Is Mortuary Science a Dying Career?

Adapting to American Values and New Funeral Traditions

Adapting to American Values and New Funeral Traditions

Beginning in the 1970s, the funeral industry faced challenges unseen in the earlier part of the twentieth century. Federal investigation, couple with the growth and popularity of the death awareness movement, actively encouraged potential funeral home clients to take control of their family funerals, including preplanned ceremonies that could be thought out rationally, and well before the occasion of a death.

While funeral directors still claim that they have the clients’ best interests in mind, those interests may be based upon traditional services that could include a last look at the deceased, a ceremony with the body present and interment in a traditional cemetery. While cremation, green cemeteries and other options fight against the traditional ceremony, other factors may come into play as well. In the book, Inventing modern: growing up with x-rays, skyscrapers, and tailfins, by John H. Lienhard, a look at traditional funerals is offered through an article that appeared in 1970:

In a 1970 industry article entitled, “Let’s Change the Changers,” author Jack G. Ebner contends that the move away from traditional funeral ceremonies is related to a growing trend away from traditional values in American society. Particularly disturbing to many was the decreasing number of people who regularly attended church services on Sunday — a sure sign of rebellion in Christian America. Ebner, however, reassured his readers that Americans are not less religious, or less likely to believe in a supreme being, than before, but instead have become suspicious of institutions “too steeped in tradition to help man in this world where the need is immediate…not the next.” He goes on to predict that, within the lifetime of students currently enrolled in mortuary school, funeral traditions will likely be completely eroded, and ceremonies in the future will probably take place without the sacred remains present. The answer for Ebner, as for many working within the industry, was to fight individually to preserve traditions at the local level, and to understand these traditions in religious terms, as a “legacy of faith” passed on by the founding funeral fathers throughout the generations.

This article, “Let’s Change the Changers,” appeared in Casket & Sunnyside (now defunct funeral industry magazine). If you search for Casket & Sunnyside, however, you might find some interesting quotes made by that magazine’s editor, Charles Kates. As far back as 1960, this magazine was worried about religions getting too deep into the funeral home business. One quote states that the minister “has every right to be consulted on the time of the funeral, and that he might have some say about other details, but that the price of the service is not his prerogative and he should not go into the [casket] selection room.” In a later quote, Kates stated that “if one or more of the large denominations ever decided to put funerals under their control or establish their own funeral facilities ‘the fat would really be in the fire.'” (The American Way of Death, Jessica Mitford, 1963).

The fact that Casket & Sunnyside itself bit the dust in 2003 after a century in business is an indicator that individuals in this country have taken on new perspectives about funerals. But, does this mean that the mortuary sciences are dead? According to Gary Laderman, author of Rest in Peace, funeral homes should not worry about their own demise if they can learn to adapt. He states:

Over the course of its seventy-year history, the funeral business had in fact shown remarkable signs of adaptation, even as funeral homes instituted a set of uniform practices centered on embalming that helped shape and define modern funeral traditions. Although a majority of white male Protestants with ethnic roots in the British Isles and Northern Europe imagined, invented, and ignited the funereal revolutions of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, in time many American communities would either operate their own funeral homes or modify ritual practices under the watchful eye of the local funeral director. Historically, the ease with which funeral homes entered the social landscape of diverse communities in all religious of the country suggests that the modern traditions forged in dominant Protestant culture could be adapted to fit different cultural settings — so long as the dead body continued to play a central role in the funeral.

In the end, Laderman suggests, every American who steps foot into a funeral home usually becomes a consumer, “a unifying characteristic at the heart of the modern American funeral.”

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