- What’s it like to be a woman in the death industry?
- Why do you think there’s a trend in women joining the profession recently – it’s a bit unusual isn’t it?
I can’t answer the first question because I’ve never been able to do-over my career as a man: I’m not really sure if my gender has affected my job because I have nothing to compare it to. I was pretty successful at it, and it’s not as though my boobs frequently got in the way when I tried to manoeuvre a cadaver. The second question illustrates a general lack of knowledge surrounding death professions and their history, but that’s absolutely OK because that’s what I’m here for and I’m happy to talk on the topic for anyone who’ll listen! Read on to find out why Death and Maidens are perfect bedfellows.
The industries that currently surround a death in the Western world – embalmer, funeral director, pathologist etc – are, relatively speaking, fairly new. The way we, as humans, dealt with our deceased was much unchanged for many years before The Industrial Revolution and similar advances brought about the commodifying culture we now know. Family was key and the processes were similar for births and deaths: both tended to by the women. As Brandy Schillace says in her book Death’s Summer Coat, “Prayers would be said, the eyes of the dead closed, and then the women would take care of the body.”
During the Victorian era, when funerary practices became more commercial and standardized, problems began to arise. The gradual distance we created between ourselves and our dead meant that rituals such as keeping the deceased at home for 4-5 days before the funeral steadily decreased, and the liminal space in which the living and the dead interacted became narrower. This was necessary in some ways for hygiene reasons, but it led to new fears of premature burial. The London Association for the Prevention of Premature Burial was set up in 1896 after cases were continually reported, and it was a real Victorian fear (although more unusual than the Victorian hysteria would imply). Part of the LAPPB’s contingency plan was to create waiting mortuaries or “dead houses” where the recently deceased could lie in wait for up to 72 hours – around the time it takes to be absolutely sure decomposition is setting in – and then be buried. The idea came from 19th Century Germany and, according to Rodney Davies in Buried Alive, “In addition to experts the body was also examined by a technically qualified woman known as a “leichenfrau” (which literally translates as “corpse bride”) who both laid it out and attended to its appearance, and made the funeral appointments.” Pam Fisher, in her paper Houses for the Dead, states that the dead would be “guarded and watched day and night by a resident attendant. The appointment of a woman as the first keeper, and the purchase by the burial board of a ‘suitable black dress’ for her to wear, would have helped to reassure the public that the bodies of their family members would have been treated with care and dignity.” It was only the advent of sexism that stopped women in the workplace in general, and therefore women in the so-called death industries.
The Corpse Brides
I became an APT not long before CSI and similar TV shows made death ‘sexy’ and the increase in female APTs was noticeable. Early on I worked in a team of four men, by the end of my career I was in a team of five women. I think this has a lot to do with the face lift the vocation received under the Modernising Scientific Careers initiative and the fact it became more academic with a focus on dignity. In its infancy in the first half of the century, the position of ‘mortician’ or ‘morgue assistant’ would probably have been filled by a porter at the hospital. Existing staff may have noticed someone who was slightly more interested in the mortuary proceedings than the other porters, and maybe less squeamish, and simply would have said “You seem OK in the morgue – do you fancy a job?”
Those days are over, as are the days of staff eating sandwiches in the post-mortem room or keeping their Christmas turkeys in the deep-freeze with the more permanent occupants. The post is now more academic and requires professional qualifications as well as an attitude of care and respect. Women, it seems, have easily slipped into this more demanding and regulated role. And it’s not just APTs – it also applies to anatomy and forensic science and according to one article, seven out of nine of the UKs highest certified forensic practitioners are female. I’ve had the pleasure of being taught by Professor Margaret Cox and Dr Anna Williams, both highly respected forensic anthropologists, and of meeting possibly the world’s most famous Forensic Anthropologist and author Kathy Reichs.
See also the Broadly article “The Women Making a Living in the Death Industry”.
If death is most often anthropomorphised into a foreboding, grinning male does it not make sense that his companion is female? The current ‘trend’ for women in the death industry is not a trend, then, but merely an influx of women taking their rightful place back at death’s side and, once again, becoming the guardians of the dead.