History of Women in Funeral Service


If there’s one service that all of us will someday need, it’s a funeral.  Until recently, the longtime image of a funeral director was a man in a dark suit. That image-stereotype does not paint an accurate picture of the important role women have had in the funeral service industry… Let’s take a look back.


Historically, women in many cultures cared for the dead. They washed and dressed bodies for burial, and prepared meals for the family of the deceased. Colonial women were responsible for preparing the dead for burial, as this was considered to be a household task.  This changed during the Civil War, when soldiers needed preservation in order to be sent home to their families, so surgeons began embalming the bodies.

Even with this shift, the funeral industry continued to welcome women, though many of the positions were held by men. Funeral service has tended to be a family business, with funeral homes passed down from generation to generation – often from father to son. Even though the owner and funeral director may have been a man, his wife was often there in the funeral home, greeting families and assisting with services. But things would soon change.

In 1899, the first embalming school solely for women was opened in the United States by a Spanish nurse named Lina D. Odou, who studied embalming in Switzerland. There were ten students in the first graduating class.

Many wives and daughters of funeral home owners decided they wanted to get licensed so that they could do more than “help out.” Also, when their husbands or fathers died, they were able to step in. Today, women are entering the profession, even if they haven’t grown up in the profession or married into it. It is their career choice.

Like all industries, the feminist movement in the 1970’s and 1980’s had an impact on the American funeral industry, providing additional professional opportunities to women. In 1971, just 5 percent of mortuary science students were women.  In 1991, one-third of mortuary students were women and today, in many programs, that number is above 50 percent.

Funeral home owners and managers often say the great thing about women working in a funeral home is they naturally express empathy that offers comfort to the family members are facing and they often have creative ideas. Men certainly do as well, and some women are not naturally empathetic or creative. The most positive part of the changes we have seen in funeral service is that the best person is now hired for the job, and the decision isn’t based on gender.

Now there’s a very good chance that the next funeral service you attend will be planned – and even conducted – by a woman.

The Staab Family is proud to have many women as apart of the Staab Funeral Homes’ Team and we wouldn’t be as near as successful with out them!


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