Definition: Enterprises that prepare bodies for burial or cremation and that provide ceremonial and related services to plan and facilitate memorial rituals
Significance: Death is, in the aggregate, predictable and universal—not disposed to revolutionary trends and practices. However, the funeral industry in the United States experienced significant changes during the U.S. Civil War and during the 1960’s after an exposé on the industry was published. Changing attitudes toward funerals may produce changes as the baby boomers face death.
Christian rites and European customs prevailed in nineteenth century Canada and the United States. Death rites were observed lovingly in the home, and the body was consigned to a local cemetery. However, the U.S. Civil War produced alarming numbers of corpses, many of which could not be identified, and many soldiers died far from their hometowns and families. Embalming techniques were available but uncommon, and carpenters could not produce enough coffins after battles. The ideal of a “good death” was threatened.
An Industry Begins
Thomas Holmes, a former New York coroner’s assistant, recognized the increased demand for corpses to be preserved and shipped long distances so that they could receive a “decent burial” at home. (The railroads were reluctant to ship coffins holding unpreserved corpses because of the resultant odors and leaking fluids.) Recognizing the commercial potential of embalming, Holmes developed a better chemical embalmer, resigned his Army commission, and offered his services to the bereaved for $100.
Embalming fell into relative disuse after the Civil War because of its unfamiliarity and expense. It was especially rare in the American South and rural areas. However, the bundling or “undertaking” of funeral services—laying out, transportation, grave digging, and coordinating rites—by commercial businesses became more common.
Undertaking developed into family businesses that thrived on genteel yet increasingly profit oriented arrangements. The funeral director would guide grieving families in purchasing embalming (to disinfect, preserve, and restore the body for a “lifelike” appearance), cosmetics, caskets, vaults, transportation, and other products and services. These professional arrangements were largely unexamined and unregulated, until Jessica Mitford was persuaded to inquire into the funeral industry during the late 1950’s.
Seldom has a writer been better matched to a topic or produced more explosive results. Mitford interviewed funeral home directors, read their professional publications, sampled their products (“Fita-Fut” oxfords), and produced a witty, scathing exposé, The American Way of Death (1963). It became a surprise best seller that put the industry on its guard, despite her insistence that the book reflected insiders’ own points of view. Mitford showed how funeral directors were motivated to guide consumers to the maximum number of services and the more expensive models of caskets and other products. Because the bereaved had a pressing need for the products and services, they were in no position to comparison shop, reflect on their choices, or object to unsatisfactory performances.
There was immediate public demand for federal regulation of the funeral industry; such was the industry’s opposition, however, that not until 1975 did the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) even propose rules of fair practice. Even this might not have happened without Ralph Nader’s 1970 critique of the FTC for failing in its mission to protect consumers. Only in 1984 did the FTC finally rule that funeral directors could not lie to prospective clients and that services must be itemized so consumers could select or decline each option. Further federal legislation in 1994 forbade funeral homes from refusing to handle caskets purchased elsewhere.
Mitford’s The American Way of Death Revisited was published posthumously in 1998. It considered the industry’s changes (“not many . . . for the better”), such as the trend toward international funeral conglomerates and the failures of the FTC to enforce new legislation passed largely in reaction to the original book.
The Makeup of the Industry
The funeral industry is dominated by two or three international corporations, representing about 10 percent of all funeral homes but more than 20 percent of all funerals. Funeral homes owned by the conglomerates tend to be more rigid about their rules and have a reputation for stalling questions or requests that may lessen their profit on a funeral package. Because individual funeral homes retain their family or local titles after corporate acquisition, it may be difficult for consumers to identify or avoid these corporate services. The average cost of a funeral as of 2007 was $6,195, including embalming, transportation, a casket, and use of the funeral home facilities, but without cemetery costs.
Many people are prearranging and paying for their own funerals. Doing so locks in cost and may shelter assets from probate delays or Medicaid eligibility. Contract provisions can oblige survivors to pay any difference between the agreed-upon fee and actual costs.
Some baby boomers have nontraditional attitudes toward death and funerals, and they have introduced changes into the traditional funeral. Modern funerals tend to be less formal and more personalized. Visitation, or wakes, often feature the deceased’s prized possessions, hobbies, or accomplishments, and pictures and portraits may be preserved on a “celebration of life” digital versatile disc (DVD). The viewing is increasingly likely to be at a home or a church, as in earlier times, and there may be Internet visitation. Nearly one-third of Americans choose cremation (which is increasing in cost). Finally, more people seek natural, biodegradable burial in conservation cemeteries and nature preserves, or similar options such as burial at sea or interment of ashes in “reef balls.”
The National Burial Company USA’s Web site guides consumers to “green” cemeteries in each state. The Funeral Consumers Alliance, founded to promote nonprofit burial services, publishes a newsletter, advises and advocates for consumers, monitors trends, and exposes abuses in the funeral industry.
Faust, Drew Gilpin. This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008. Examines how the “harvest of death” affected Americans’ views on death and ritual.
Harris, Mark. Grave Matters: A Journey Through the Modern Funeral Industry to a Natural Way of Burial. New York: Scribner, 2007. Analyzes the aftermath of embalming from an ecological viewpoint and accompanies mourners as they consign their loved ones to cremation, burial at sea, memorial reefs, or natural cemeteries using simple, biodegradable materials.
Laderman, Gary. Rest in Peace: A Cultural History of Death and the Funeral Home in Twentieth-Century America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. Traces the evolution from home funerals to funeral homes, and, counter to Mitford’s view, asserts that funeral homes largely give people what they want.
Mitford, Jessica. The American Way of Death Revisited. New York: Vintage, 1998. Update of the hilarious 1963 original laments that not much has changed, and not for the better. New chapters discuss the prepaid funeral trend and federal regulation, and provide the basis for the funeral reform movement.
Roach, Mary. Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers. New York: W. W. Norton, 2003. Witty but respectful account of all the useful things bodies have done after their owners were done with them.
See also: 401(k) retirement plans; Health care industry; wars.