, it was primarily dominated by educated white men. However, during the 20th century, a Spanish nurse named Lina D. Odou studied embalming in Switzerland, and in 1899 opened an embalming school for women in the United States, graduating 10 students in her first class.
There were some setbacks to women in the American funeral industry in the 1950’s as women were generally regarded as ‘second-class citizens’ in the business world and were restricted to jobs such as homemaker, nurse or teacher, unless of course the woman was raised in a family-owned funeral home.
Like all industries, the feminist movement in the 1970’s and 1980’s had an impact on the American funeral industry, providing opportunities as women campaigned against cultural and political inequities, breaking the ‘glass ceiling’ that held back previous generations.
Today, the Funeral Science program at Milwaukee Technical College notes that nearly 75% of their students are female. At Phaneuf Funeral Homes, we are proud to have three female funeral directors and one female funeral apprentice on our staff.