Feminist Death Work: A History

By Dr. Kami Fletcher

Sarah Chavez, feminist death practitioner, wrote an account of the Fox Sisters – the 1848 phenomenon that occurred in Hydesville, NY where sisters Kate and Margaretta, aka Maggie spoke to dead spirits through “rappings” made by the spirit – taps and bangs heard on the walls, floor and furniture.  Kate and Maggie would first ask questions and the spirit would respond with a number of raps as the answer.  Initially reported as speaking to a peddler who died in their cellar years before, the sisters at the young ages of 11 and 14 went on to serve as mediums to spirits across the country for many years (ie. Cleveland, Philadelphia, D.C., and St. Louis).  Kate practiced until her death in 1892 but Maggie only until around 1857 when she married a non-believer and harsh critic of the craft who was the driving force behind her not just quitting the craft but publicly denouncing it in 1888.  Although Kate recanted the story near the turn of the century, none the less, her and her sister had already helped start Modern Spiritualism.  A movement that at its height in 1900 had 2 million followers.  And it is still alive today as the National Spiritualist Association of Churches.  More still, if one just looks to popular culture and current portrayals, spiritualism has continued to embed itself into our society and social norms.

Artistic image of a group of women, many with their arms raised, ritually mourning at a tomb. Lamenting Women, from the tomb (TT55) of Ramose, c. 1411-1375 BCE.

In Chavez’s account, she rehashes the tale of the Fox Sisters (for more click here and here) in order to discuss how death work was used as a vehicle for women’s social and economic equality.  “Women became influential, powerful and financially independent” starts Chavez, “all because they could supposedly speak to the dead.”  The 19th century was an oppressive time for women – the vast majority of black women were held captive in chattel slavery (freed women of color were comprehensively marginalized and discriminated), while white women were oppressed legally, socially, politically.  On the whole, women could not make any decisions in the political and legal process in which they were governed.  Women were viewed as mentally and physically inferior to men.  And under the gendered role of first daughter and second wife, women were viewed as property – made to marry and had no sexual reproductive rights or even legal rights to their children (ie. marital rape was legal and not socially condemned).

Nineteenth century women lived in a rigid patriarchal society where males ruled and masculinity was privileged.  Religion was seen as the source for this male dominance and female repression.  By 19th century, religion justified slavery with certain Biblical passages and the story of Ham while ascribing submissive and domestic roles for white women.  According to leading 19th century feminist and abolitionist Elizabeth Cady Staton, Christianity was the root and main reason for their oppression leading her to write The Woman’s Bible and convene (along with Lucretia Mott) what has been described as the catalyst for the Women’s Movement, the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention.

“The vast majority of black women were held captive in chattel slavery (freed women of color were comprehensively marginalized and discriminated), while white women were oppressed legally, socially, politically.”

Unlike Christianity, Spiritualism, as demonstrated with the story of the Fox sisters, offered women a voice.  As mediums, women were able to break out of the private sphere charging right into a space of independent wealth building, leadership and even fame.  The Fox sisters performed seances for well-known abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison and was said to bring in an estimated $90 a night, which roughly translates to $1600 by today’s standards!

In March 1848 when Maggie and Kate used death to find their public voice, they could not have known that only four months later a full-scale women’s movement would occur just roughly 30 miles southeast of them.  The 1848 Seneca Falls Convention launched a country-wide protest for women’s religious, social, civic and political equality for which would last the ages in varying but persistent waves.  This public protest where women challenged patriarchy, protested oppressive gender roles, and demanded equality have led scholars to see death, which was already in the home, as a facet of life that women not only controlled and served in leadership roles but also as a vehicle for apprenticed knowledge.

maggie and kate resized
Black and white photograph of the Fox Sisters, the two women are seated, side-by-side, facing the camera. Portrait of the Fox Sisters, mid-late 19th century.

Long before hospitals, hospice, and health care professionals, you had midwives, shrouding women and layers-out-of the dead.  Death and dying was in the home and deemed the responsibility of women.  When someone was dying it was the women who cared for them.  When there was a confirmed death in the community, it was the women who were first called to conduct the mourning, handle the body, and organize obsequies.  Habenstein and Lamers in their foundational work The History of American Funeral Directing, called the home “the central point of mourning” and described early death work as emotional work.  For many cultures, women were the wailers and mourners.  In Irish culture, you have the Keening Woman and in Polish culture, death is personified as Marzanna, female figure draped in white. (For more on this see James Pula’s work).  Describing death work as emotional work filled with anxiety, expressed by deep wails and sorrowful lamentations of women aligned death work with the characteristics, norms, and behaviors of 19th century feminine gender ideology.  European ascribed gender ideology (that was transplanted to America) saw women as delicate, weak and incapable of rational thought.  In this way, death work was as a natural fit to women as child rearing.  But these ideas are as short-sighted as they are insulting.  They keep women in the home and denied them equality.

“Death work performed by 19th century women consisted of specialized knowledge of body preparation inclusive to decomposition and post-mortem hygiene.”

Death work performed by 19th century women consisted of specialized knowledge of body preparation inclusive to decomposition and post-mortem hygiene.  This knowledge was apprenticed and passed down.  “Shrouding women,” as named by sociologist Georgeann Rundbland, were women who performed “premarket death duties” that included laying the body out on the cooling board to fix and prepare for wake and funeral, washing and dressing the body, and properly posing for coffin and burial.  Rundbland said that once funeral and death work began to professionalize, this specialized knowledge women possessed was downplayed by men as “local knowledge”.[1]

Screen Shot 2018-01-21 at 2.21.27 PM
Women at a Sisters Workshop on Washing and Shrouding hosted by the Islamic Cultural Centre of Ireland in 2015. From the ICCI website

The history of shrouding women was erased and replaced with a history of death work that begins with male carpenters and sextons.  Even though Habenstein and Lamers discussed the family nurses, nurse-governesses, layers-out-of-the dead, and midwives who performed death work, it is in the context of personal service – the exception to the rule that men are at the foundation of death work.  They write “adult females would develop a rough skill in laying out the dead or…would have given assistance often enough to feel an informal responsibility to offer their services in cases of community or neighborhood deaths.”[2]  With their use of “rough skill” and “assistance,” this is to imply that women offered unskilled labor that was only to help.  Women were not positioned as leaders in charge of the death work.  Furthermore, this wording insinuates that fully and completely preparing the body from beginning to end is not death work in and of itself – it was only an assist, preparation for the real work of coffining bodies and digging graves.  This work was excluded from the record historicizing the undertaking trade that turned into the funeral professional.  The implication that nursing, midwifery, and shrouding women were so far from what became undertaking is to suggest that their presence was primitive to the more scientific mortuary science that was to come.  And more still that it was so primitive and personal that it was indeed not the precursor to the funeral profession at all, but ordinary kin-keeping work necessary during a time of bereavement.

It is important to uncover the death work of 19th century women and move it from the margin to the center.  In Lisa Shaver’s work, she discussed how women used their deathbeds as their pulpits.  Just as the Fox sisters spoke through the dead to break out the private sphere to the public realm, Shaver says these women became “iconic ministers” transforming the public with their testimonials on their deathbed.[3]  Shaver’s use of “iconic minister” is to suggest that these women possessed transformative power that reached outside their homes into the public.  They were instruments of God at a time where Christianity forbade female ministers.

“These women became “iconic ministers” transforming the public with their testimonials on their deathbed.”

Central to mourning rituals, skilled in death work and carriers of specialized mortuary knowledge of deathways, women performed feminist death work.  Feminist death work showed women using logic because they performed in high-pressure situations and had to adapt to for what the bereaved and the body called.  Case in point, midwives and nurses had to switch from bringing life and healing-to-live to preparing for end of life.  This is because in most instances, the tasks were not mutually exclusive in that mother and/or child could perish under a high-risk pregnancy or any onset or spur of the moment complications brought on my high blood pressure, breech birth, birth asphyxia, narrow pelvis, multiple births, etc.  The multitasking of sustaining life and preparing for death serves as the clearest example of 19th century women using logic, rationale, and complex thought patterns.

Toward the end of the 19th century, men, through the trade of undertaking, and headstone making, usurped the power away from women in death work.  The history of American undertakers and undertaking starts with the coffin and those who made it.  Death work was viewed a) as those sextons who dug the grave and buried the body and b) those carpenters and cabinet-makers who made the coffins.

In a very smart and engaging discussion of “female mourning figures,” Annette Stott argues how cemetery monuments carved in the beautifully delicate image of the feminine reinforced sexist ideas about women and death.[4]  In her work, Annette Stott discussed that although 19th century sculptures were predominately female and feminine inspired, the stone cutters are male and pushed an image of a fragile, grief-stricken woman made weak by death.  This, says Stott, is a false reality and that these monuments were pushed at a time when, by the 1880s and 1890s, women had begun to publicly challenge prescribed gender norms, including mourning dress that confined their bodies with heavy cloth and confined them to the home.  As Stott says of the “pioneer states” she studied, women were enfranchised as early as 1890 and 1893 in Wyoming and Utah, respectively.

“Annette Stott argues how cemetery monuments carved in the beautifully delicate image of the feminine reinforced sexist ideas about women and death.”

Like Stott suggests, these marbled feminine images of death stand as past artifacts highly influenced by gender norms and not real-to-life representations and varied forms of women and death/death work.  Shrouding women, layers-out-of-the-dead, midwives and nurses were in complete opposition to the image of a woman supposedly too overwhelmed to perform death work.  The years of apprenticed, hands-on training, frankly, would steady the nerves and keep the composure to do the work – strengthening the resolve and discouraging despair.  But more to the point, was that the work was not done in isolation.  This network of women fostered strength!

Today, there is still a network of women surrounding death work. Through the 100 Black Women of Funeral Service, Funeral Divas, women are enrolling in mortuary school more and more and taking up the tradition of their foremothers who were instrumental in the ways and work of death.

Just as Kate and Maggie did with Spiritualism, women today are using death work – in the form of mortuary school – as feminism, activism that resists oppressive gender norms and subjugated gender ideology.

Dr. Kami Fletcher is an Assistant Professor of African American History at Delaware State University.  Her research centers on African American burial grounds, late 19th/early 20th century Black male and female undertakers, and African American death ideology.  She is the author of “Real Business: Maryland’s First Black Cemetery Journey’s into the Enterprise of Death, 1807-1920”.  Look out for her forthcoming volumes: 1) the co-edited Till Death Do Us Part: American Ethnic Cemeteries as Borders Uncrossed which examines the internal and/or external drives among ethnic, religious, and racial groups to separate their dead, under contract with University of Mississippi Press; and 2) the co-edited Southern Cemeteries, Imprints of Southern Culture which demonstrates the interactions between southern culture and the dead – especially examining the fluid, ever changing demands the living placed on the dead with careful attention to the growing debate over whether Confederate monuments should remain in public cemeteries.


[1] Georganne Rundblad, “Exhuming Women’s Premarket Duties in the Care of the Dead,” Gender & Society 9, 2 (1995): 173-192.

[2] Robert W. Habenstein and William M. Lamers, The History of American Funeral Directing (Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 1962), 146.

[3] Lisa Shaver, “Women’s Deathbed Pulpits: From Quiet Congregants to Iconic Ministers,” Rhetoric Review 27, 1 (1995): 20-37.

[4] Annette Stott, Pioneer Cemeteries: Sculpture Gardens of the Old West (Lincoln, Nebraska, 2008).


6 thoughts on “Feminist Death Work: A History

  1. Thanks for this wonderful article!
    I celebrate the “unskilled” nature of deathcaring because that is what makes it reclaimable.
    For me, framing it as skilled or unskilled misses the mark, because expertise feels like a patriarchal lens.
    The capacity is the willingness to remain on call at all times, to engage in intimate work that might often be grotesque in a caring way, to co-operate to problem solve with many layers of the community, to model acceptance, to facilitate meaning-making, honour traditions etc, all while maintaining the rhythms of daily life within society.
    Cassandra Yonder http://www.deathcaring.ca

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