The female of the species is more deathy than the male?

Charles 7 Comments

I’ve been doing my bit to promote the Good Funeral Guide (all the while thinking that, really, if it’s any good, it’ll do that for itself). If I send a press release to a local radio station, chances are they’ll interview me. I go and sit in front of a mike and answer predictable questions: ‘Can you bury someone in your back garden? Really??!!’ ‘Hey, what’s the most wacky funeral you’ve ever been to? What’s the shockingest song anyone’s ever played?’ It doesn’t take us very far and it doesn’t do grievers any good. The media increasingly promotes the idea that death is heck of a lot of fun so long as you keep the dress code bright, get the playlist right, select one of those nice new mothwing coffins and have a hell of a party afterwards (there’s particularly blithering example here). I’m tired of rebutting this redefinition of the funeral as a grief bypass procedure. What’s more, it’s not what radio stations want to hear.

But it occurred to me while listening to Woman’s Hour on my talking wireless the other day that here is a programme which deals with serious things seriously. And even though my publishers have already pitched at the programme (twice, actually) and been turned down like a bedspread, I felt that this was a programme that really ought to talk about present-day trends in funerals, and I resolved to have another crack at them. And I decided that the angle I would take is that funerals are increasingly influenced by women.

Does that idea stand up? Starting with a distantly remembered (and implausible) statistic that two-thirds of funerals are arranged by women, I tried to track down the source. I found something in America: “When it comes to funerals, women do most of the funeral arrangements and planning. Nearly two thirds of the estimated 2.3 million deaths will be planned, arranged and ultimately paid for by women, most often because she is the surviving member of the marriage.” [Source]

What’s more, there has been a huge increase in the number of women working in the funeral industry. Women probably now outnumber men, for all that many women still occupy lowly positions. Women are drawn to funeral service. As David Barrington reminded me, they are increasingly drawn to embalming. Have they, together, been a feminising influence?

The burgeoning number of secular celebrants is made up mostly of women. Are they a feminising influence?

I rang a few funeral directors and put it to them. They all reckoned that the two-thirds figure is way out, it’s more like 50:50. It is difficult to generalise from their other responses; a bigger sample would have been more useful. I am hoping you will be part of that bigger sample, dear reader.

If I am to generalise, male funeral directors tend to feel that men have as much say as their womenfolk, while female funeral directors tend to feel that, once they get the bit between their teeth, women take the lead. That makes sense, yes? Without getting overly embroiled in gender politics, women make better shoppers?

One curious fact: Britain offers funeral consumers a bigger range of coffins than anywhere else on Earth. How do we account for that?

All agreed that women tend to take the lead in designing the service sheet, choosing the dress code, picking the flowers. As a celebrant I know that, while men and women will decide on the music equally, poetry is much more likely to be chosen by females. I also know that it’s much easier to create a ceremony in the company of women than men.

Here’s another dangerous generalisation. Women are much more interested than men in wedding planning.

Could funerals go the same way?


  1. Charles

    I know that you are right, Charles. It is women who come in to plan their funerals in advance; if it is a couple it is predominantly women who instigate, or have insisted on the initiative.

    In talks to WI groups, it is always my impression that a larger proportion of women have planned/talked to a close friend/been talked to by a close friend about their funeral than holds for the (male) members of Probus Clubs. No figures available though, sadly.

    Of our last fifty funerals, 25 have been arranged by women; 11 have been arranged by the family or their community (with five of these strongly led by a woman), and 15 by men – usually the son, who leads the process on behalf of his mother, who has the final say.

    23 0f our last 50 funerals have been for men. Of these, 16 of these were arranged by women – the others being arranged by the son, or by the person’s family, or by their community.

    Are women more sanguine, more practical, less fussed by the chaos/messiness of the end of life? Ask Jenny Murray for a possible explanation is my best solution.
    Keep going on this one, though. It’s hot.

  2. Charles


    From womb to tomb – and ultimately the tomb is also conceived of as female, the earth. Hence it would not surprise me if women were indeed naturally drawn to making these preparations. But you know me, I always prefer the more “esoteric” explanations 🙂

    It would be very interesting to see if such a trend prevailed cross-culturally and through time.

    By the way, I heartily second your irritation at the funeral as grief bypass. It corroborates what Ernst Jünger wrote about the spreading idiocy with respect to death. Remember, you quoted it once…

    “As a child is furnished with organs to facilitate and allow birth, so man also possesses organs for death, the formation and strengthening of which belong to theological practices. Where this knowledge is extinguished, a form of idiocy spreads with respect to death; this reveals itself in an escalation of blind fear, but also in an equally blind and mechanical disdain of death.”
    Ernst Jünger, “The Adventurous Heart”

  3. Charles

    Thought-provoking post, thanks Charles. It’s very hard to generalise usefully, and easy stereotypes sit comfortably on top of archetypes…I find women often/usually readier to talk, to develop their thoughts and feelings, than men, readier to envision a funeral more strongly. I couldn’t, and wouldn’t want to turn that into a statistic.

    Women also, I find, tend to have better family memories (I don’t mean happier memories, I mean that the details of family life seem more important to them, and better remembered by them.)

    I agree that a funeral that bypasses grief is not doing its job, but as you know, I’m uneasy about writing off so many people’s feelings as idiocy about death. It’s not so much “give them what they want even if it’s rubbish,” it’s more a feeling of slightly wary compassion for whatever it is that they are or are not feeling.

    I know Jonathan has strong and very valuable views on this, and might say that it is our job to break through and make them cry. I’m not so sure about that. We of the GFG Tribe tend to want funerals to develop in a certain direction – others don’t, and I want to be at the service (no pun intended) of both camps.

    Incidentally, you’re a little harsh on the humanist post you link to – the tone is irritating, and her humanism isn’t mine, but it’s not all blithering – there is, I feel, some interesting and useful material in there. Burying someone with their portable radio tuned in to their favourite station – fascinating! As the battery runs out, so the family moves away into their different life without him/her. No signal left…Mind you, you’d be a bit startled if the sound of the radio suddenly changed to a different station…

  4. Charles

    sorry – meant to add . .good luck with Women’s Hour, and do tip us off if you get there. They really should be interested in the idea of women as the guardians of birth and death, the layers-out of bodies and watchers over ritual, and your views/findings on female influence. The point I’m trying to make is that it’s not just how many female FDs are there,how many women are the arranger and decider – it’s also the feminine influence, the greater emotional fluency asnd realism one often finds. This is not to denigrate men – I feel it’s something to do with the way, in traditional roles, it’s men who were seen as having to carry on soldiering/mining coal/fishing, and women who had to carry on in the home and community. So the social value of the stiff upper lip/reserved approach to death was of some cultural value, and the female gifts corresponded. It’s all different now? Not if you talk to a lot of people over 70, as we do, whose attitudes were shaped in a different era.

    Thinking aloud – probably nonsense. Fascinating area.

  5. Charles

    Well, Rupert – “often,” “something to do with,” “in traditional roles,” “of cultural value…” I don’t feel that’s in the menmarswomenvenus strait-jacket, but maybe the only way to suggest cultural differentiations, especially amongst an older generation is a fairly broad brush. But as I say – may well be nonsense – though there seem to be (speak as one finds)chracteristically different responses, often/sometimes, qualify it how you will

  6. Charles

    I am at one with Rupert. Women are… and men do… somewhat leaves me cold. Speaking of which, what is the point in the second decade of the 21st century of ‘Woman’s Hour’. They sometimes have some interesting stories, but to lump them in that ghetto – sounds a tad misandrist.

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