WOMAN HANGS SIGN AS AN UNDERTAKER
Miss Eleanor Girodat Opens St. Francis’ Mortuary on Bridge Street.
FIRST ONE IN ENTIRE STATE
She Quotes Bible as Answer to Questions About Her Strange Profession
In the person of Miss Eleanor Girodat, 736 Bridge street, Grand Rapids has the distinction of having, in so far as is known, the only woman undertaker in the state of Michigan. There are many women engaged in various branches of mortuary work. Many of them hold embalmer’s licenses from the state board of health, but it remained for Miss Girodat to attain the unique distinction of opening a business of her own to care for the bodies of dead women and children.
“St. Francis’ Mortuary,” is the name carried on the sign above the door of the modest yet cleanly and even cheery establishment recently opened by Miss Girodat. Upon entering one is greeted with a smile from a cheery little woman, quite the reverse of the type usually associated with the so-called grewsome business in which she is engaged.
“Many people have asked me why I do it,” said Miss Girodat. “For my own part, I see nothing strange or unusual in a woman entering this business. I have read in my bible of how after the crucifixion of Jesus, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus came and took the body from the tree. The story states that Mary Magdalene and Mary, the mother of Jesus, and ‘that other Mary’ brought spices for the preparation of the body for burial. So, you see, it was an ancient custom to have the women prepare the bodies of their own loved ones for burial, the last earthly office.
“There is another side to the question, too. Not many people would care to have a man nurse their women and children during sickness. After death, it seems, it is another matter. Many people I am sure would rather have a woman care for their dead.”
Miss Girodat has had several years of experience in her work. She is a graduate of the Barnes School of Anatomy, Sanitary Science and Embalming of Chicago, having received her diploma from that institution in June, 1906. Immediately after graduation she took the state examination and received her license as an embalmer.
She worked for some years as an employe of various Grand Rapids undertakers, but decided to enter into business for herself. She has arranged to have two women assistants. A man will be employed, however, to attend to the public end of the work, such as conducting funeral services at the houses and at churches, as the case may be.
Grand Rapids [MI] Press 5 September 1912: p. 12
Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: It is shocking to think that, even in 1912, a man would be needed to attend to the public portion of the work. We have previously read of Mrs Elizabeth Thorn’s heroic grave-digging expoits at Gettysburg. Here are two more female sextons:
A Queer Job
A Girl Becomes a Sexton and Digs Graves
Evansville, Ind., March 11 Miss Josie Smith, the 17-year-old daughter of a Civil War veteran who has been the sexton of a cemetery, has succeeded her father in the capacity of sexton, and is believed to be the only grave digger of her sex in the country. Her father, who is 87 years old, has become too feeble to do the work. Daily Herald [Biloxi, MS] 12 March 1904: p. 5
By the death of Mrs Elizabeth Geese at Lewis, England loses its only woman grave digger. On the death of her husband in 1879 she was appointed to carry on his duties at the Lewes Cemetery. She was 76 years of age. Patriot [Harrisburg, PA] 29 August 1904: p. 6
And this jocular comment about another woman undertaker. Mrs Daffodil suggests that the winsome lady would have been delighted to embalm the author.
A Boston woman is a licensed undertaker. One of the nicest things to have about, from the cradle to the grave, is a winsome, kindly-disposed woman. The man is a churl who wouldn’t gladly let a pretty lady undertaker embalm him. Marlborough Express 18 May 1894: p. 2
Our friends in the Colonies were also progressive in this field:
There is in Sydney [Australia] a lady undertaker. She dresses not in funereal hues, but in most cheerful tints. Observer, 24 January 1891: p. 4
The work begun by the early mortuary tradeswomen continues to-day with Australia’s high-profile “White Ladies” and the delightful Caitlin Doughty of “Ask a Mortician” and The Order of the Good Death.
More on funeral professionals–both ladies and gentlemen–may be found in The Victorian Book of the Dead, by Chris Woodyard, a look at the “popular culture” of Victorian death and mourning.
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.