Death & the Maiden’s co-founder, Sarah Chavez, delves into the reasons underlying the current interest many women seem to have with death, and the rise of the Death Positive movement. Exploring a question persistently asked and rooted at the very core of Death & the Maiden: Why are so many women currently interested in death and at the forefront of this movement?
The seed for Death & the Maiden was planted with a question, one that is persistently asked of all of us involved in the death positive movement – Why do you think so many women are currently interested in death and are at the forefront of the movement?
The most common reason cited, particularly for those wanting to work directly with death like a funeral director or end-of-life guide, is something called “the caring factor.” This depicts women as the archetypal mother figure – women who are nurturing, sensitive creatures, in touch with their emotions, making them well suited to care for grieving families. Their inherent skills for party planning are sometimes mentioned, with a comparison to how similar weddings and funerals are.
Other recent articles say that maybe it’s just because it is easier for women to enter the field now that it is less focused on science (it isn’t), or that working as a mortician was “something women weren’t thought to have the strength to do.” Women who choose to take up work in a death profession, such as an embalmer or funeral director are frequently cast as a sort of martyr figure with headlines like, “Why These Women Chose The Saddest Profession.”
Here, women are not only reduced to familiar and harmful stereotypes, but it views the work and the movement through a narrow lens, acknowledging only a fraction of the picture.
For most of us, death is a constant companion. We are so aware of it we have become unaware of it, like breathing; a necessary function of our survival. The walk through a parking lot, sitting in classrooms, enjoying a night out, driving our cars, or being in our own homes. Even speaking can come with a risk. Death is always there, and for some, life itself is a to exist in a constant state of mourning.
As women and non-binary folks many of us are often forced to confront death in ways most men are not. Murders of trans women of color, indigenous women in Canada, women in Mexico and El Salvador, and death at the hands of our domestic partners are so common that they are now deemed “epidemics” by experts. Care of elderly and dying family members overwhelmingly falls to women, Latina teens and trans women have the highest rate of suicide attempts and deaths in the U.S., and of course, there is the long history of reproductive rights which are also connected to death in countless ways. Even our Western standards of beauty bear a relationship to death.
Whether they are a new generation of women working directly with the dead and dying, or forced into the work by politics, racism, misogyny or current events – the relationship between death and women is too often forced upon us. Our very existence demands that we acknowledge it. We cannot be unconcerned with death – that privilege is not ours.
For many of us, working with death is an act of resistance. It is our way of reclaiming our space, our bodies, our lives and ourselves – death work and death activism in all its forms is a feminist act.
Although rarely, if ever acknowledged, those movements fighting for human, social or reproductive rights of all women are streams of the death positive movement. We need to be inclusive and supportive of these moving forward, for our death denying culture will never change if we continue to keep death confined to pretty Victorian keepsakes, academic institutions and witty memes. Let us find our courage together to enact freedom and empowerment for us all.
Special thanks to Death & the Maiden contributor and Undertaking L.A. mortician, Amber Carvaly for supplying several of the source articles included.