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Incredible Women in the History of Death-Care

Women have played a hugely important role in the history of how we care for people who are dead or dying. It’s time to celebrate their work, from the pioneers of the hospice movement to the doctors and inventors changing how we think about death and dying today.


Jeanne Garnier was a young widow and bereaved mother when she helped create L’Association des Dames du Calvaire in France in 1842. The association was a joint effort by a group of women whose husbands and children had died. In 1843, they founded a home for the dying, motivated by their religious principles of care and respect. Although Jeanne died in 1853, her work played a pivotal role in improving palliative care.


Dame Cicely Saunders (1918-2005) was a giant in the history of end of life care. The founder of the modern hospice movement, she trained as a nurse, medical social worker and physician. In 1967, she founded St. Christopher’s Hospice which was the first hospice to fully combine pain relief, compassionate care, teaching and clinical research. Her pioneering work in holistic end of life care left an enduring legacy.


The investigative journalist, author and activist Jessica Mitford (1917-1996) was one of six infamous Mitford sisters — known for their radically opposing politics. After emigrating to America, Jessica wrote ‘The American Way of Death’ (1963) which exposed the funeral industry’s unethical business practices.The book became a best-seller and raised important questions about the cost of funerals. Jessica was apparently delighted when one funeral director named an inexpensive coffin in her honour.


One of the most thoughtful modern advocates for improving palliative care is the doctor and author Sunita Puri. Her book ‘That Good Night’ uses her experience of working in palliative care to explore what it means to have a good death. She pushes back against the idea that we always need to ‘fight’ terminal illnesses with aggressive treatments which may not help. Instead, she encourages people to weigh their options and consider what quality end-of-life care means to them.


Katrina Spade is the founder and CEO of Recompose which offers an eco-friendly alternative to burial and cremation. The process “gently converts human remains into soil” over the course of about 30 days. It saves space in crowded cities, and helps cut down on pollution and waste. Recompose plans to open its first facility in Seattle in 2021.


The brilliant Dr. Kami Fletcher is the president of the Collective for Radical Death Studies (CRDS). This international organisation was created to decolonise death studies and radicalise death practice. Dr. Fletcher is currently organising a Radical Death Canon, which can be used as a tool by everyone from death care workers to educators. She’s also an author and associate professor of African American and US history at Albright College.


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