Monday, February 28, 2011

Services of a Lady Mortician

One day many years ago as I was sorting through a box of old papers, I stumbled upon a home economics manual of sorts which had belonged to my grandmother.  It dated to 1929 and was full of recipes as well as household management tips but what got my attention the most was one of the advertisements within it. 

Services of Licensed Lady Mortician, the ad read, and I began to wonder why the woman felt that it was to her advantage to advertise her gender within this particular field.  So I did a little research into it and found that in 1929 there weren't very many female morticians.  And then that led to another question.  Why not?

From there, the search for answers led all the way back to the Colonial period of American history when the situation was exactly the opposite.  Beginning with the earliest settlements of this country, women were the ones who usually attended to the human remains of the dead and prepared the bodies of loved ones for burial.  Mothers taught their daughters from a young age what needed to be done when a death occurred and it was generally acknowledged to be women's work even though the menfolk would have their assigned tasks at the direction of their female relatives.  And it continued on in this way for a very long time.  In fact, during the Revolutionary War, General Washington  issued an Army requisition specifically seeking women to handle the dead who had perished in battle. 

But then in the 1800s things changed.  As public health needs began to be addressed more aggressively,  good sanitation habits were promoted on a national level and the medical field came into its own as a respected profession that required at least a rudimentary formal education.  Before this, many people perceived doctors, especially male doctors, to be less effective than the local healing women who tended to the sick with their arsenal of home remedies and natural cures. 

And, in truth, this perception was well justified because in many instances, early American doctors more often than not hastened the end of their patients with medicinal cures that would shock us today.  However, America was not immune to the effects of the European Enlightenment and soon the reliance upon science overcame the centuries-old wisdom of herbal treatments.  Doctors, almost all of who were men, were schooled in the sciences and therefore became to be regarded as more qualified to treat the ill than uneducated healers who were predominantly women.

Among the medics who served during the Civil War and afterward, when the spirit of entrepreneurialism swept across the country, there was more than one shrewd fellow who noted the popularity of embalming and recognized what a lucrative business opportunity it was.  With this commercialization of an aspect of post-mortem care, embalming transformed American mortuary practices not only by preserving the bodies of soldiers until they could be transported back home to their waiting families but also by helping to expand the growing mortuary profession and to justify charging fees for funeral preparations.  Because embalming necessitated a certain amount of formal training as well as the specialized use of chemicals, its cost was perceived to be worthwhile since this was a service which the average family could not perform in their own home. 

With the opportunities for education and formal training of any kind being very limited for women at this time, it is no wonder that few women became doctors or learned how to perform embalming techniques.  And as embalming continued to be closely associated with the mortuary trade, it naturally followed that women's roles in post-death duties would diminish to the point where they were practically nonexistent (except for remote rural areas and within Jewish communities) since women were strongly discouraged from both pursuing a career outside the home and from owning their own businesses.

To add to the alienation of women from the growing funeral business, by the late 19th century the Victorian Age was dominating the American culture with its emphasis on the delicate and weak nature of women.  Women were expected to stay within the home, to manage their households and to raise their families.  They were most definitely not to be exposed in any way to anything as morbid as a corpse.  Nor was it considered proper that a woman should view an unclothed man, whether he was alive or dead, so the trend continued where, as the mortuary field grew, it became almost completely male dominated. 

And so it was until the beginning of the 20th century at which time women's independence movements gained momentum.  For years, organized groups of women lobbied for the right to vote but their efforts really got a boost in 1912 when Theodore Roosevelt's Progressive Party condoned women's suffrage.  This wave of feminist activism extended to many arenas, not least of which was the right to pursue careers  and, as a result, out of this shift in gender segregation was born the re-emergence of women into roles which had long been denied to them.  Coming full circle back to the traditional tasks of preparing the dead for burial, women began to attend mortuary colleges and to take their place among their male peers as funeral directors across the country albeit in small numbers. 

However, unlike two centuries before, they were now fulfilling this role under different circumstances.  Women were once again caring for the dead but they were doing so as a paid job rather than as a domestic duty. Moreover, bodies were now prepared for burial outside of the home and by people other than family or neighbors.

And therein is the answer to my question as to why it came to be that a woman would advertise both her gender and her profession when soliciting business within the funerary industry in 1929.  In essence, the history of post-mortem care in this country developed into two intertwining paths from the 17th century to the 20th century.  On the one hand, there was a change in the dynamics of how that care evolved, from a personal home-based task to an impersonal business transaction whereby strangers assumed the duty of preparing remains for burial.  And, on the other hand, there was the dramatic change in gender roles within that specific industry. 

By 1929, the Roaring Twenties had done much to emancipate women from the limitations imposed upon them from generations of gender discrimination and they were not only entering male-dominated careers but by advertising to a largely female audience within home management guides, women were also making the statement that, to a certain degree, they were reclaiming their long-lost role of preparing the dead for their final resting place.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Life and Death Reversed

I enjoy reading obituaries and have made a daily habit of going through the death announcements each morning.  I like to read nice things about people even if I didn't know any of them, and I find it touching that they are now missed because they were so very loved.  It's also good to see them be acknowledged for all that they did in life, even if it is condensed down into just a handful of sentences.

And sometimes an obituary is really interesting reading such as the case of the woman who in her teens had been one of the original Ziegfeld Girls or of the gal who had got the highest scores ever given on the state nursing examinations.  But then, too, reading the obituaries is an opportunity to be grateful that, for today at least, I'm not suffering the sorrow of having lost someone who was dear to me. 

Now I don't know for sure if this habit of reading the obituaries is responsible for my astute awareness of the inevitability of death but it definitely reminds me on a daily basis that eventually every one of us, regardless of age, race, or social status, will take that final breath which signals the end of our time in this particular body.  We don't know how, or when, it will happen but it will most definitely happen.

A few hundred years ago, someone like me wouldn't have needed to read the obituaries every day to be well aware of death because in the early days of this country, from colonial times up until the early part of the twentieth century, people's lives included many more reminders than what we have today.  Just the sheer increase in frequency of death is one factor which separates our ancestors from us in this regard, not to mention the familiarity with burial preparation within the home.

However, what I find absolutely intriguing, though, is how so many people fear the end almost to the point of panic.  Where did this fear of death originate?  Is it innate?  Are we born with it or is it learned?  I know that, psychologically, we tend to fear that which we don't know or which we can't explain and so it follows that we would naturally fear death being that we don't know for sure what happens to us after we die.

Granted, we do have glimpses from those who have reported what they experienced after being declared clinically dead but how do we know for sure that near-death experiences are really true?  The answer is that we don't truly know.  Even among those who believe in heaven and eternal life, there are many who are extremely frightened about the thought of their own death.

Personally, I can appreciate that most people likely push thoughts of death to the back of their mind.  Human nature being what it is, I am convinced that our fear of death is responsible in large part for our avoidance of the subject.  Also, this taboo about discussing death has therefore served to transform a very natural part of the life cycle into a morbid and therefore unpopular subject for conversation. 

However, the fear of facing our own mortality is not uncommon and I believe that this fear is what makes death such a frightening individual experience when, in truth, if the many accounts of near-death experiences are indeed true, then it is apparently a peaceful and joyful transition into a new life or, rather, into the real life. 

So that gets me to thinking.  How about if what we think of as life and death might actually be completely the opposite of what we define them to be?  What if death of the physical body is really the beginning of our birth into another life and that what we believe to be life (as we know it within a body) is actually a death of sorts? 

After all, upon birth most infants emerge from the warmth and nourishing comfort of the womb into a shocking transition of new physical sensations which literally assault it with its first breath in the form of bright lights, loud sounds, and cold.  And far from becoming more physically perfect with age, the human body peaks relatively young and then begins a long descent into slow decay which ends when the body can no longer function at all.  Could it be that our existence within a physical body is a death (albeit temporary) of our true selves?

If we accept the premise that each of us is a spiritual being, then it stands to reason that our experience as physical beings, where we are literally imprisoned within a body, is not really life but is instead death in the sense of the limitations imposed by a body that is subject to gravity, illness, and pain. 

I don't pretend to have any answers but I can't help but wonder about it all.  If living in a body is death, then does that mean that death comes before life instead of the other way around?  Or is our existence just a cycle of life, followed by death, followed by life, etc.? 

Whatever the case, I do know one thing for certain.  When I perceive myself as being in a death phase of existence, then I have a completely different perspective on things.  It forces me to examine everything from an uncommon view and in the process it brings me a greater appreciation for the end because I can't help but believe that the end here is simply the beginning of something better somewhere else.