Understanding History Part 1: Introduction

When we’re trying to decide what types of funeral arrangements to buy there are certain considerations that come to mind, including how much we can afford, and what is necessary as far as legal requirements, respect for the deceased, religious traditions, and all of the concerns we have about grief and mourning.

Is too much of a funeral extravagant? Is too little of a funeral a mistake?

These questions underlie much of the work on this site, including the research studies I’ve been reviewing in recent weeks. Studying what people have been doing for their funerals and how that has been working out for them is helpful, and I plan to continue describing new research as it comes to light.

When making arrangements or advising others or just thinking about all the choices, one question that has arisen in my mind is, what have people done in the past? And I don’t just mean the past decades or even the past century: I mean, what different ceremonial things did we do for the thousands of years we’ve been taking care of our dead and leaving physical traces or written explanations that can be examined today?

The question, What types of funerals have we had throughout history? falls into the category of what I would call the essence of funeral needs. Another would be, What do we really need when we are grieving? A third example might be, How do funeral ceremonies affect the mourners?

These questions can help us understand the actual role of funeral rituals in our lives by filling in the blanks that many of us have about the funeral purchase that we don’t have with other buying decisions.

What do they do? How do they work? What do we need? How much should we spend? We don’t have to agonize too much over those questions for many of the purchases in our lives because we understand the product or service so well, relatively speaking.

Thinking about a kitchen remodel? You know what all the items do. You can understand the advantages of a serious refrigerator or granite countertop. If the estimate is $5,000, you probably can weigh costs, benefits, and your checking account, and come to a decision that you’ll feel confident about.

If you’re looking at cars, or planning a wedding or vacation, you can figure out what makes sense for your economic situation. You can look ahead at the few years’ of monthly payments, or the hotel reception versus a catered meal at a park, or whether you can afford a planner to do it all, or whether it makes more sense this year to go to the Bahamas, or to the Poconos.

You understand essentially what all these purchases are.

When it’s time to buy a funeral, though, there are huge gray areas for many of us. I think knowing a little about funeral history helps fill in some of those blanks. Knowing what people like me have been doing throughout history would help me decide what I should do. It’s not the only essential question I would have—as mentioned above, I’d also want to understand what grieving people need and what different funeral choices can do—but for me the history seems important.

Some people who work in the funeral business, and others who think strategically about the funeral business, also may have an interest in the history of the various practices. There’s a reason for that (and a pretty large problem with the resources available to them so far). For someone trying to decide how to expand the business, whether to buy a new crematory or a new limousine, how to deal with declining revenues, or which personnel are necessary to keep on the payroll, understanding the behavior of our species—i.e. the customers—may give a hint about where things are headed. Having an incomplete or otherwise inaccurate knowledge of the past might cause one to miscalculate the likely future, just as not knowing the history of weather patterns could cause one to miscalculate readiness for snow, floods, or tornadoes.

I should point out that funeral directors and cemetery managers don’t need to be students of history. There are plenty of people in the funeral business who might skip all of the history posts here and be no worse off for it. I read somewhere that mortuary science students usually don’t rate the history portions of their curricula as very important compared to the technical aspects of taking care of bodies, knowing how the business works, and comforting customers. That’s as it should be. When I take my car to the mechanic, I don’t care if he knows all about the Model T: I care if he knows about the Explorer.

But if I didn’t yet understand the advantages of a car versus a horse or a bicycle, maybe someone who could explain what happened during the early days of Ford would be as helpful as someone who worked on the modern Ford. If I was so much in the dark that I had not yet grasped the basics of motorized transportation, the person who could tell me about what happened a hundred years ago, and how life changed, would be a big help. Commerce, economic opportunity, knowledge of the world, personal freedom, and how we conceive of time, were all transformed when automobiles became available and affordable for most of the population. If I was so completely clueless after waking up in the cave or falling off the potato wagon that I understood nothing of modern transportation, I might well need to have all of that history spelled out.

I submit that most consumers, myself included, and plenty of people who work in and around the funeral business, are undereducated about funeral history and might benefit from knowing more. My fellow consumers and I are mostly bumpkins who go to the funeral arrangement knowing very little about what any of it is for.

But some of the people who need to advise us, who are selling the stuff to us, and who are deciding that they ought to be selling if they want to stay in business for the foreseeable future—well, I hope I am not stepping on any toes by suggesting we’re all falling off the potato cart together.