A Brief History of Western Women in Deathcare

by | Jun 4, 2023

To begin with I would like to acknowledge that history is never simple and there are always variations dependent on time, location, religion and culture. In the interests of conciseness, this blog aims to offer a broad overview of a topic that is deeply complex and, I believe, endlessly fascinating!

In Western society, throughout much of recorded history and until the early twentieth century (for lower classes) the death, body preparation, vigil and funeral service occurred at home. Women typically nursed the dying, a task that was considered a fitting extension of their nurturing role in the family.

Women attend the deathbed of William, Duke of Aquitaine, mid 14th century (Royal MS 16 G VI).

‘Woman Praying at a Deathbed’ by Benjamin Vautier, 1864.

Detail from untitled deathbed scene by Horace Fisher, 1894.

Following the death, men customarily arranged the funeral and interment with the family producing burial products or sourcing them within their community. Meanwhile, women prepared the deceased by washing, anointing, setting features, hair styling, dressing, shrouding and ‘laying out’ the body in repose. Body preparation was considered a sacred duty conducted by female relations, midwives or religious sisters, or by trained maids or nurses for the wealthy. Home vigils were culturally important so early burial was uncommon even during summer. Women mitigated smells from the displayed corpse with candles, oils, spices, charcoal and potash.

Women tend to the body of a shrouded figure receiving a blessing. From the Breviary of John the Fearless and Margaret of Bavaria, early 15th century (Add MS 35311).

Women sew a body into a burial shroud in a French Book of Hours, c.1470 (in Binski, 1996). This image is part of an interesting series showing how the shrouded body is coffined for the vigil and procession, but then removed from the coffin and buried in the shroud.

Initially undertaking was a supplementary service provided by tradespeople such as carpenters, builders and masons. Their main role was to centralise the necessary goods and services to support families caring for their own dead. However, by the late nineteenth century there was a distinct move towards the professionalisation of body preparation. Professional mortuary workers emerged, first assisting in the home but gradually exporting body preparation to the funeral parlour, a fundamental shift that became the norm by the early twentieth century.  

Witcombe cabinet maker and undertaker, Rundle Street, Adelaide, 1872.

The origins of this change came from the sanitation movement which began targeting death practices in the 1840s. This slowly but fundamentally changed attitudes towards corpses, propagating concerns they were dangerous pollutants requiring professional handling rather than family care. These fears were propagated by British social reformer, Sir Edwin Chadwick, who identified traditional home vigils as a ‘moral and physical evil’ that could be remedied by ‘houses for the immediate reception, and respectful and appropriate care of the dead, under superior and responsible officers.’ He aimed to diminish traditional rituals and promote a sanitised middle-class attitude to death that replaced families, particularly women, with a state-regulated industry. The rhetoric from sanitation reformers transformed corpses from honoured family members on display to objects of disgust hidden from public view. Consequent lobbying and legislation in favour of cemetery regulation, cremation and embalming further legitimised undertakers as essential participants from death to interment. Mortuary work became considered a technical and dirty profession that was unfit for women, thus usurping their traditional deathcare role. The dissolution of traditional family-run death practices is well expressed by a Sunday Times commentator who stated in 1896, ‘a good deal of false sentiment still lingers about the last sad rites, but most of it is passing away in these utilitarian days’.

Sir Edwin Chadwick, 1860s.

Professionalisation and commercialisation of the funeral industry was further entrenched by elaborate Victorian era funeral trends which required expertise and great expense to achieve the desired aesthetic. Families would send themselves broke to have all the accoutrements deemed necessary for a respectable send off. This included extravagances like ornate coffins, decorated hearses with costumed drivers and plumed horses, mourning cards, professional mourners, carved monuments and a wardrobe of mourning attire for the whole family. A simple home funeral presided over by women of the family became a shameful prospect to be avoided at all costs.

A funeral procession with horse-drawn hearse in South Australia, 1894.

This shift limited families’ ability to mourn according to custom and levied an intense financial and environmental burden. The modern era demanded ever more funerary resources with hardwood for coffins often logged from old growth forests, chemicals for embalming fluids and lacquers, and concrete, steel and plastic as grave liners which could take up to one thousand years to biodegrade.

However, as our knowledge of germ theory has advanced, we have learned that unless the person died of a serious communicable disease, like Ebola, they are not dangerous and only basic hygiene practices are required. Fortunately, this understanding is resulting in a movement back to the traditional holistic deathcare practices and natural burials that provide so many social, emotional and environmental benefits.

From the 1980s in Australia there was a resurgence in women in funeral arranging and women have progressively reclaimed their place in deathcare, now forming a substantial portion of those employed in all aspects of the field. Women have played a central role in the green burial movement, provision of home funerals, and the development of the end-of-life doula (EOLD) profession. EOLDs are non-medical, community-based and predominantly female carers who empower families to take charge of end-of-life decisions and, if they wish, tend to their loved ones at home and return them naturally to the earth. In sharing their wisdom, holistic funeral providers and EOLDs are reviving ancient traditions and reconnecting families to rituals that were, for millennia, fundamental and sacred to Western society. 

By Alyssa Wormald


Primary sources

Binski, Paul. Medieval Death : Ritual and Representation. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1996.

British Library Digitised Manuscripts. www.bl.uk/manuscripts/BriefDisplay.aspx  

Chadwick, Edwin. “A Supplementary Report on the Results of a Special Inquiry into the Practice of Interment in Towns (1843).” In Public Health: The Development of a Discipline – From the Age of Hippocrates to the Progressive Era, edited by Dona Schneider and David E. Lilienfeld, 186-92. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2008. 

“The Burial of Our Dead: The Science of Embalming.” Sunday Times (Sydney) May 3, 1896. https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/130409485.

Secondary sources

Cannon, Michael. Life in the Cities. Australia in the Victorian Age. Melbourne: Thomas Nelson Australia, 1975.

Griffin, Graeme M., and Des Tobin. In the Midst of Life… : The Australian Response to Death. 2nd ed. Carlton: Melbourne University Press, 1997.

Harris, Mark. Grave Matters: A Journey through the Modern Funeral Industry to a Natural Way of Burial. New York: Scribner, 2007.

Hotz, Mary Elizabeth. “Down Among the Dead: Edwin Chadwick’s Burial Reform Discourse in Mid-Nineteenth-Century England.” Victorian Literature and Culture 29, no. 1 (2001): 21-38.

Jalland, Patricia. Changing Ways of Death in Twentieth Century Australia : War, Medicine and the Funeral Business, Online: University of NSW Press, 2006.

Jalland, Patricia. Australian Ways of Death: A Social and Cultural History, 1840-1918. Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Jalland, Patricia. Death in the Victorian Family. Online: Oxford University Press, 1996. 

Krawczyk, Marian, and Merilynne Rush. “Describing the End-of-Life Doula Role and Practices of Care: Perspectives from Four Countries.” Palliative Care and Social Practice, (January 2020). 

Laqueur, Thomas W.. The Work of the Dead : A Cultural History of Mortal Remains. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2015. 

Larkins, R. Funeral rights. Melbourne: Penguin Random House, 2007.

Pringle, Rosemary, and Jo Alley. “Gender and the Funeral Industry: The Work of Citizenship.” Australian and New Zealand Journal of Sociology 31, no. 2 (1995): 107-21.

Trapeznik, Alexander, and Austin Gee. “Laying the Victorians to Rest: Funerals, Memorials, and the Funeral Business in Nineteenth-Century Otago.” Australian Economic History Review 56, no. 3 (2016): 317-36.