Her Legacy: Eleanor Girodat, Undertaker
Nov 01, 2019 06:20PM
by Ruth Van Stee for the Greater Grand Rapids Women’s History Council | Illustrations by Libby VanderPloeg
In 1912 the Grand Rapids Press announced, “Woman Hangs Sign as an Undertaker.” But long before Eleanor Girodat was celebrated as Michigan’s first licensed female embalmer to open her own business, she had provided good press copy. Reporters across Michigan were enchanted by this “dainty” woman with a sharp wit and a strange career.
A close friend had died six years earlier, and Girodat found it “distasteful” when her body was turned over to an undertaker. Determining that she could enter and improve this profession, in 1906 at age 29, she turned away from earlier work in a rattan factory and as a dressmaker for training at the Barnes School of Embalming in Chicago. There she studied all the professional aspects of caring for the dead—the science of embalming bodies and the laws regarding their shipment.
For the next few years, Girodat worked with other undertakers to care for the bodies of women and children; and by 1913, newspapers reported that she had embalmed 650 bodies to date and, in her own mortuary, she had begun handling male bodies, too.
Well-established in her St. Francis Mortuary on Bridge Street, Girodat competed with 27 other undertakers to capture a state contract for the burial of veterans from the Michigan Soldiers’ Home near Grand Rapids. Due to successfully managing 150 funerals in her first year, with specially manufactured G.A.R. emblems on high-quality caskets hung with cords and tassels in patriotic colors, Girodat was the first mortician to be granted the contract for a second year in succession.
Girodat’s frugal, but creative, business sense aided her early on. For funerals in homes she offered “nice mahogany chairs” and a “magnificent candelabrum.” In 1918, when she took over another firm, the press lauded her high standards, modern techniques and motorized equipment, including a hearse and an ambulance. And later upon moving to Sheldon SE, she started selling flowers.
A serious professional, Girodat had continued her education and shared expertise with others at conventions of the Michigan Funeral and Embalmers’ Association. As early as 1912, she had a committee assignment, and she was later appointed as the state delegate to a national convention.
Girodat was also a dedicated community leader who organized fundraising events for Catholic charities — St. Mary’s Hospital, House of the Good Shepherd — and supported early foundling charities, especially St. John’s Home. While she fostered several boys, she adopted one, who later made her a loving grandmother.
Girodat was such a baseball fan that she sponsored a local team sporting “Girodat” emblazoned on their uniforms — and took a radio to jail to listen to baseball games. After being charged for hosting a charity Beano game in 1935, she had chosen to serve ten days instead of paying ten dollars. She had “done nothing wrong!”
Always supportive of labor unions, Girodat emphasized that her caskets carried a union label; and, as an officer of the Business Girls’ Club, she worked to bring former Grand Rapidian labor leader Agnes Nestor home from Chicago to speak to the club.
Girodat retired from business in the late 1950s and died at 91 in 1968. Then, one last time, the Grand Rapids Press rehearsed her many accomplishments — and, of course, her love of baseball.
Reporters loved quoting Eleanor Girodat. Here are some of her more memorable quotes: Upon her graduation in funeral science, 1906: “I have taken care of bodies, washed and dressed them when a mere girl. A dead body appeals to me as pleadingly as a poor helpless infant in a cradle.” (November 19, 1906, Grand Rapids Press)
Upon opening her own business, 1912: “I see nothing strange in a woman entering this business. After the crucifixion of Jesus [women] brought spices for the preparation of the body. It was an ancient custom.” (September 5, 1912, Grand Rapids Press)
“In the old days, relatives would send for a woman to care for the body. A man was out of the question. That was when there was no compensation connected with the work.” (February 2, 1914, Bay City Tribune)
The Greater Grand Rapids Women’s History Council is dedicated to educating the community and celebrating the legacies of local women, preserving knowledge of their past and inspiring visions for their future. For more information or to get involved, visit ggrwhc.org