The death midwife: Women were the original undertakers

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With Halloween approaching, skeletons are coming out of the closet—including those belonging to the death industry, which has a pretty spooky history in this country. What’s spookier than death itself? Only the commodification and industrialization of death!

In her new book Greening Death: Reclaiming Burial Practices and Restoring Our Tie to the Earth, author Suzanne Kelly explores this history, offering a fascinating—and very feminist—exploration of death, funerals, and burials, and their impact on culture, economics, and, as the title suggests, the environment.

The book is filled with stomach-churning accounts, but the most compelling involves women's largely forgotten history of caring for the dead. It turns out that before the funeral "industry" developed, women played a huge role in death practices—and recently, some women have begun to reclaim their role as society's "midwives to the dead."


Today, the death industry is a $15 billion beast that encompasses funeral homes, cemeteries, insurance companies, and an array of products. Or more succinctly—COSTCO SELLS CASKETS! But before this industrialization, around the turn of the 19th century, death care was considered to be part of the women’s realm.

“Women largely cared for the dead," Kelly told me over the phone on Thursday. This care meant "washing the dead, clothing the dead, laying out the dead.” While women were not typically involved in the actual burial, most prep work "tended to fall in women’s hands, primarily because it was seen as an extension of care work that they did for children, for the sick, and for other family members.”

But women's role in death care began to diminish around the time of the Civil War— thanks to the introduction of embalming, or the practice of preserving the human corpse.

During the war, every day, Union soldiers would die hundreds of miles away from home, and the army would scramble to return their bodies to their families for a proper burial–racing against the clock of nature and decomposition. Soon, medical professionals from the North began traveling to battlefields to embalm soldiers for the journey back home. Roughly 40,000 bodies were embalmed.


“You’d think that embalming would die away after that," Kelly said—after all, until that point, the whole idea of embalming was seen as disrespectful and degrading in this country. "You would think that—given that it was seen as a fate worse than death prior to the Civil War—it would have just disappeared. But in fact, it only became stronger.”

Abraham Lincoln’s body was famously embalmed over and over again after his assassination and ferried around the country for people to see, which sort of normalized embalming, said Kelly. And of course, where there’s a profit to be made, there’s a way. Chemical companies began to set up workshops in schools to train interested parties to embalm—which led to mortuary schools.


“Before that, death care, whether it was done by women or done by men, was really an informal economy. Family members were involved, and it was never necessarily something that people were paid for,” Kelly said. “But now, with this scientific process, you needed someone who was trained and ultimately licensed.”

And thus, the funeral industry was born—and women were largely pushed aside.

Why? Kelly points to another scholar, Georgeanne Rundblad, who delves into the history in her aptly titled article, “Exhuming Women’s Premarket Duties in the Care of the Dead,” published in the journal Gender and Society in 1995.


In the article, Rundblad explains that women weren’t seen as having rational minds. "They weren’t seen as being connected to the sciences, and they weren’t seen as being capable of doing that kind of work,” Kelly said. “Of course, you have to remember that this is when gendered labor really starts to take shape in a really serious way.”

Indeed, throughout the 1800s, the division of public and private spheres became especially stark—with women mostly confined to the private sphere, which was, of course, considered less legitimate than the male-dominated public sphere.


“We have private death care that was done in the home now being pushed out into the public commercial space, where women don’t really have access,” Kelly explained. While there were exceptions—some women did work in the public, more commercial funeral industry—these tended to be poor women who did not have much authority.

Not only did the rise of the funeral industry come with a sexist component, it also came with a racial one. Now that white dudes had created an industry to take care of their own dead, they also granted themselves authority over the dead of other races, making everyone jump through the hoops of licensure and training just to continue caring for their dead. That was if they could afford it. Black families had to hand over their dead to white funeral directors—but poor black people were buried in potter's fields.


“The dead were essentially taken from them,” Kelly said of communities of color, including African Americans and Chinese Americans.

As depressing as the commodification of one of the most intimate and poignant human experiences is—well, times have changed for the better since then. Today, many women are involved in the funeral trade. Women are also leading the "home funeral movement," which aims to reconnect people with age-old death practices. These home funeral practitioners often term themselves "midwives to the dead" or "death midwives" (which are perfect names for that metal band you've always wanted to start).


The movement goes hand-in-hand with the green burial movement, which promotes the environmentally friendly natural burial of the deceased—without any embalming (which often contains toxic chemicals), a casket, or a vault.

Kelly likened the rising women-led natural funeral movement to the reclaiming of natural births in this country, arguing that the medical community's usurping of birthing practices not only denied women roles they had always played, but was a "usurpation of knowledge." Kelly believes the same thing happened with death care.


“It’s in part about recognizing that women used to do this work, but it’s also about recognizing the knowledges that tend to get erased,” Kelly said. “But we know that they never get erased completely. These kind of knowledges are too elemental to ever go away. These knowledges about death care are just simmering beneath the surface, waiting for a moment when people can finally tap back into them.”