The Corpse Brides

Anatomical Pathology Technologist and curator at Barts Pathology Museum, Carla Valentine is regularly interviewed about her choice to work with the dead. Invariably asked what it’s like to be a woman in the death industry and why there is a trend in women working with death, Carla is here to share exactly why Death and Maidens are perfect bedfellows.

Cover Image Valentine

– Carla Valentine –


 Carla Valentine is a Senior APT or mortuary technician, holding both the Certificate and Diploma in Anatomical Pathology Technology as well as Forensic qualifications. Through the course of her eight year career she carried out autopsies on Coronial, High Risk and forensic cases, both paediatric and adult.

She is now the technical curator of Barts Pathology Museum and engages the public with the collection while conserving all 5000 anatomical specimens. She is passionate about open & objective discussion, not hindered by culturally specific ideas of dignity, around the display and use of medical collections and access to the dead. She blogs and tweets, has a YouTube channel and is currently writing a book about her work.

Nearly every time I give an interview about my current role as a pathology museum curator, or my previous work as an Anatomical Pathology Technologist, I’m invariably asked the following questions:

  • 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 have a career “do-over” as a man: I’m not 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. (Although I do often have people comment on my appearance rather than my work when I’m featured in the media, and once after I wrote for The Guardian someone asked if I get my make-up done in the mortuary.) 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.

“Death & The Maiden” Lozzy Bones, 2015

Death 101

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 new 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 ‘death industry’.

Woman in Black
“Studio portrait of a woman in a black dress” circa 1895

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 ‘facelift’ 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, keeping their Christmas turkeys in the deep-freeze with the more permanent ‘occupants’, and flicking cigarette ash into the open body cavities of the dead.

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 Wiliams (@Bonegella) at Masters level, both highly respected forensic anthropologists.

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.

“Der Tod und das Mädchen” Adolf Hering (1863-1932)


Death & The Maiden image: Lozzy Bones

Woman in Black image: copyright free from Wikicommons

Adolf Hering image: copyright free from Wikicommons

Carla at her Museum

Want to read more from Carla?

Here are some recent articles we know you’ll love:

Where to Dance with Death in London via The Londonist

Why Valentine’s Day is the New Halloween via Huffington Post

6 responses to “The Corpse Brides”

  1. An excellent piece.

  2. […] death is always portrayed with a maiden and she is usually naked (see here for a recent post on Is it sexism? Is it misplaced lust? Well, like the women depicted in the kusôzu, it’s […]

  3. […] mourn what I have to do, and I pray for the animal before and after. I approach it like women have traditionally approached death for centuries, and it helps me cope better with […]

  4. […] mourn what I have to do, and I pray for the animal before and after. I approach it like women have traditionally approached death for centuries, and it helps me cope better with […]

  5. […] would start with their Women’s Day piece, Corpse Bride written by Carla Valentine. I would also recommend reading The Female in Mourning Jewelry […]

  6. The Ropemaker's Daughter Avatar
    The Ropemaker’s Daughter

    Great piece, as always. However, being a German native speakter, I noticed a slight inaccuracy.

    While the “Frau” in “Leichenfrau” certainly could be translated as “wife” (not “bride”, that would be “Braut”), it could just as well just mean “woman”. “Frau” is “woman” in general, as well as “wife”. More accurately and decidedly more formal, the latter would be called “Ehefrau”, but “meine Frau” (lit. “my woman”) is synonymous with “my wife” and much more widespread as an expression.

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