Funerals are the greatest source of social change
 --Kenneth Boulding

Lest we forget, funerals really are the social event. Consider the February 1990 funeral of publisher Malcolm Forbes. The mourners included ex-President Richard Nixon, actress Elizabeth Taylor (who sat in front pew with the ex-President), Chrysler Chairman Lee Iacocca, Hell's Angels cyclists, Barbara Walters, Joan Rivers, David Rockefeller, Ann Landers, Mrs. Douglas MacArthur, former New York City mayor Edward Koch, and 1,700 others. What other social occasion can bring together such a collection of individuals?


Up until the early 18th century, both American Northerners and Southerners observed the English custom of the deceased's family providing each of their funeral guests with a black scarf, a mourning ring, and a pair of black gloves--or at least as many of these that they could afford.  In 1721, laws were passed limiting such gifting to the six pallbearers and the officiating minister.  

(Mary Cable. 1969. American Manners & Morals: A Picture History of How We Behaved and Misbehaved. NY: American Heritage Pub. Co.)

Rituals are condensed forms of experiences, tips of icebergs of meanings and social mechanisms for transformations. These enactments of cultural belief systems go beyond mere ceremony, as Victor Turner noted when defining ritual as "prescribed formal behavior for occasions not given over to technological routine, having reference to beliefs in invisible beings or powers" (From Ritual to Theatre: The Human Seriousness of Play, p. 29) that preserve the structures of both self and society.  In rite-of-passage rituals, of which funerals are a type,  old used-up selves are shed so new ones can be instilled.   With increasing individualism and profoundly different times, traditional rituals may no longer "work" and thus we see the rise of do-it-yourself funerals

Resources on funerals & their social functions

Betram S. Puckle's 1926 Funeral Customs: Their Origin and Development

Museum of Funeral Customs, from the Illinois Funeral Directors Association

Dan Meinwald's funeral page, historical overview of the ritual

Funeral Customs, from the New River Group's historical resources site

Stephen Buckley's "In Africa, Funerals Use Rituals of Joy to Ease Sorrow," Washington Post


As previously developed, death in developed societies has become hidden from everyday life. In the United States and other developed countries, death and the dying process are largely institutionalized, and bereaved families pay strangers to transport, sanitize, reconstruct, clothe and dispose of their dead members. These are employees of the estimated $15 billion a year (as of 2001), increasingly consolidating American death care industry.  The major players (in order): Service Corporation International, Alderwood Groups, Stewart EnterprisesStoneMor, and Carriage Services.

As of 2000, there are more funeral homes (23,000, serving the 2.32 million deaths each year) than nursing homes (17,000, serving 1.6 million residents) in the United States.  That means that each of these curiously-labeled "homes" attends to roughly the same number of "cases": 94 residents on average per nursing home and 101 post-nursing home residents per funeral home.  Funeral industry stocks have consistently produced some of the highest returns of any industry over the past few decades. 

Concurrently , this industry has received considerable criticism, most notably in Jessica Mitford's 1963 classic, The American Way of Death(See also U.S. News & World Report's March 23, 1998 cover story "The Deathcare Business: The Goliaths of the funeral industry are making lots of money off your grief",  Suzi Parker's January 12, 2001 Salon article "Get Your Laws Off My Coffin!", and perhaps listen to NPR's "The Funeral Industry" with Karen Leonard, Mitford's research assistant.) Allegations that its practitioners have taken unwarranted advantage of those in the throes of grief have led to Congressional hearings, new trade practices rules from the Federal Trade Commission, and undercover sting operations staged by various consumer groups.  Industry regulation varies considerably, as noted in the GAO's August 2003 report, "Death Care Industry: Regulation Varies across States and by Industry Segment." Cemeteries have entered into the funeral service competition and, unlike funeral homes, are not covered by the 1984 Federal Trade Commission Rules requiring itemized price lists.  

However, there is evidence that new understandings are emerging between the industry and a more informed public. For instance, check out the Funeral Ethics Association, whose purpose, according to its Constitution, is "to provide the public and the profession with a balanced forum for resolving misunderstandings and to elevate the importance of ethical practices in all matters related to funeral service."

Class dynamics produce an interesting twist in our tale of cultural death-denials. Funeral directing is of few state-recognized professions that provides upward mobility for those who, by chance of birth, are often thwarted in their attempts to achieve professional respect. This status has been hard won, deriving from over a century of attempts in the United States to expand and to legitimate its occupational purview, to establish its craft as a "science". Cross-culturally, it is often the lower classes that were typically assigned to handling the dead, such as the Eta of Japan or the Untouchable in India. But the so-called "Dismal Trade" of eighteenth century England was to evolve into a host of thanatological specialists seeking social recognition and status: embalmers, restorers, morticians, and some even calling themselves "grief experts".

To give the industry and its product historical legitimation, the National Funeral Directors Association commissioned Robert Habenstein and William Lamers (1955). Their book, The History of American Funeral Directing, reviews the history of funeral practice in Western civilization from ancient Egypt on, and was required reading for years in mortuary colleges. (Tour the National Museum of Funeral History in Houston.)   The Web of Time has two articles on the industry's history and its products: Julian W. S. Litten's "Going in Style-The Coffin: Its Place in Social History," and Richard Akerman's "Picture Perfect: A Cast-Iron Case." See also John L. Konefes and Michael K. McGee's "Old Cemeteries, Arsenic, and Health Safety."


There can be little question that the embalmed body is the cornerstone of this industry. Without it there would be no need for all of the accoutrements for "viewings": slumber rooms, elaborate coffins, or funerary apparels. Thus it is in the interest of the industry for Americans to believe that a funeral without a body is like a marriage ceremony without the bride or like a baptism without an infant. Cremations often mean no open casket ceremonies. In our own class surveys, students preferring burial were well over twice as likely to approve of "lying in state" than those preferring to be cremated. Now, with more than one out of five deceased Americans now being cremated (with rates being projected to increase to nearly one-third by 2010--click here to see state rates) is it not interesting to see casket companies writing about cremation? (It should come as no surprise that such serious matters invite humor and parody, such as with "a lighter look of the world of funerals, cemeteries, death and the death care industries...")  For a history of this means of body disposal in America see Laura Miller's review of Stephen Prothero's Purified by Fire in  The Internet Cremation Society bills itself as "the number one visited cremation site in the world."

The cremation industry is, not surprisingly, becoming increasingly differentiated.  There are companies, for instance, that will turn cremains into jewelryEternal Reefs will "Turn your Loved One's Ashes into a Living Coral Reef." Space Services Inc., formerly Celestis, will launch one's remains into space!

Other "insider" resources from the industry:

Links galore from FUNERAL.COM

Final Embrace--"Funeral home management and marketing advice from veterans of funeral service"

Selected Independent Funeral Homes

Links galore from Cremation Association of North America -- loaded with information about state rates, historical trends, disposition, etc.

International Cemetery and Funeral Association-- "Guardians of a Nation's Heritage"

Everlife Memorials--memorials and memorial products for people and pets alike (see also its articles and consumer guides) pre-need and funerary product locator site (site disappeared by Dec. 2007) in cooperation with participating funeral homes with info on bereavement air fares, estate attorneys, florists, appraisers, etc.

National Academy of Mortuary Sciences

Mortuary Schools in the U.S. complete with funeral home and cemetery search engine

San Francisco College of Mortuary Science

Funeral Service Education from St. Louis Community College

Abbott and Hast Publishers, who bring you "Mortuary Management" magazine and the "Funeral Monitor" newsletter

National Casket Retailers Association

W.R. Bennett Funeral Coaches--great images of vehicles for the final ride past and present

I guess it was to be expected: one can now receive online funeral service consulting and make wholesale casket purchases from Zwisler Brothers "Tomorrow's Cradle",, and out of Portland, OR, claims to have the only listing of funeral prices on the web.  Another funeral planning service, one targeting web-savvy, professional Boomer males, is Funerals to Die For--"discover how much fun making your arrangements can be." To secure tomorrow's funeral at today's prices on the web, go to Cooperative Funeral Service in Great Britain.  

With industrialization came mass production--and mass consumption to move the glut of goods.  With the service orientation of postindustrialism has come the customization of goods and services.  Enter Perpetua, Inc., one of whose funeral homes fashions various realistic settings for the final farewell, including "Mama's Kitchen."

Another predictable phenomenon that has come to be is the electronic funeral. Claiming up to be the first funeral home to broadcast a live funeral is Fergerson Funeral HomeFuneral-Cast also presents online services and has a directory of recent services for replay.  A new dimension of electronic memorials comes from Forever Network, where the Hollywood elite, such as Rudolph Valentino,  and common folk are immortalized in text, photographs, and movies.


Every worry about being buried alive? For a history of the fear see's Gary Kamiya's review of Jan Bondeson's Buried Alive: The Terrifying History of Our Most Primal Fear


City of the Silent's A Consumer's Guide to Cemeteries and Funerals--answers to all sorts of questions involving the industry, such as "Does the law say that I must be embalmed?" and "Do I have to employ a funeral director?"

FAMSA-Funeral Consumers Alliance (a federation of nonprofit consumer information societies)

Funerals: A Consumer Guide -- September 1991

AARP's Funeral and Burial Planners Survey 1999

Dovetail-Resources for Funeral Planning

DragoNet's Funeral Help Page--"funeral costs are obscene!", with a "Funeral SCAM of the Month" section

The Internet Cremation Society

The Cremation Consultant

Sympathy and Funeral Arrangements


In 1992, the National Funeral Directors Association held its 111th meeting here in San Antonio. A straw vote was taken of its members' preferences for U.S. President that year. Bush was favored by nearly two-thirds. One mortician said the votes were swayed by funeral directors' concerns about Clinton's plans to more heavily tax Americans making over $200,000 annually more. "Who in the hell doesn't make $200,000 anymore?" he said.

There are a number of reasons why funeral homes have one of the lowest failure rates of any business and why the funeral industry produces one of the highest stock returns of any American industry. (And, to boot, funeral homes are not required by federal law to file their financial statements with the SEC.) Certainly one reason for the industry's success involves Americans' death denials, often preventing any decision-making until death occurs. Further, there is a profound ignorance about funerary services and products, which include such costs as embalming (which, contrary to popular opinion, is not normally required by law), funerary apparel, usage fees for "slumber room" and chapel, a burial plot, the grave liner, marker, newspaper obituaries, and the opening and closing of the grave. As I wrote in Endings: A Sociology of Death and Dying:

When one enters a funeral home one enters ill prepared, for this is not a K-Mart or dentist office, places for which one has prior experience and knows "the game." One does not take a number nor pushes a cart down aisles. Nor does one see samples of the quality of work done. Instead, one enters at the mercy of a receptionist, who announces to the staff that another performance is to begin and to "get into role." The prospective customer, unfortunately, knows neither the cues nor the script. She is then introduced to her funeral director. As Turner and Edgley (1975:384) note, "the change of titles from `undertaker' to `funeral director' has been perhaps the largest single clue to the dramaturgical functions the industry now sees itself as performing. He is indeed a `director,' controlling a dramatic production."

To make the drama more interesting, recall that this new player is not oneself. Often a significant other's death has just occurred and one has begun feeling the most awesome of emotions: grief. Experiencing feelings that perhaps have never before been felt before and entering the bereavement role, for which one may have no performance expectations, one meets the man who "knows" about such things, the funeral director. Our new widow is then led to a private "counseling" room, a diploma-filled office looking much like that of any health care professional.

To counter the high cost of dying (average funeral costs now exceed $5000), several funerary reform movements have arisen. Among the most successful are the memorial societies that have sprung up around the country. These groups promote simple services and basic products, such as cremation, no embalming or viewing, and inexpensive wood caskets. They negotiate with area funeral homes to provide their members economical memorial services.

Check you local phone book to find the memorial society in your area (don't expect to find it listed under "Funeral" in your Yellow Pages). Even if one does not exist locally, one can still receive the benefits of one by joining the Funeral and Memorial Societies of America, Inc.. 6900 Lost Lake Road Egg Harbor, WI 54209-9231 (414) 868-3136

For those in the San Antonio area, contact The San Antonio Memorial Society at (210) 341-2213.  In Houston, upon recommendations of the national society and to make it easier to look up in the Yellow Pages, the name is now Funeral Consumers Alliance of Houston.


Reacting against the funeral industry's control over mortuary ritual, some individuals seek to return control to families. Included in their agenda are home funerals (including home preparation of the deceased, which is legal in all states but New York, Louisiana, Indiana and Nebraska) and green burials.  See Nancy Rommelman's "Crying and Digging: Reclaiming the Realities and Rituals of Death" (Los Angeles Times, Feb. 6, 2005).

Final Passages--"dedicated to a compassionate and dignified alternative to current funeral practices"
PBS's "A Family Undertaking"
Thresholds Home and Family-Directed Funerals

Return to Kearl's Death Index