The Funeral, Deconstructed

In the field of archeology, Jill Baker uses the concept of a “funeral kit” to describe combinations of elements in burials that seem to indicate “routine practice, rite, ritual, and ceremony” within a culture.1 We can use “the twentieth-century funeral” to identify the American funeral kit of the recent era.

The industry’s explanation of this funeral kit was spelled out many years ago and stayed consistent for decades—in fact, there are people today who use the same explanations as those used 50 or more years ago to describe the functions of the various funeral parts. That is not a criticism, because it just means there came a time when people had to come up with clear ways to describe their businesses, and they did a good job of it.

We usually explain practices when they come under attack. Obviously, throughout the entire history of religion in the West, we find the councils, creeds, and confessions emerging during times of division or in response to some heresy or other challenge.

Ethnicity is played out the same way. As Fredrik Barth fascinatingly noted, groups view their distinctive symbols as most important at the margins, where they interact with others.2

In the same way, the American funeral concept was formulated and rationalized in large part as a response to the five Cs—critics, consumer advocates, clergy, cooperatives, and cremationists—in the twentieth-century.

Writing in a clergy journal in 1963, Thomas Glidden, a former president of the National Funeral Directors Association, declared that funerals serve as a testimony to faith and the belief in life everlasting. He cautioned against innovations such as private funerals, closed caskets, and memorial services without a body present, because

any drastic deviation from accepted customs has a negative effect which often is psychologically bad for the family … if the traditional funeral service has not been conducted, the disappointment of friends results in injured feelings between them and the immediate family. Such things often have serious and far-reaching effects.3

In addition to providing an opportunity for the pastor to preach and the community to express their grief, Glidden explained that two key parts of the funeral which “the vast majority of people need and want” are the body presented “in state” for viewing, to bring home the point that the person is dead, and the “memory picture” created by the embalmer’s restorative art, providing a better final image of the deceased than may have been the case following illness or trauma.4

Although not always central to the message, Glidden’s understanding of what the twentieth-century funeral does could be heard from people within the funeral industry for decades afterward, up to today. Part of the rationale may be financial, because people selling caskets, use of facilities, and embalming services probably want to promote their purpose.

Part of the reason is undoubtedly semi-scientific, because of the “Lindemann syndrome,” which I won’t explain in detail here but will save for its own essay. Basically, an important 1944 study authored by Erich Lindemann found psychological problems among survivors of people who died in a fire—whose bodies were badly damaged. Those survivors were preoccupied with the “image of the deceased” having never gotten their final memory picture (the study does not use that terminology).5 Funeral industry writers have referred back to the study ever since as evidence for the importance of viewing a restored body after all deaths.6

The conundrum for people who want to understand what Americans need from their funerals, which includes academics and funeral directors alike, and—as I’ve opined—ought to include funeral buyers, is that clearly many people do just fine with a less elaborate funeral process.

Over the past half-century, the number of funeral services without a body being viewed, or even present, has increased. Although there aren’t many statistical surveys on the topic, people in the business generally know that visitations are getting shorter and overall attendance at ceremonies has not increased with the size of the population.

A few observers, such as the two Toms—Long and Lynch— suggest that changes in funeral practices correlate with negative trends in religion in America,7 but we have to admit that less of a funeral can work for some mourners.

Part of the explanation lies in recognizing the difference between cultural beliefs and institutional practices. Here, I’m going to borrow a device from the postmodernists, which is not normally how I roll but works for this project. To really understand the funeral, we need to step back and deconstruct it. We need to see what the elements accomplish. We need to reveal the historical assumptions underlying the current ideology: these are probably less evident to consumers than to academics, with funeral people somewhere in between.

The central rationale for the twentieth-century funeral was treatment of the dead body, around which a business arose. Technical expertise to deal with embalming and restoration; specific knowledge about caskets, cemeteries, and government paperwork; and business acumen to conduct services on short notice with very few mistakes: these all developed through the process of taking care of the deceased. It’s no surprise that, over time, explanations would be devised to tell people why bodies had to be handled a certain way, and why bodies were so important throughout the ceremonial functions, from the arrival at the preparation room, through the display, and into the hearse for the trip to a place of disposition.

Historically, that type of treatment is not always what we bestowed on our deceased, and the relationship between our religious beliefs and funeral practices often was very different than today. As recently as the nineteenth century, for example, many burial grounds in America, including those under the auspices of churches, were grotesque, where overcrowding caused graves to have to be dug into, and bodies reconfigured, moved around, and piled on top of one another. When the public cemeteries in New York City resembled something out of a horror story and the Potter’s field was made up of literal open pits in which bodies were stacked, it was the public health leaders, not clergy, leading the movement for burial reform8.

Likewise, in nineteenth-century France, Philippe Ariès tells us, after the Church was perceived as having abandoned the care of cemeteries, the pagan positivists were the driving force in the newfound cult of the dead, which became “the great popular religion of France”:

Not only has the cult of the dead not been encouraged by the great religions, but it actually increases as the number of the faithful declines. When God is dead, the cult of the dead may become the only authentic religion.9

If I were running a funeral business or considering opening a new, competing firm, such a quote would give me much to think about.

In Western culture, our disconnect between mortuary ritual and disposition of bodies traces back to the earliest Middle Ages. The wealthy and important have enjoyed noble treatment after death, being interred within churches and cathedrals or in private tombs. But for the common people, for about a thousand years of Christian history, the Church conducted the dying and the dead and their survivors through ordered rituals … and then deposited the bodies into anonymous mass graves.

Most who died did not receive an inviolate burial space, but rather went into a pit, or a grave that had to be re-dug and re-used over and over again with the bones of current occupants gathered up for indecorous storage in a charnel house. Christians wanted interment ad sanctos or near the saints in the church building, and following the religious funeral service turned the bodies over to the religious authorities for disposition in the churchyard.10 But how the bodies were treated was not anything like we are accustomed to seeing them treated today.

Perhaps the prevailing view of the human being was so spiritualized that once the soul was taken care of, the body was deemed less important so long as it ended up in the right neighborhood. Thus it was often those outside the religious establishment who attached more importance to the body: the Church was relatively carefree; sanitarians and positivists demanded elevated status for the deceased.

One oddity of contemporary cremation is that it is both predominately secular and a carefree approach to bodily disposition. And yet, it is accepted, incurring almost no social resistance.

The multi-stage process of the twentieth-century funeral has parallels in other cultures’ practices, which helped serve as rationales. When social scientists discuss funeral rituals, they use concepts such as separation, transition, and incorporation to explain what is meant and what is done, both for the dead person and the survivors.11

The ritual must show that the person is gone and that the dead and/or mourners go to a new “place” or obtain new identities, and begin to fix the hole left in their lives and from which life can go on.

People writing for, or from within, the funeral industry have often picked up the same themes, of the need to separate from the deceased and restructure life afterwards12, that the interval between death and final disposition is for “remembrance and adjustment to the idea that life is about to move forward with an empty space,”13, or that a “disembodied” ritual sends a message that the person’s life was not a big deal.14

Yet for an increasing number of Americans, none of these ritual elements are preserved, or deemed necessary.

It is true that survivors need to adjust to separation from a person who has died. But it may be that the short span of the post-death ritual comprises such as small portion of that readjustment process that people can get by without the ritual. Maybe the important adjustment occurs weeks and years later.

Similarly, accepting the reality of death may not have been the core value of a viewing, or may not be such today, and therefore a ceremony without a body present may not have a downside for all mourners.

There was a time when death was not understood the same way it is today. Only a few generations ago, death was viewed as an ongoing process, and just a few generations before that, it was seen as a process that could continue long after a body was placed in the ground … because the body had not fully transformed into dry bones, and the person’s spirit was seen as having potential agency in the physical world. (We’re talking ghosts.)

Some aspects of our funeral rituals can be traced to uncertainty about when life really ends, and to the reality of gradual transformation of the corpse, both of which are notions at the center of many rituals written about by the social scientists.

These include viewing and lingering with a dead body, which may or may not actually be dead until the physical signs become apparent; mourners and the deceased being in an “in-between” state of existence, represented most vividly in the decomposing body that is neither among the living or the dead yet; then, after time has passed, seeing the deceased off to a final destination while moving on to new lives.

Multi-stage funeral rituals of other cultures may not be useful paradigms for the functions of mortuary rituals in America today, because they may assume understandings that modern westerners do not share or no longer share.

We do not conceive of death as an ongoing process—even the least scientifically educated among us seems to have adopted, at least by osmosis, the scientific definition of death as something that can be pinpointed by the measurable moment of cessation of heartbeat, breathing, and brain activity. For nearly all Americans, dead is dead.

Following from that idea: We do not observe the changes to the dead body and thus have little interest in attributing meaning to the process. If dead is dead, the interval between death and disposition is less important.

We do not define our social world as tightly knit throughout the geographic community such that a ritual is needed to repair the breach caused by a member’s departure. We do have social lives—some of us more than others—but we are not normally a “community” so much as a family or other kind of small group, who are the ones mainly participating in the contemporary funeral.

I don’t want to suggest that any ostensible purposes for the funeral ritual are meaningless or even outdated. As I hope to explain in future posts, such ceremonies have great value and people do themselves a disservice by going without. They help themselves by doing more, in fact. Communities are well-served by observing rituals when one of their own has gone away for good.

But we need to be realistic about the fact that much of the reason for former funeral practices disappears with the modern understanding of death. Death is not a process, but an event. Therefore, the post-death activities don’t need to go on for so long. As the modern consumer has shown us, they therefore don’t go on for so long.

The way we treat our dead follows a logic of tradition, but perhaps it lies outside the concepts we usually think of. The logic may stem from habits operating as undercurrents more powerful than the movements on the surface.

In the barest definition, the funeral tells a story to which attendees are listeners. The story may be a life story or a religious one or a combination of the two, but on the surface, a story will be told. We can intuitively grasp the flow of a ritual event, the special environment and rules, and we can follow a biographical story just as easily as any other type. For this reason the biographical funeral ceremony—which could be incredibly sparse compared to the twentieth-century funeral and contain few of the elements told of by the social scientists—comes naturally, and seems to work well, and probably has for millennia.

  1. Jill L. Baker, The Funeral Kit: Mortuary Practices in the Archaeological Record (Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press, 2011), 12–13

  2. Fredrik Barth, Ethnic Groups and Boundaries : The Social Organization of Culture Difference (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1969), 9

  3. Thomas Glidden, “The American Funeral,” Pastoral Psychology 14, no. 135 (June 1963): 13, 17, 18

  4. ibid., 16

  5. Erich Lindemann, “Symptomatology and Management of Acute Grief,” in Death and Identity, ed. Robert Fulton and Robert Bendiksen, 3rd ed (Philadelphia: Charles Press, 1994), 188

  6. Edgar N. Jackson, For the Living (Des Moines, IA: Channel Press, 1963), 40–41

  7. Thomas G. Long and Thomas Lynch, The Good Funeral: Death, Grief, and the Community of Care (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013)

  8. John Duffy, The Sanitarians: A History of American Public Health (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992), 75

  9. Philippe Ariès, The Hour of Our Death: The Classic History of Western Attitudes Toward Death over the Last One Thousand Years, trans. Helen Weaver (New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 2000), 542–43

  10. ibid., 51, 56–59, 92

  11. Peter Metcalf and Richard Huntington, Celebrations of Death: The Anthropology of Mortuary Ritual, 2nd ed (Cambridge [England] ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 32

  12. Paul E. Irion, “The Funeral and the Bereaved,” in Acute Grief and the Funeral, ed. Vanderlyn R. Pine et al. (Springfield, Illinois: Charles C. Thomas, 1976), 32

  13. Vernie R. Fountain, “A Call to Educate,” American Funeral Director 140, no. 3 (March 2017): 34

  14. Lisa Howard-Fusco, “A Career Spent Fighting Grief: Q&A with Grief Counselor William G. ‘Bill’ Hoy,” American Funeral Director 138, no. 12 (December 2015): 13