It is early November and I’m standing in a Bolivian cemetery, crammed shoulder to shoulder with thousands of revellers. There is raucous music playing, laughing, chanting. The masses are here for the yearly celebration honouring the hard work of their ñatitas: human skulls that connect the living to the beyond.
The ñatitas, as the guests of honour, wear flower crowns and cigarettes burn down between their absent lips. Each ñatita has a different mystical speciality, everything from business to childcare to family safety and protection to problems with love. You can bring a small offering to a ñatita and they will intervene for you with the greater powers of the universe.
In the days leading up to the festival in the cemetery, I visited the homes of prominent indigenous women who kept walls of these ñatitas. One kept a modest wall of 14 skulls, another a full service wall of 50, wearing matching beanies with their names on them. For these women, the ñatitas were a vehicle for the subtle subversion of the Catholic Church, where all concerns and prayers were filtered through a male priest. Unsurprisingly, the Catholic Church hates the ñatitas and the women who wield them. Men do keep ñatitas, of course, but it is women who control this skull-based self-help trade.
The problems that prompt people to seek help from the ñatitas are not that dissimilar from our Western preoccupations. Love, family and finances are universal themes. But you might consider getting aid from a room full of skulls a bit too far. That bias, in many ways, is present with all death-related work, especially work that involves direct physical contact with the dreaded corpse. Some of that fear exists because it has been all but erased from popular knowledge that women were once the driving force in Western death work. As recently as 150 years ago, women controlled the corpses.
In the 19th century, men took notice of the potential in corpse capitalism. When it became clear there was real money to be made, the men unionised and professionalised
That is to say taking care of the dead was a domestic task, performed privately by the women of the family, in the home. It was not the default to call an undertaker or to outsource your dead bodies. As cities began to grow larger, a special class of (almost entirely) women entered the marketplace: “layers out of the dead”. Overlapping with the tasks of midwives, layers out would come to your home and prepare your dead. They would bring people into the world and take them out of the world. They would wash the corpse, plug any orifices that need to be plugged, close the eyes, dress the body for its trip to the grave. This wasn’t an especially lucrative or even full-time job, but it was a job for women.
Then, in the 19th century, men took notice of the potential in corpse capitalism. Cabinet makers, carriage drivers and clergy turned increasingly to hosting funerals and preparing dead bodies. When it became clear there was real money to be made, the men unionised and professionalised, creating a landscape where they were now the only ones “qualified” to care for the dead.
That’s not to say there is no record of women thriving in this new world of corpse care in both America and the UK. Henrietta Bowers Duterte was a free black woman born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. A tailor by trade, she married a Haitian coffin-maker-turned-undertaker. When he died in 1858, Henrietta took over the business, making her the first female undertaker in the United States. She died in 1903, with the business still flourishing, burying both black and white clients. In fact, she is listed working as the undertaker on a service two days before her own death. But Henrietta’s story is the exception that proves the rule of women’s almost universal exclusion from this new industry of death.
Today, funerals in the UK are a £1.7bn industry. The industry is less regulated than its US counterpart, which is controlled so tightly that it’s almost impossible for younger people, women, minorities or immigrant populations to start their own funeral home. When I opened my funeral home two and a half years ago (a feat only possible because California has slightly laxer regulations than most other states), I asked the state inspector how many other funeral homes he knew of in Southern California owned by young women. Zero. And Southern California has a population of 24 million people.
This is not just a funeral-industry problem. In the 1950s, up to 50 per cent of computer programmers were women. This seems impossible to believe today, but programming was once low-wage work, the “clerical labour” of gruelling maths, calculations and creating programming languages. Then – see if you’re sensing a pattern here – men realised the potential prestige of programming, professionalised themselves as a workforce and made it difficult for women to be hired.
The good news is that the funeral industry, just in the last 10 years, has seen an impressive swing in the opposite direction, with women flooding into the UK death industry, including as owners of their own funeral homes. Anyone familiar with the history shouldn’t see this as a surprise.
This comes with a whole new concern, however: the potential drop in wages. It’s well documented, from Cornell University to the University of Pennsylvania to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, that fields of work previously dominated by men that shift towards female dominance see a drop in wages. This has happened with parks and recreation jobs (drop of wages by 57 points), designers (wages fell 34 percentage points), housekeepers (wages fell 21 percentage points) and biologists (wages fell 18 percentage points).
This is where, for me, the issue gets complicated. I’m thrilled at the opportunity to open and run my own funeral home in Los Angeles. I want to see my two employees (both women) earn a more than fair wage for the work they do. Women shouldn’t have to hide their desire to be a boss, run a company, make enough to actually retire before age 85. But I also think that maybe we shouldn’t have a funeral industry at all. In many ways, I would love to put myself right out of business.
Remember, there was a time not long ago when the corpse was cared for at home both in the US and in the UK. There simply was no funeral industry, especially not a full-service industry most people believe they are required to use. A large part of my advocacy is teaching people that the dead body is safe (unless it had ebola, but I’m taking a wild guess that Grandma didn’t have ebola). It’s also legal to care for Grandma in your own home, as opposed to immediately sending her off with a funeral director. Such homecare can cost your family thousands of pounds less and also allows you to have the kind of intimate ceremony that’s meaningful to your own unique culture or religion with no time limits or restrictions.
Once, I was doing a newspaper interview where I was explaining to the interviewer (a woman) the power that can come with taking charge of the care of the body when someone dies. The interviewer stopped me and asked, point blank, “Won’t your movement, if successful, just be another domestic task women are expected to perform for free?”
It stands to reason that if deathcare moves from corporate funeral homes back into the home, that women will be the ones expected to pick up the slack
This question tripped me up – I was embarrassed to concede that, in the years I had been doing this work, I hadn’t considered the issue from this angle. In my mind, corpse care was for everyone, a vital task for any gender. But that’s a naive read on the history, is it not? Women are already overburdened as caretakers at the end of life. Studies show that daughters are twice as likely as their male siblings to step into care roles for their parents. It stands to reason that if deathcare moves from corporate funeral homes back into the home, that women will be the ones expected to pick up the slack.
I’ve thought about this quite a bit since then. The funeral industry is expensive and cookie-cutter in its offerings. In fighting against that, making different choices for your family, you are an activist. The women in Bolivia, going around the Catholic Church to address their real, day-to-day concerns, are activists. Death at home is not a “domestic task” – it is activism, no matter which gender is tackling it. The fact that it is almost exclusively female-identified people advocating for these changes, disempowering these huge corporations and religious behemoths is interesting, but not shocking.
From Here To Eternity: Travelling The World To Find Good Death is published by W&N