When you think of traditional notions of end of life, you may picture a man in a dark suit providing care and comfort a la HBO’s Six Feet Under. But as we celebrate International Women’s Day, we thought it would be worthwhile to note the changing nature of not just how we feel about dying, but how women are making an impact in an industry traditionally dominated by men.
When it comes to the death industry, women are breathing new life. According to the American Board of Funeral Service Education from a 2017 survey, nearly 65 percent of graduates from funeral director programs in the United States were female. That’s the highest number ever recorded. Women are being drawn in record numbers to a profession in which, just a few decades ago, it was rare to find them.
A bit of history
Before the civil war, mortuary services were often fairly rudimentary. It was traditionally a woman's role to wash and shroud the dead while preparing bodies for burial. But the Civil War-era introduced more scientific developments, such as embalming. Because at the time few women were able, or even allowed to study these sciences, men became the dominant preparers when it came to burial. Clearly much has changed in the last 150 years. With equal rights came the steady march towards a more representative role in higher education, the workplace, and culture. This naturally extended to end-of-life services, where women began reasserting themselves. Interestingly, a move towards cremation as an alternative to traditional burials has created opportunity for women to find a role in new forms of end-of-life services as male dominated funeral homes become less popular. According to The National Funeral Directors Association, cremation rates are on the rise and with them are the rates of women joining the innovative end-of-life industry. In 2018, the cremation rate reached 53.5 percent, and is expected to reach 80% by 2035 nationally. And when it comes to changing times and ideals in the end of life space, women are leading the charge.
On this International Women’s Day, we want to bring attention to some of our favorite women innovating the end-of-life space, and beyond the walls of the funeral home. From creating communities where grief can be shared to end of life planning, here are a few women to watch:
The storyteller/connector: Rebecca Soffer lost both of her parents at a young age. Looking for ways to make sense of her grief and share stories, she co-founded Modern Loss, a community where grief can be shared, and even celebrated. From their website, “Modern Loss is a place to share the unspeakably taboo, unbelievably hilarious, and unexpectedly beautiful terrain of navigating your life after a death.” By openly writing and talking about death, Rebecca hopes to bring people together and create community for those feeling very much alone. She and her partner, Gabi Birkner, have also penned a bestselling book, “Modern Loss: Candid Conversations about Grief. Beginners Welcome” that has been praised by Stephen Colbert and Mindy Kaling for helping to navigate grief in the modern age.
The death positive pundit: Katy Butler is a journalist, public speaker, and bestselling author. Her New York Times Magazine piece in 2010 on her own challenging end-of-life experience with her father, “What Broke My Father’s Heart,” went viral for its poignant honesty and relatability. Since then, she has authored books on the topic and speaks on doctor-patient relationships, and the choices families face at the end of life. An ordained Buddhist, Katy brings compassion, comfort, and spirituality to how we think about the end of life experience.
The ritualist: Sara Williams is a home funeral guide, and natural death care advocate who helps families and friends cope with loss through the art of ritual, and the role rituals play in honoring the dead and comforting the living. From an early age, she knew that death was something sacred, and she’s spent her love guiding people through the death process. A leader in the home death and green burial spaces, her consultation business, Shrouding Sisters, brings grace to the process of creating a home funeral. She also runs a local Death Café, a regular gathering where the community can come together and discuss death. She served on the Board of Directors of the National Home Funeral Alliance from 2014 to 2017 and is a hospice volunteer.
The palliative planner: Sallie Tisdale is a death and dying educator and author who leads workshops on helping people plan and prepare for death. She addresses mortality by asking questions many of us avoid from how we define death to how we manage death with dignity. Her 2018 book, Advice for Future Corpses (and Those Who Love Them): A Practical Perspective on Death and Dying, is meant to help us prepare for death and acts as a roadmap for the end of life journey. By helping people prepare for death, she hopes to bring a new awareness to the importance of talking about this taboo and often self-censored topic. Quoted as saying, “nothing is more intimately the result of your whole life than how you meet death,” Tisdale is part of an ongoing movement to face death with grace, compassion, and a plan.
At Better Place Forests, we celebrate women helping our industry disrupt the traditional end of life ethos, and we’re honored to be recognized in @comparably’s Best Companies for Women 2019. On International Women’s Day, let’s take a moment to honor all the wonderful women shattering traditionally male-dominated industries and helping write better endings to stories worldwide.