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How an Embalming License Freed Sarah Corleto from an Abusive Husband

She used her work to live an autonomous life in a time when women were often trapped by socially constructed gender roles and systematic oppression.

What’s important to understand about Saveria, is that she did not just suffer violent abuse for two years and then file for divorce.  Available sources indicated that she used strategy to not just leave Anthony but also to live a life of her own choosing.  By the time she filed for divorce in November of 1912, she had already put into place a plan to use death work as a way to free herself from her abuser.  Nearly a year prior (most likely October 1911) she signed up for a two-week course through the Boston School of Anatomy & Embalming.  Priced at $50 it was advertised as the most thorough and complete instruction in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts covering all known methods of embalming and undertaking. She was studious and four months later, all within one week in February, she applied for, took and passed the state exam in order to become a licensed undertaker in the state of Delaware. This made Sarah Corleto Delaware’s first woman to be licensed as an embalmer.  With her embalming license and years of experience in chemically preserving and preparing dead bodies for last rites, she was able to completely buck her rigid role of wife and mother, serving  her country as a battlefield nurse for the Red Cross in France during WWI.

Sarah Corleto Devises a Plan to Leave

Sarah wanted to change the trajectory of her life. She was born in Italy in 1881.  Three years later she immigrated to the U.S. as a toddler in tow of her parents.  At the age of fifteen she was married to the twenty-six-year-old Anthony Corleto.  Together they had thirteen children and by 1910 only four of the thirteen she birthed were living. 

By the age of twenty-nine, Sarah wanted to take control of her own life. She had known death and suffering and wanted to make meaning out of this death that engulfed in her life and informed her work.  She told a Wilmington Delaware reporter that, for a long time, she had made up her mind to go where she could make a difference. She told the same reporter that duty had called her to the colors of the Red Cross in Europe.3 Sarah Corleto wanted her life to have meaning and wanted to perform meaningful work. The fact that she had been thinking about her life, gives even more credence to the idea that she was planning and strategizing. In fact, she used her years as a Delaware undertaker to guide her to become the type of change agent that she desired.