Breaking new ground in the mortuary business

YES! Magazine

Death is an equal opportunity reality: Regardless of gender, orientation, class, or race, everyone bites the dust. But the death care industry isn’t so equitable. Men account for the bulk of funeral directors despite the large number of female mortuary school graduates.

Enter Caitlin Doughty, a mortician, advocate, and head of a bustling online “death-positive” community that aims to confront American discomfort toward death. In addition to championing end-of-life rights and DIY funerals, she’s also trying to improve things for the living. In one episode of her awkwardly hilarious web series, “Ask a Mortician,” she tackles the gender gap.

“By and large, historically, when a man takes care of a corpse, he is a professional. He gets paid to do it,” she said. “And when a woman takes care of a corpse, it’s a domestic task … She does it for free.”

Doughty’s point can be extrapolated to many care sectors — geriatric, hospice and midwifery, to name a few. Sometimes it’s expected that women deliver these services without pay because it’s “all in the family,” or that they’re somehow less professional than men performing the same tasks.

Part of this perception may come from the industrialization of our rituals: before modern funeral homes, postmortem care was often as simple as washing and clothing the body before burial. No embalming, no mass-produced caskets, nothing the family couldn’t do themselves. While some of these technologies have made it easier to care for the dead, they can also take agency away from families who otherwise tended to their sick and dying privately and intimately.

However, as Doughty points out, more than half of all mortuary school graduates in 2015 were female, many of whom are involved in the death-positive community. In her ideal world, these women will replace the pigeonholed receptionists and flower arrangers at traditional funeral homes as well-paid professionals and advocates for consumer rights. In fact, some of the most exciting technologies (what do you mean you’re not excited about your own mortality?) are being pioneered by women, from the recently launched mushroom burial shroud to research on body composting.

As other areas of our existence become more equitable for all genders, hopefully those who handle our demise will catch up, too.

This story was originally published by YES! Magazine, a nonprofit publication that supports people’s active engagement in solving today’s social, political and environmental challenges.

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