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  • Alyse Gray

The Future of Death is Female

Caring for the Dead-Women’s Work

Prior to the American civil war, women were the primary caretakers of the dead. These “layers out of the dead” or “shrouding women” as they were sometimes called, would prepare decedents for viewing in their home by washing and dressing bodies, closing their eyes and mouths, removing internal organs, blocking orifices, and filling body cavities with charcoal to slow decomposition.

The Institutionalization of Funeral Service Excluded Women

During the civil war, embalming, once reserved for the preparation of medical specimens, was performed on fallen soldiers, enabling their bodies to be returned home for burial. The practice grew in popularity when president Abraham Lincoln was embalmed and viewed by an estimated 25 million people during multiple memorial services across the country. In the years to follow, the practice of embalming would solidify into a profession, taking deathcare out of the home and into the funeral parlor. Women were excluded from this profession. Ignoring the past, articles in early funeral trade magazines such as The Casket and Embalmer’s Monthly published editorials claiming that women were emotionally unfit to deal with death and couldn’t handle the physical demands of funeral service.

Women are Taking Back the Funeral Industry

Even today this sentiment exists. Before entering the funeral profession in 2004, I was advised that as a woman, I’d have difficulty finding a job. It was the first time I’d ever heard that being a woman put me at a disadvantage. I set out to prove the naysayers wrong. In mortuary school, I was pleased to discover that approximately 40% of my classmates were women. Together we proved the naysayers wrong. As of 2016, 60% of mortuary students nationwide were women, with some schools reporting women comprising up to 75% of their student body. This shift is relatively recent. In 1970, just 5% of mortuary students were women. In 1995, that number was up to 35%. Today, men still make up the majority of funeral service providers in the US, according to the 2016 census bureau. However, with more ladies entering the profession, your funeral is more likely to be run by a woman in the future, reports Fortune.

Angel of Death by Evelyn De Morgan, 1881 (Wikipedia).

Back to Their Roots

With women taking over funeral service, unsurprisingly the industry is seeing some changes. Natural, or “green” burials provide eco-friendly interment in a nature preserve style setting. Cemeteries performing green burials only permit markers made from stones or shrubbery. Bodies are not embalmed and must be buried in caskets made from biodegradable materials, such as wicker, to facilitate the decedent’s return to the earth. The concept of natural burial is something that has been practiced in Judaism and Islam for millennia, but wasn’t a mainstream custom in the US following the popularization of embalming. Today it still isn’t widespread. There are only 153 cemeteries that perform green burials in the US. To some, it may seem a bit crunchy, but others view the practice as a way to nurture the environment. It may also be viewed as a form of body positivity that opposes the cultural norm of embalming, prompting the adage, “It’s OK to decay.” With feminist overtones like these, it’s no surprise that women are at the forefront of the natural burial movement. Dr. Philip Olson, a professor in the Science and Technology Department at Virginia Tech observed this phenomenon, noting the similarities between the natural deathcare movement and the natural childbirth movement in a 2018 paper. From natal to fatal, women are clearly skilled at helping people with these transitions, overturning the notion that they are emotionally unfit for the job.

Flocking to Forensics

The funeral industry is not the only death related field that has seen an influx of women. Once reserved for male police detectives, the Washington Post reports forensics as one of the few scientific disciplines that is likely to be led by women in the near future.

In a 2008 paper, forensic expert Max Houck examined why women comprise the majority of forensic science majors, finding that they were drawn to the field either because of an interest in science, a personal

trauma or event, or because of a desire to help society.

Some forensic science professors accredit television shows with drawing women to their programs. Many of the ladies flocking to forensics grew up with, and may have been inspired by shows like CSI, NCIS and Bones. Crime shows like these and others are well known to have largely female audiences. This phenomenon is nothing new. Murder mystery books have timelessly appealed to an overwhelmingly female audience.

Women’s True Crime Obsession - a Cultural Phenomenon

In 2015, Discovery Communication’s Investigation Discovery Network, which airs true crime shows around the clock, was the most watched ad-supported cable channel among women ages 25-45. Taking note of this, the Oxygen Network rebranded itself in 2017 as a true crime network specifically for women, taking the obsession to a newly defined level. If you find yourself unable to turn true crime shows off, you aren’t alone. Musical artists Lady Gaga and Nicki Minaj, along with tennis champion Serena Williams report being hooked on them. Podcasting has also jumped onto the bandwagon, with women fronted true crime shows like “Serial” and “My Favorite Murder” topping the charts. With murder and true crime becoming increasingly embedded in pop culture, does this cause women to be interested in death, or is there more to it? Even if you aren’t a true crime junkie, it’s generally accepted that people in westernized nations have a great deal of hidden curiosity about death. We are not exposed to death on a daily basis, so it has become something of a mysterious subject to us.

Curiosity About Death is More Normal Than You Think

There may be some practicality to consuming media pertaining to true crime. A 2010 literature review by Vicary and Fraley published in the journal “Social Psychological and Personality Science,” theorized that women consume true crime to "learn survival tips and strategies.” The study showed that women were also more likely to be drawn to true crime stories than men (when given the choice between different genres). In some ways, learning about crime may help women process fear. Fear can also have the reverse effect. Scott Bonn, a criminology professor at Drew University and author of the book “Why We Love Serial Killers” theorizes in a Psychology Today article that serial killers “tantalize people much like traffic accidents, trainwrecks or natural disasters. We can’t look away.” In some ways it may be a guilty pleasure. “People also receive a jolt of adrenaline as a reward for witnessing terrible deeds. Adrenaline is a hormone that produces a powerful, stimulating and even addictive effect on the human brain. The euphoric effect of true crime on human emotions is similar to that of roller coasters or natural disasters.” Curiosity about the taboo may be part of the attraction, but is it a negative thing?

Young women have long been socialized to be “proper” ladies who smile and don’t ask questions. But secretly, many women are fascinated with death, particularly murder. Forensic psychologist Paul G. Mattiuzzi writes that people are naturally intrigued by murder. “We are fascinated because of the powerful emotions aroused when we consider the fate and fortune of the victim and the pain that remains for their survivors. We actively seek the clues that tell us that we are safe, that it couldn’t happen to us.” While it may seem odd on the surface, it’s not uncommon or shameful, and certainly doesn’t suggest someone is a serial killer. Instead it points to an inherent inquisitiveness, a desire for understanding, which is what drives discoveries in all areas of life. When cultivated and channeled, this kind of curiosity can change the world for the better.

Why Women and Why Now?

Although women have long been fascinated by murder, the influx of women in death professions in the past two decades is a relatively recent cultural shift. In some ways this trend can be seen paralleling the movements of feminism. The second wave of feminism paved the way for gender equality in the workplace, but it wasn’t until gender roles, sexism, and sexual harassment were challenged by the third and fourth waves of feminism that women started to enter these fields in greater numbers. But why are women drawn to death to begin with? There are a multitude of theories, which may all contain nuggets of truth. A common idea is that women are naturally more “nurturing” and “maternal.” While these qualities drive success in a professional deathcare setting, they may not be the primary motivators for entering such a field. Instead, the answer is nuanced, partly rooted in empathy, watered by curiosity or personal experience, then blooming when grown by a culture that encourages women to pursue scientific studies. The reasons may be different for every individual, but there is one thing that is certain: when it comes to death, the future is female.

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