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.
Continue reading The Twentieth-Century Funeral
Part of the problem the funeral industry caused for itself many years ago was to embrace the role of a quasi-public utility, a sort of offshoot of the public health infrastructure.
They were justified in doing so. For one thing, it was written into laws and regulations that a funeral director would be involved any time someone died. When the U.S. Public Health Service spelled out the procedure for gathering mortality statistics, as shown in the 1950 Vital Statistics of the U.S. report, there was the funeral director in the flowchart on page 16, right after the doctors and right before the government registrars and health departments.
Funeral businesses had to be available to make “removals” whenever someone died, under just about any circumstances, making them a 24/7/365 operation. The typical funeral director did not get a lot of holidays off, nor expect a full night’s sleep. Embalming works best the sooner it can be done after death, so the funeral director on call overnight often had a lot more to do than pick up a body after the phone rang.
Although the custom was informal for decades, indigent care also became a somewhat standard part of the business model.
Continue reading A Funeral Industry Trapped By Protective Walls
Most companies get criticized at some point, but funeral businesses are somewhat unique in coming under fire merely for existing. This is especially true in the U.S., home of some of the most plentiful, and most celebrated, works of funeral criticism.
As I mentioned last week, funeral prices have been questioned for millennia, but that isn’t the primary topic today.
Even She Who Shall Not Be Named did not focus solely on prices. Professor of religion Stephen Prothero believes that her contemptuous book mainly found the American funeral gauche, rather than overpriced: the modern funeral director a priest of “sham ceremonies” conducting a “tacky parade of the fake” on “a boulevard to bad taste.”
Undoubtedly, in her cursed monstrosity, She seemed to signal that the American Way of Death might not have seemed so strange if She had not been accustomed to the English Way of Death.
Continue reading Funeral Business Critiques, Part 1
What do we need from funerals?
Some people say the answer lies in rituals having certain psychological effects. Others say it’s about doing what humans have done in the past. Some point to religion, or community bonding, or ecology.
It all gets very involved. In order to help potential funeral buyers get a handle on what they might need, I plan in future posts to discuss ways different parties have answered the question, and domains of knowledge supporting or contradicting their opinions.
Without delving into controversies, let’s just list the related questions that arise when we ask the main question above.
Continue reading Questions About What We Need From Funerals