The Twentieth-Century Funeral

The next major theme in our analysis of American funerals, for which this post can serve as the kick-off, is the broad topic of rituals and ceremonies. What have we done in the past; what do we do now; and what do we actually need?

To answer those questions, We’ll start with an overview of the combination of parts that make up the funeral, and then review the results of research studies on funerals and the people who attend them and arrange them. We will be exploring material gathered from the social sciences, history, psychology, and general consumer research.

For a long stretch of history, ranging anywhere from 75 to 130 years depending on where you lived, the American funeral consisted of a viewing period with an embalmed body in a fairly expensive casket as the centerpiece, followed by a ceremony, concluding with a ride to a cemetery led by specially-designed vehicles, and ending with a brief service at the grave site where the body would be lowered into a vault in the ground, or placed into a crypt space. It was all orchestrated by and, mainly, purchased from a funeral home. The cost would vary according to quality of casket, length of viewing, type of burial vault, number of limousines, and a few other variables. Purchases of cemetery space, vault, and memorial might be made separately through the cemetery, and could cost as much as or more than the purchases from the funeral home.

Sometimes the casket would be left closed. Some ethnic groups had their own variations but used the framework. A very small number did something completely different.

When cremation became an option, which was generally later but in some parts of the country has been available for a long time, the cemetery part of the process changed. Instead of going directly into a burial or mausoleum space, the body was cremated. In the early years it was still usually deposited somewhere in the cemetery, but in a smaller purchased space. Cremation employed this way was not the huge variation in overall practice that it later became when the viewing and cemetery parts of the process would be eliminated. On the whole, the proportion of people cremated was very small, but began to creep upward in some places around the middle of the last century.

The process and combination of elements listed above, has been given a few different labels. Within the funeral industry it used to be called the “traditional” funeral. Likely that’s what it’s still called by many people. Today, I think that term is confusing because a simpler process involving cremation which does not include so many steps has been established as just as much of a tradition, and in some parts of the U.S. has been the choice of the majority of customers for many years. The term “conventional” has the same fuzziness because of the different conventions in different places.

Some historical sticklers will also point out that “tradition” in the truest sense should include the full span of the past, in which the elements listed above were not all used or even available, and the financial aspects were quite different.

My preference, and the terminology I will use on this site, is to label the process consisting of embalming, placement in a casket, viewing, ceremony, procession, and final disposition at a cemetery, as the “twentieth-century funeral,” because that was roughly its period of cultural dominance.

In some of the older cities in the East, you would be able to buy something very much like the funeral described within a decade of the Civil War. Some places did not have access to that whole complex of elements until the late 1930s, and in a few places a significant share of customers began making different choices by the 1970s. But generally speaking, if you died in the United States during the last century, the twentieth-century funeral is probably the treatment your body was going to get.