Lady Embalmers: 1893-1921

EMBALMING BODIES.

STRANGE OCCUPATION FOLLOWED BY MANY AMERICAN WOMEN.

They Are Adepts at Ministering In the House of Mourning—Modern Developments of the Ancient Egyptian Art of Embalming the Dead.

Very few Americans know that the ancient art of embalming has been completely restored and improved, though not in the ancient way. Not only are bodies now preserved far more perfectly than at any time by the Egyptians, but all the unpleasant, not to say revolting, incidents of their practice are avoided.

At the outbreak of our civil war it was taken for granted that speedy decay was the fate of all the dead, and it was only by such rude appliances as ice and salt or the most pungent drugs that any of the bodies of those slain in battle could be taken home for burial. The demand suddenly created set hundreds of physicians and undertakers to investigating, but such is the natural reverence for all that is old that people generally spoke of embalming as a lost art, and even the scientific declared that in this climate it would be impossible to preserve a corpse as in ancient Egypt.

At the very beginning of the war one Confederate and several Federal surgeons began to study methods of corpse preservation, and the net result of all their labors and those of many other gentlemen may be summed up in one sentence; All the old, barbarous methods are discarded, and in their stead arterial injection and other processes which do not mutilate the corpse in the slightest degree are employed.

The business of embalming seems like a queer occupation for the gentler sex, but it is an interesting fact that there are now nearly 300 ladies in the United States engaged in undertaking, and several of these are very skillful embalmers. Mrs. J. L. Young of Vinton, Ia., began as her husband’s assistant, but soon developed such a mastery of it that he gave her entire control. She is a native of New York, born Miss Fellows.

Mrs. James T. Brett of Milwaukee, a native of Boston, developed early in life a peculiar aptitude for ministering in the house of mourning and is now truly scientific ladies’ embalmer. She is also a writer of ability, a lady of refinement and high social position. Mrs. Fred H. Russ of Chicago, of the firm of “Mr. & Mrs.. Fred H. Russ,” as it is now established, is also a skillful embalmer and very graceful writer. Mrs. John Greenslade of Bellevue, O., studied embalming under the instruction of Professor Renouard and has been in the practice two years. Mrs. Heaton Dart was the first lady embalmer in New York city and state, took a thorough course of study and has been in the business over 10 years.

Miss Fannie Gardner of Vincennes has the honor of being the first lady undertaker in Indiana. She has also taken a course in the study of embalming and is entering on the work. Mrs. Ellen Moore of Reading, Pa., began to serve as an undertaker in 1831, and at date of her last report had laid out 5,438 bodies. Another very old practitioner is Mrs. George F. Wildman of Bridgeport, Conn., who began in 1845 at the age of 16.

It goes without saying that every city and considerable town should have at least one lady well informed on the subject, for so long as present ideas prevail the corpses of both sexes will be embalmed.

The Owensboro [KY] Messenger 23 July 1893: p. 7

NO LITTLE UNDERTAKING

Is Implied in Mrs. Heaton Dart’s Strange Choice of Occupation.

Mrs. Heaton Dart enjoy the distinction–and a rare one it is nowadays–of being almost the only woman in her particular field of labor. And yet, withal, Mrs. Dart is an unassuming person. She gives herself no airs. She does not act the Pharisee toward the women who do not possess her knowledge. No, she doesn’t look down on them at all.

It may be that one reason for this modest attitude is that not one of the millions of women who don’t know how to do what Mrs. Heaton Dart does envies her her knowledge. For the fact is Mrs. Dart is an embalmer. She and her niece are the only women in New York State who are professional embalmers, and there seems to be no disposition to rob them of their laurels.

Mrs. Dart lives in a pretty flat near Central Park. She has an attractive face distinguished by a peculiarly strong mouth. An observer would at once put her down as a woman of intelligence and refinement, a womanly woman, and a plucky woman, but without the almost brutal indifference which often asserts itself in men who become familiar with trying experiences. Mrs. Dart looks as If she could make a success of almost anything. That does not lessen one’s curiosity as to why she chose to make a success of embalming. But she is quite ready to give the reason.

“Seven years ago,” says this woman of the gruesome profession, “1 was living in Scranton. Pa., when a sister-in-law of mine died. I needn’t tell you the whole story, but will say that the experience we then had with an embalmer, so called, was so terrible that my brother asked me to learn the business myself, simply to be able to take care of our own family. I was a widow and needed some occupation, so I took a course at the College of Embalming, and became so enthusiastic over the work that I came to New York, and have practised the profession for five years.

“I met with the most violent opposition from the undertakers. There were ten thousand of them in their association, and they put every possible obstruction in my way. Why? Oh, they said that they had men whom they paid regularly, and that if I came in to attend to special cases these men had to sit around idle. You see, anyone would rather have a woman or child embalmed by a woman than by a man. I have often been asked by families for whom I have worked to embalm the body or a man. I always refused, because if I say that only women embalmers should care for the bodies of women I must be consistent, and see that the rule works both ways.

“The undertakers make it hard for me in another way, too. They give me the very worst cases: suicides and people who have been burned to death or have died of contagious diseases. I have had many a strange experience, but for all that, I love my work.”

Mrs. Dart got out her instruments, which she carries in a harmless-looking music roll, and gave details of her professional work. She talks of the forty funerals a month, following the forty embalmings, of which she has charge. There, again, her feminine tact and taste are highly appreciated. There are fashions even in funeral robes, and it takes a woman properly to adjust a big sleeve or to loop the draperies with violets, this latter being quite a fashionable funeral fad. The demands for Mrs. Dart’s services have become so numerous that she has trained her niece to be her assistant and the two women are very proud of the profession they have so strangely chosen.

The Sun [New York NY] 10 September 1893: p. 17

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Mrs Daffodil applauds these pioneers of the mortuary profession, particularly Mrs Dart with her “harmless-looking music roll.” There was, indeed, quite a bit of resistance from the gentlemen embalmers, but as embalming became an essential part of funeral service, some took the view that the delicacy brought to the (embalming) table by a lady practitioner, was a selling-point.

VIRGINIA UP WITH THE TIMES

We notice by one of the Twin City papers a boast of having lady embalmers, which is a modern idea, for the care of ladies and children. Virginia is up with the time on this point, as we have a lady embalmer in our city who is a graduate of the Barnes School of Anatomy, Sanitary Science and Embalming of Chicago, the largest and most advanced educational institution of its kind in the world. After graduating this lady has successfully passed both Wisconsin and Minnesota Board of Health examinations and been granted a license to practice. The lady of whom we speak is Mrs. Selma Ala, of the firm of Edward Ala & Co. of this city. She is a lady of rare ability in the profession, a kind and pleasant disposition with whom we can all leave the care of our beloved dead ones and know that honor, respect and tenderness will ever be shown. We can appreciate the privilege of having such a lady to perform these necessary duties that it is not right and proper for a man to do. The secrecy maintained by mother, sister, wife or daughter should be kept sacred to their memory, and how can we better regard their feelings than by employing a lady embalmer. The Virginia [MN] Enterprise 1 March 1912: p. 7

Mrs Harry Mason White directly addressed the question of

Women as Embalmers

  1. Should lady embalmers and lady assistants be encouraged by the profession?
  2. Having been asked to answer the above question, I herewith reply, speaking from my seven years’ experience as a lady embalmer.

When death enters the home, and robs it of mother, daughter or prattling babe, the bereaved family naturally turn to a sympathetic friend for advice and assistance.

At that time a lady embalmer may not only perform her necessary duties for the departed one, but by her tender and solicitous care for the comfort and assistance of those who mourn, she will prove a blessing and surely a friend never to be forgotten.

Are our loved ones not as sacred in death as in life, and should we allow the opposite sex to perform work at that time, which we would not allow in life?

The question, “If a nurse washes and prepares a body for the undertaker, why is a lady embalmer required?” is often asked. Every member of the profession certainly knows, or should know, that a gentleman called upon to do the embalming may just as well do all the work as part of it; there is no dividing line; a lady embalmer should perform the entire work from the time she is called in until the body is placed in the casket.

When an experienced woman is in charge, the family, having full confidence in her ability, give the care of their dear ones to her, knowing she will arrange the clothes, dress the hair and attend to the minor details as she would for her own.

Should the lady embalmer be encouraged by the profession? Yes, a lady who not only understands the art and science of embalming, but who is expert in all the other details of the work, by her kind and sympathetic manner to the bereaved can comfort them in their sorrow and is by all means a necessity and a growing need.

Has the business reached the high goal entitling it to be called a profession? At the present day, decidedly no; had it attained that elevated standard, lady embalmers would be constantly sought for, but at the present time, the undertakers are jealously guarding every entrance by which a woman may enter this path of duty.

When the lady embalmer is recognized by the undertaker it will be an evidence that it is worthy to be called a profession; for the gentle and refining influence of successful ladies in the business, will raise the public estimate and tend to elevate the business to a profession in its true sense, and make it an art which any true participant should be proud to practice, and a profession in which any lady would certainly not be ashamed to be engaged.

MRS. HARRY MASON WHITE.

The Essentials of Anatomy, Sanitary Science and Embalming, Asa Johnson Dodge, 1906:  pp. 227-228

Despite the inroads made by these early lady embalmers, the profession was still, alas, subject to foolish jokes:

Why Wait?

As a special inducement to kick the bucket we find Yonkers undertakers advertising “Lady Embalmer.”

Baxter Daily Citizen [Baxter Springs KS] 10 October 1921: p. 4

 

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.

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