The Traditional American Funeral
What we consider a ‘traditional’
American Funeral today is quite different from the practice of funerals
that occurred across our nation over two hundred years ago. Before
the American Civil War home funerals were the general practice. By
the mid nineteenth century the preservation of bodies by embalming was
becoming more widely practiced, especially where the transportation of
the deceased was required. Undertakers began to appear as tradesman,
often as a part-time trade attached to a livery or stables.
The transition from home funeral
to funeral home
As urbanization developed, so
the practice of home funerals began to decline, people started to lack
both the ceremonial and social mechanisms that had sustained this practice.
In larger urban areas this led to establishments opening up as funeral
parlors and the profession of the undertaker began to develop.
By the turn of the century
what had once always occurred in the domain of the home, now occurred in
funeral parlors and the term of undertaker was starting to be replaced
by ‘funeral director’ as the trade attempted to establish itself as a profession.
The National Association of Funeral Directors (NFDA) was formed and worked
with those in the industry to ensure the transition from “coffin-maker”
to ‘death care professional’ became entrenched into culture.
The transition from wooden coffin
to steel casket
The business of casket sales
emerged as a whole new industry as the death care business became more
commercialized. Caskets were marketed as offering preservative or
protective qualities, and a whole range of casket choices evolved including
ranges of metal and steel caskets.
Embalming was encouraged,
and the profession of funeral directors embraced their status as keepers
of the public health at a time when diseases were prevalent. As communities
became more diverse in American society, so funeral homes were established
to serve different ethnic or religious groups. There are now at least
two to four times as many funeral homes in a State as are necessary to
cater to the population. Indeed the business of ‘death care’ became
an industry. In fact what had once been a localized community practice,
a family practice passed on through generations, evolved into a corporate
entity. By the mid twentieth century the ‘death’ industry was being
reshaped by companies such as Dignity Memorial (part of Service Corporation
International) and a new era in the American ‘traditional’ funeral emerged.
A traditional funeral in the
And so it is today that when
arranging a funeral you will most likely be dealing with a traditional
family-owned funeral home, or a corporate company, or in many cases both.
SCI operates many of its 1,500 funeral service locations across America
still trading as the family businesses they have been for decades.
Whether you do deal with a Dignity branch or an independent funeral business,
for a traditional American funeral today you can expect the services of
a funeral director to complete basic paperwork, transport the body to the
funeral home and cemetery, a visitation or viewing and a memorial ceremony.
In most cases this will include a basic casket for interment or cremation.
A range of ancillary services,
all at an additional cost, can supplement this basic ‘full service’ or
traditional funeral. A funeral home will be able to provide additional
vehicles for transporting family, services of a clergy or celebrant, optional
choices for the provision of a casket, services relating to interment,
embalming, funeral flowers, memorial books and obituaries.
A return to ‘traditional’ values
– the death of the funeral home
It is often said that all things
come full circle, and it appears that the cultural notion of the ‘traditional
American funeral’ is doing just that. This tradition that has held
steadfast for the past two hundred years or so, has begun to change in
just the past few years. Families are once again taking more of an
active role in the preparations for a funeral, funerals are becoming less
traditional and more personalized, and DIY, or home funerals, are once
Many Americans are rejecting
the notion of elaborate and expensive traditional funerals in favor of
a simple burial or cremation service. A need to reduce death care
costs is certainly a driving factor behind this shift, but also people
are deciding they have different priorities when it comes to taking care
of their dead.
It is highly likely that
we are about to witness a new epoch in death care in the United States.
The cremation rate is steadily increasing, already at 40%, and forecast
to reach around 60% within another 5 years. Traditional funeral homes
are seeing revenues decline, and many are now serving wider geographical
areas to help maintain their turnover. This will inevitably mean
that some funeral homes will close down.
Those that remain will need
to become more versatile in order to compete within their industry.
Already we are seeing traditional funeral homes opening up new cremation
companies, and funeral homes that are adapting to cater to life celebrations
and become a more central hub to their community, than just a funeral parlor
||Expert Author: Sara
Sara is the Editor in Chief
for US Funerals Online and has been researching and writing about the death
care industry in the US for the last 5 years.
Homes in the United States
Last Revised: 01/06/2013