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Funeral and Memorial Practices

What To Do With The Body?, Ceremony To Mark The Death, How Will This Person Be Remembered?

In 1900, it was not uncommon for death to strike at any age. Young children and people over age sixty-five each accounted for about a third of annual deaths in the United States. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, in developed countries, death was largely confined to older adulthood. Three-fourths of annual deaths in the United States now occur to persons over the age of sixty-five. This demographic shift in the age at death, along with urbanization, migration, secularization, and consumerism, have contributed to dramatic changes in funeral and memorial practices in the United States over the past century.

J. J. Farrell, in Inventing the American Way of Death, 1830–1920 (1980), describes common funeral-related practices that prevailed through the mid-to-late 1800s among people of European descent. Most people died at home during this period, and funerals and burials were handled by the immediate family and neighbors. After the death, women in the family would wash, dress, and prepare the body for burial. Men were responsible for making the plain wood coffin or securing it from the local carpenter. Male survivors dug the grave, and in some cases carved the grave stone. The wake was typically held at home, followed by a committal service at grave-side.

As industrialization flourished, American cities grew more crowded, and living spaces became smaller. When death occurred, many families did not have the physical space for a wake in the home. D. C. Sloane (1991) cites three other reasons for the expanding roles of undertakers in the late nineteenth century: (1) the rise in popularity of embalming; (2) a longer distance from the home to the cemetery necessitated someone to organize the procession; and (3) families were concerned about ensuring that all the formalities were followed. The National Funeral Directors Association was established in 1882. The group decided to use the term funeral directors, rather than undertakers, in an effort to portray a more professional image. During the twentieth century, the role of the funeral director continued to expand into areas previously held by the family and the clergy.

The late twentieth century trend of a few international, profit-seeking funeral chains buying up family-owned funeral homes across the country has led to some concern over the homogenization of the American funeral. There is, however, evidence of a growing movement toward more personally meaningful arrangements, where funeral home personnel function as "facilitators" rather than "directors." Whether homogenization or personalization prevail, three central decisions remain for individuals responsible for final arrangements: 1) what to do with the deceased body?; 2) what type of ceremony will take place to acknowledge the death?; and 3) how shall this person be remembered?

Additional topics

Medicine EncyclopediaAging Healthy - Part 2