The Women Making a Living in the Death Industry

More and more young women are entering death-related fields of work. We talked to a female hospice worker, a medical museum curator, and two funeral planners to find out why.

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Oct 29 2015, 4:00pm

Carla Valentine, Barts Pathology Museum curator. Photo by Tim Hook

Poppy Mardall saw her first dead body in the summer of 2012, shortly after she surprised her friends and family by setting up her own funeral parlor, Poppy's Funerals. "I was frightened at first," she admits. "But looking at the person in the mortuary I realised it was just somebody's loved one. The only difference between them and me was that their heart had stopped beating."

London-based Mardall, 32, had decided that she wanted to work in a career "which felt more important, where I actually helped people" after both her parents were diagnosed with cancer. Four years ago she quit her high-flying job as a deputy director at Sotheby's auction house, taking taking some time off to work out what exactly she wanted to do. She travelled to Ghana for some time out, contracted typhoid, and spent six months recovering from the fatigue and agonizing stomach pain associated with the disease.

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"It's not something you think about when you're young," she says. "But suddenly I was faced with the idea that nobody is immortal. I realized that although death is scary, I could help make funerals better, so I went into the business."

Mardall is one of a growing number of women in their 20s and 30s who deal in death and make mortality their trade of choice. Though there's no statistics about the exact number of women working as funeral directors in the UK, Rosie Inman-Cook, the manager of the Natural Death Center—an organization which helps people arrange funerals—says that almost every new funeral directing business she's in touch with has been set up by a woman.

In the US, 43 percent of funeral directors are women and 57 percent of mortuary science students are female. Young female funeral director bloggers, like Lauren LeRoy of Little Miss Funeral, are also breathing fresh air into an industry which has been dominated by men until recently.

Our generation don't want to die like our grandparents did.

Before the Victorian era in the UK and the Civil War in the US—periods when the funeral industry became industrialized and commercialized—women were the caretakers of the dead. While they were not typically involved in the burial itself, they prepared the body—laying it out, dressing it and washing it. This was seen as an extension of the caring work they did for the household in general, looking after children, the elderly, and the sick. Once this private care was moved into the public domain, women were largely pushed aside in favor of men who had gone to mortuary school.

Carla Valentine, 34, is a former forensic pathologist who now works as the curator of Barts Pathology Museum in London, looking after and restoring human specimens dating from 1750 to 1950. She says women are "reclaiming their former role" and links it to the fact that we have more control over our bodies than ever before. "They're generally more interested in death too. I host a lot of different events, such as lectures on the topic and taxidermy classes—and they're really popular with women."

Poppy Mardall, a funeral planner. Photo courtesy of Poppy Mardall

The influx of bespoke funeral businesses run by women, like Poppy's Funerals, go hand-in-hand with the surge in natural, environmentally friendly burials, too. These promote the use of biodegradable caskets and avoid the traditional embalming process, where the dead body is preserved using formaldehyde, a toxic chemical that can contaminate the ground. Instead, natural burials celebrate decomposition as the idea of your body being recycled into compost, which helps to nourish the ground and create new life.

"Our generation don't want to die like our grandparents did," funeral planner Louise de Winter tells me. "We want something a bit more interesting and vibrant than the whole traditional Victorian undertaker thing. We've realized our options aren't just cremation or burial in a cemetery." De Winter is the 28-year-old director of Poetic Endings, a funeral planning business based in London. Her mission is to "do death differently," and she's been nicknamed 'the Mary Poppins of death' by one Brooklyn journalist due to her positive outlook on mortality. It's a nickname that's stuck, and you can see why. "By embracing death, we can truly embrace life," she enthuses.

Her statement is backed up by numerous studies that say thinking about your own mortality can be a positive thing. It can lead you to healthier life choices, perhaps giving you the push to leave that job or an unhealthy relationship. But most of us don't want to face up to death because of the uncertainty that surrounds it—and the thought of death is so frightening in some people it can induce anxiety attacks, a condition known as thanatophobia.

I've never been happier since I embraced the fact I'm eventually going to die.

Letizia Perna-Forrest, 35, heads up the Patient and Family Support department at the Royal Trinity Hospice in London, where she looks after dying people and their families. She believes people are frightened of death because it's the antithesis of love. "The idea of leaving your loved ones behind is a concept which goes against basic humanity," she says. "Most people wouldn't actively choose to do that."

Yet young women are at the forefront of a movement seeking to eradicate these fears through open and honest conversations. Groups such as the Order of the Good Death, founded by Caitlin Doughty, a California-based mortician, run events and post videos teaching people about death and helping to prepare them for it. Their spin-off venture, Death Salon, gathers together intellectuals to celebrate all things death and has a female director, Megan Rosenbloom.

In London, Jon Underwood and his psychotherapist mother Sue Barksy Reid founded Death Café, a pop-up event where people meet to drink tea, eat cake, and talk about their own mortality. Grad school classmates Lizzie Miles and Maria Johnson spearheaded the first US cafe in July 2012, and 2444 have since been held across North America, Europe and Australasia.

Carla Valentine was also a former forensic pathologist. Photo by Rob Grieg

Louise De Winter has hosted Death Cafés in Brooklyn, London and Burnham-on-Crouch, Essex, as well as the group's first ever festival session at this year's Bestival. The oldest person who attended was 30, and the youngest 18. "It was incredible that these young people decided to take the time out of partying to discuss their own mortality. After the session, one girl told me she was so scared of death she was having regular panic attacks, but she felt she could now move forwards and deal with it."

De Winter believes that a person's attitude towards death can say a lot about them, mentioning a first date she went on where she mentioned Death Café. "After I explained what it was about, the guy got really freaked out," she says. "The next day, he told me he didn't want to pursue our relationship any further, as he was a 'happy-go-lucky' guy and I seemed a bit morbid. It made me laugh really, because I've never been happier since I embraced the fact I'm eventually going to die. At the end of the day, death touches everybody."

There was a perception that men made better funeral directors because they could shut down their feelings.

There are other useful reasons to embrace your own death aside from personal happiest. "In my 10 years of working in hospices in the US and UK, only one person has told me they were truly ready to die," Letizia Perna-Forrest admits. "But facing it has a practical element. If people are diagnosed with a terminal illness, no matter their age, it's important they speak to a hospice as soon as possible so they can be prepare."

This, she says, won't just help them tie up loose ends—making a will, apologizing to people they've wronged, giving away their possessions to loved ones—but it can also make them have a "good death," too. "While the idea of this is personal to everybody, making sure your painful symptoms are under control in your last few weeks so you're comfortable, instead of lying in a bed in absolute agony, is so important. It can also keep you more emotionally stable."

Still, not everybody is lucky enough to have a pain-free passing. In her job as a forensic pathologist, Carla Valentine worked on "absolutely everything", including the bodies of murder victims, people who'd killed themselves and the victims of mass fatalities, including the 7/7 London terrorism bombings in 2005.

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"It was mentally and physically demanding. Sometimes the bodies were really decomposed, for example," she admits. "But if I fell to pieces or freaked out I wouldn't be been able to do my job properly. I just had to be practical and do what I had to do."

According to all four women Broadly spoke to, this practicality is an important characteristic you need to have to make it if you want to work in a death-related field—and they say it's a trait women in particular tend to possess. That, and the fact that women are generally more open with their emotions.

"There was a perception that men made better funeral directors because they could shut down their feelings," Poppy Mardall says. "Being in touch with your emotions is helpful though, as it can allow you to care better for people who are grieving the loss of a loved one. If they're distressed, you can be there for them. We can't bring the dead back to life, but we can listen." She adds that caring for a dead person isn't that much different from looking after somebody who is dying. "You have to be sensitive and respectful of their wishes at all times," she says.

Still, all four women admit working in the death professions can be met from disgust or confusion by people, despite the popularity of events like Death Café. So why do it? "I always get asked how I can love my job," Letizia Perna-Forrest says. "At the end of the day, there's no getting over the fact people think it's really morbid and weird. The answer is, I just love people and their stories. By doing this, I get to share in somebody's journey at an intimate time, and help the bereaved get used to their 'new normal'. I really wouldn't do anything else."