March is Women's History Month, and the perfect time to celebrate the growing number of women entering the funeral profession. Actually, “entering” is inaccurate because women have always been at the forefront of death care, only stepping back during the mid and late 19th century as undertaking itself became a business. Because society frowned upon women working (for pay) unless they absolutely had to (and even then, opportunities were minimal), the funeral industry became dominated by men. But now, women are entering the profession at an outsize rate, changing the face of funeral service as they do so.

Many women training to become funeral professionals (embalmers, funeral directors, funeral arrangers) do so with an eye toward making available and affordable death care a social justice issue. They are at the forefront of the green burial and home funeral movements. Women are entering mortuary school at previously unheard-of levels—according to the American Board of Funeral Service Education, last year, 72% of mortuary school graduates and 75% of new enrollees were female. They are in very good company.

A Trailblazer – Henrietta Duterte

Henrietta Duterte was the very first female mortician, inheriting her husband's business when he died in 1858 in Philadelphia, PA. Philadelphia was one of the first cities in the North to abolish slavery, and Henrietta was born into an influential black family in 1817. Her father, John Bowers, was warden of the St. Thomas African Episcopal Church, founded by the abolitionist Absalom Jones. Henrietta trained as a professional seamstress, and in 1852, she married Frances Duturte, a mortician who owned his own funeral home at 838 Lombard Street. They were married for just six years before he died, and none of the children they had together survived for long after birth.

Upon Frances' death, Henrietta took over the business and renamed it in her own name – extremely unusual at the time. She was an accomplished undertaker and an astute businesswoman, running the shop well and dedicated to serving all, rich or poor. She was described as "prompt in her business affairs, and sympathizing and accommodating to all.” In these years before embalming entered the mainstream, she earned a reputation for speed – essential without modern-day body preservation methods. Her financial success made it possible for her to support various causes close to her heart – among them the Philadelphia Home for Aged and Infirm Colored Persons and the Freedman's Aid Society. When she died in 1903, it is reported that her business generated over $210,000 annually in today's dollars – a vast sum for a female Black entrepreneur at that time.

But Henrietta was not only a shrewd and successful businesswoman. She was a committed social justice warrior, as well. Just 15 miles north of the Mason-Dixon line, Philadelphia was an active stop on the Metropolitan Corridor, a network of communities that helped support enslaved people moving north to escape slavery in the South. Always active in the abolitionist movement, Henrietta became a member of the Underground Railroad and used her business to help hide enslaved people as they traveled North. She would disguise them as members of funeral processions and even hid them in coffins. Though Philadelphia was a free city, these acts were perilous. Those who helped enslaved people escape could have been subjected to jail, fines, and legal action from the enslavers.

Henrietta kept working until her death, serving her last client just two days before she died at the age of 86. Today, she is remembered through the Henrietta Duterte Scholarship, established in 2020 at the Community College of Baltimore County. The scholarship aims to “honor Ms. Duterte’s legacy through creating opportunities for Black women to pursue careers in the funeral industry.” Through this scholarship, Henrietta’s social justice work continues to this day.

Women feeling drawn back to deathcare could not come at a better time. As the population ages, we'll soon be experiencing a "death boom," just as the National Funeral Directors Association reports that almost half of the practicing funeral directors in the United States are looking towards retirement within five years. The growing need for funeral services bumping up against a decline in funeral professionals could be challenging, but the increased interest in mortuary school enrollment among women could turn this tide. In 2022, the American Board of Funeral Service Education notes that enrollment in mortuary schools is at its highest rate since 2010, with more than 7,000 students beginning their training. As described earlier, three-quarters of these students are women.

With fresh eyes on new innovations such as eco-friendly funerals and personalized memorials, women can bring their unique gifts and passions to a profession that has traditionally helped and comforted so many families through dark days of grief. And, like Henrietta Duterte, they can continue to blaze new paths to make funeral service equitable, culturally sensitive, and available to all.

Photos: public domain

Inspired by Henrietta Duterte and want to learn more about a career in funeral service? Visit Careers in Funeral Service to learn more!