The Women Who Want Their Corpses to Feed The Earth After They Die
Women have long been leaders in the death industry, but in recent years they have also pushed the industry to look to alternative burial practices.
Illustration by Lia Kantrowitz
When people walk into Kerry Potter-Kotecki's business in Nyack, New York, they could mistake it for a spa. A pebble-covered wall fountain bubbles and chandeliers hang overhead.
But then people notice the wicker casket. That's because this isn't a spa—it's a boutique selling urns, biodegradable caskets and other items for natural burials. The natural death movement, which Potter-Kotecki champions, uses environmentally-friendly practices and materials to recycle the body back into earth.
"It's really important for my store to not look scary," says Potter-Kotecki, who opened her Dying to Bloom boutique in February. A green cemetery, which prohibits embalmed bodies and requires biodegradable caskets, stands in stark contrast to the traditional funeral Potter-Kotecki remembers attending when her mom died, an experience she remembers as harrowing.
"[Today], when I visit her, it's uniform marble or granite headstones. They want everyone to have the same height, and it's perfectly cut green lawn, possibly chemically treated," Potter-Kotecki says. "In comparison, a green cemetery feels so natural."
Women like Potter-Kotecki are instigating change in the American funeral industry, or at least the way it has operated for just over a century. Until recently, the public considered funerals as feminine work performed at home, says Sarah Chavez, executive director of the death acceptance group, Order of the Good Death.
"A lot of people talk about the novelty of women being involved in death work, and it's not that at all," Chavez says. "Women working with death isn't a new thing."
When death became a professionalized industry and left the home, women were pushed out of the business in favor of educated men. Embalming became popular during the Civil War, and in 1882, the "father of American embalming schools," Joseph Henry Clarke, set up the Cincinnati School of Embalming, today called the Cincinnati College of Mortuary Science.
The number of women in the funeral industry has since inched upward. In 1996, just 40 percent of graduates from American Board of Funeral Service Education schools were women, according to the ABFSE. In 2015, that number had risen to 62 percent, according to data sent to Broadly by ABSFE.
And women aren't just funeral directors. According to sources Broadly spoke to, they largely make up the ranks of people pushing the death industry to become more modern and environmentally-friendly.
For example, the natural burial movement, among other tenets, encourages moving away from embalming, which typically uses formaldehyde, a carcinogenic. Instead, the movement focuses on making sure nothing inhibits the decomposition of the body: no embalming, only biodegradable caskets. (It's how Jewish people have been burying the dead for millennia.)
"I thought, 'There is so much life here, and this is so beautiful. This is what a cemetery should look like.'"
Potter-Kotecki opened Dying to Bloom as a physical location in order to act as a natural burial education center. But she didn't always promote green burial. In her 20s, Potter-Kotecki lost her parents. For both funerals, their bodies were embalmed and buried in a cement vault, following typical American funeral practices.
A decade later, Potter-Kotecki visited her first green cemetery.
"It's not what you would think of as a cemetery. It's open meadows and butterflies and birds and wildlife and trees and fresh air," she says. "I thought, 'There is so much life here, and this is so beautiful. This is what a cemetery should look like.'"
Green cemeteries could also help conserve land. Since 2015, Sarah Wambold, a funeral director in Austin, Texas, has led development on Conversation Burial, a project to establish green burial grounds adjacent to state parks.
The plan is to create burial space on ecologically sensitive land. The Texas Parks & Wildlife Department, which partners with Conservation Burial, then takes care of it. This protects land from development and helps cemeteries stay maintained indefinitely.
"Cemeteries are forever, and I thought that there wasn't a good option for long-term care after the owner of the land went away," Wambold says.
A cemetery like this doesn't exist yet, but she says the Texas hill country has lots of available – and beautiful – space. Of course, it depends on where they find willing families.
In the realm of death, family is powerful. Chavez, of the Order of the Good Death, got involved with death work partly because of her grandmother.
"She always talked about death and talked about planning her funeral specifically," she says. "You can't get out of a conversation with my grandmother without her offering you one of the extra burial plots that she bought because she bought too many."
Chavez's grandmother is her death-positive inspiration. The movement advocates for the acceptance of death as a natural part of life—a departure from the typical American taboo against talking about dying. Today, as executive director of the Order of the Good Death, Chavez leads a group of funeral industry professionals, academics and artists striving to talk about death in an everyday way.
Chavez noticed the increase in women shaping the death industry and wanted to showcase their work and history. So, along with a death studies scholar, she co-founded Death & the Maiden, named after a motif in Renaissance art.
The website promotes feminist death—an idea that, among other things, strives to recover the narrative of women in death work and fight the gender-normative ways embalmers typically style corpses. Chavez mentions the classic image of a dead Ophelia, her hair around her like a halo, as an example of the sexualization of corpses.
"Body positivity shouldn't end with our body when it dies," Chavez says. "All of these ideals of beauty and conforming to society's ideas of what that beauty is also played out in the funeral home. So corpses are pumped full of embalming fluid, airbrushed. They're presented in perfect light that makes them attractive and they're made to look as though they're just sleeping. Giving our bodies up to nature – in whatever way makes you happy and comfortable, so that can be not shaving or not being ashamed of your period or allowing your corpse to just decompose naturally or freely – I think those things are very much feminist acts. Recognizing that there's a beauty and a relevance to every stage of our existence, including aging, dying, and death, is really important."
A few theories explain why women have led recent change in death work. Wambold says the funeral industry feels like a natural fit because women are already forced to be aware of their bodies.
"We have to deal with our periods and abortions and pregnancies and miscarriages." She adds that the work of comforting others after the loss of relatives or friends also often falls on women. "Those are all just roles that nature and society has put on women to deal with. It doesn't feel like quite a big step to want to turn it into some sort of a profession."
The people Broadly spoke to in the industry say the practices they advocate for, such as natural burial, aren't for everyone—but neither are concrete vaults. It comes down to encouraging greater freedom of choice for funeral practices and allowing each person and family to analyze their options and choose what they feel most comfortable with. This starts with conversation and acceptance.
"We are shifting that perspective on death, breaking that taboo and instead of viewing it as an unspeakable fear, we can choose to be consciously aware that life is temporary," Potter-Kotecki says. "We can use that thought to inspire us to live the best life we can and to take chances, forgive, smile and make the most of each day."