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.