Throughout most of the 20th century the terms “undertaker,” “mortician,” or “funeral director” have been socially tied to a visual image of a somber male in a black suit. However, for thousands of years before the birth of the funeral business industry, caring for the dead was traditionally considered women’s work.
According to an article by Dr. Kami Fletcher who holds a PhD in History with specializations in Death and Dying and African American Cemeteries:
“Long before hospitals, hospice, and health care professionals, you had midwives, shrouding women and layers-out-of the dead. Death and dying was in the home and deemed the responsibility of women[…] When there was a confirmed death in the community, it was the women who were first called to conduct the mourning, handle the body, and organize obsequies.”
After the American Civil war, when embalming and funerals were industrialized in the west and undertaking became a career, caring for the dead shifted away from traditional women’s work due to sexist ideals around female employment and income earning. These shifts reinforced gender biased traditions and made way for the male dominated funeral industry of the early 20th century.
However, in recent years, the United States has seen a vast increase in women taking the lead in funeral home and death care professions. This Next Avenue article states that “according to the National Funeral Directors Association, 16 percent of its current membership is female, up from 10 percent in 2004.” Those numbers have consistently been on the rise. In fact, In 2017, nearly 65 percent of graduates from funeral director programs in the United States were female, according to the American Board of Funeral Service Education.
These statistics ask us to stop and consider what funeral professionals can expect in the future, and how to keep up with the contemporary need for gender equity in deathcare culture. It’s clear that funeral homes can look forward to an influx of more female and non-binary job applicants in all areas of the business, from embalming room to management.
This increase in women professionals in death care is quickly changing the face of the industry, but that probably shouldn’t come as a surprise. In a recent discussion on the Deathcare Decoded podcast, Jody Herrington, Location Manager at the prestigious SkyLawn funeral home in San Mateo, CA, outlined, “Now that women are far more accepted in the business world [than in years past], I think more women are joining in [the death industry] because of their natural affinity for the role, and now they have the added benefit of being able to be trained in the business and trade side of it. I can only project that we will continue on the path of more and more women being part of [the death care space]. I do also think there will always be men who find their home here, and I think that’s wonderful.”
It’s true that young women entering the deathcare field face a largely male-dominated industry. Listen to Jody Herrington's advice for women in deathcare, including acting professionally and being confident in your skillset in this short video, recorded as part of the Deathcare Decoded podcast. Listen here.
Steps to Take Toward Gender Equity
There are already many funeral homes making progressive changes anticipating the rise in female deathcare professionals. Here are three ways that your funeral home can prepare and become more gender-equitable and inclusive for your staff and your customers in 2021:
Prioritize hiring more women/non-binary individuals.
Since the face of the Funeral industry is becoming less dominantly male, it is vital for death care businesses to keep up by hiring more female and non-binary employees. Your funeral home runs the risk of being starved of quality staff if hiring practices exclude a large number of top mortuary school graduates and industry professionals. Adjusting the wording of your job description is an easy way to see if you’re only attracting applicants from one type of background. My company used this free gender bias decoder to uncover any accidental and inherent gender biases in our job descriptions.
Place more women/non-binary people in leadership roles
This shift toward gender equity in deathcare isn’t just about hiring, it’s about upward mobility and leadership opportunities. Especially as millennials with progressive values become the funeral decision makers, your business needs to reflect gender equity at all levels in order to appeal to and reflect the current social climate. Young and progressive people look for diverse leadership at all levels of the companies they support, and for a workplace to be truly equitable, promotions and leadership roles should equally represent your entire staff.
Adjust your company’s culture to be more gender equitable.
Along with adding more women and non-binary people to your staff, your company’s culture should support and empower those demographics from the inside out. Small changes like providing or switching to unisex bathrooms for trans and non-binary people (both employees and customers!) and providing sanitary products in all bathrooms for menstruating folks can go a long way in making everyone feel comfortable day to day. Bigger cultural shifts like closing the funeral industry gender wage gap and increasing the presence and role of women on your boards and internal committees establish your company as gender equitable and show that you truly value everyone on your team.
Getting the ball rolling with gender equity in deathcare sooner rather than later, so that it becomes a natural and inherent part of how your funeral home operates has additional benefits. Putting women in management positions will help male-owned funeral homes have leaders and advisors to help them strengthen the way gender equity is woven into the DNA of their businesses.
Taking these first steps toward prioritizing gender equity in your company's culture will ensure that your funeral home leads the way in the future of death care. If your business remains stuck in old habits and ways of thinking, you run the risk of losing market share among millennials and progressive families, and missing out on quality staff. Instead of considering the important, intimate space of death care work to be either women’s work or man’s work, we are moving towards an opportunity to come full circle. If we as an industry can move away from the common “boy’s club” image and towards a space of true gender equity, placing more emphasis on who is the best fit for the job, we’ll ultimately be able to best serve our families.
“Death is for everybody. Everybody is going to die. So everybody needs to be part of the conversation both from the business side of it and from the family and grief side of it.”--Jody Herrington
Listen to the Deathcare Decoded episode with Jody Herrington, called A Path to Normalizing Mental Health in Death Care, here.
Alexandra Jo is the Culture and Content Manager at Parting Stone where she cultivates a positive company culture for a fast-growing team of first-gen death care professionals. Alexandra is passionately death curious, and co-hosts the Deathcare Decoded podcast.