April 03, 2020

Karol Weaver, professor of history at Susquehanna, has always been interested in the ways in which individuals persevere in the face of challenges. For women in the late-18th and early-19th century, perseverance was a required skill.

Weaver’s latest research, published in The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, examines the ways in which Pennsylvania women cared for the dying and the dead, and how, due to military, industrial and medical changes, their role in this work transitioned to trained, male professionals.

“In the late-18th and -19th centuries, women were the primary caretakers of the dying and the dead,” Weaver said. “At that time most people became ill and died at home, so the intimate care that women provided to the living body extended to the dead body.”

Women who cared for the dying were called “watchers” or “watchwomen.” They tended to the physical, spiritual and social needs of the dying-keeping them comfortable and offering food, water or medications. Women who prepared bodies for burial were called “layers-out” or “shrouders.” They washed, dressed and groomed the corpse.

Weaver spent several years poring through Philadelphia city directories, diaries and poetry to uncover how women advertised their services and recorded the emotional impact of their work-women like Rebecca Powell.

Powell was widowed at a young age with two young children. As the Philadelphia directory reveals, she managed for years as head-of-household, advertising herself under the titles of widow, layer-out, nurse and seamstress.

“She was a good businesswoman,” Weaver said. “She knew how to cross-market herself and was willing to do what it took to support herself and her children.”

The onset of the American Civil War and industrialization contributed greatly to the waning of women’s roles in death care. Individuals were dying in greater numbers and away from women’s domestic domain, leading to the rise of the funeral industry.

By 1867, the Philadelphia directory listed 126 undertakers-all but one of them male, and only four female layers-out.

Rebecca Powell last appeared in the directory in 1825, by then having worked steadily for 35 years.

“She was a common person who, grieving the death of her husband and dealing with the loss of his financial contributions, worked hard and did what she had to do to take care of herself and her family,” Weaver said.