The AIDS Epidemic: A Turning Point for Funeral Industry

Rock HudsonWhen AIDS surfaced in the mid-80’s, it affected the funeral industry in two major ways: 1) it brought about a greater degree of federal regulation, and 2) it exacerbated a trend toward legitimizing the disposal of bodies.

The disease had a profound effect on the public imagination, especially after the death of screen star Rock Hudson from the virus (articles about his sexual orientation made the women’s magazines); people were hysterical and confused about how the HIV virus was transmitted, fearful about sexuality, drug addiction, and the concept of new plagues. AIDS quickly was recognized as one of the leading causes of death; it raised many questions about care for the dead and dying, as well as “scapegoating” and the politics of death.

The funeral industry, according to Gary Laderman in Rest in Peace: A Cultural History of Death and the Funeral Home in Twentieth Century America, at first responded to AIDS much as the public did, by scapegoating gays. But it graduated quickly to a more reasonable awareness that anyone can get AIDS. A number of funeral directors have admitted that they and their colleagues at first responded inappropriately, for example Atlanta funeral director Ralph Turner; he said AIDS was shocking and everyone thought they were going to get it, just by looking at it.

Apparently there was little talk, at first, of the dangers of touching the body. New Jersey funeral director Bill Monday spoke of the industry’s concerns, but the overriding realization that the funeral director had to be a professional and step up to the plate and handle things.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) began generating federal guidelines during the AIDS era. Their requirements highlighted the delicate and possibly dangerous nature of the embalming process. In May, 1988, OSHA began to enforce the Hazard Communication Standard, which dealt with workplace chemicals. In December, 1991, OSHA published the Bloodborne Pathogen Standard, which was more relevant to fears associated with AIDS. It related to all occupations where people deal with human blood and bodily fluids and are potentially exposed to infectious diseases.

These regulations and the concern about AIDS changed the practices of funeral homes; masks, gowns, and gloves became standard. However, though superficially, funeral homes seem informed about AIDS risks, Laverman says misunderstanding may remain about the means of transmission and risk to professionals. Perhaps because of this, the phenomenon arose that some funeral directors would refuse to work on bodies suspected or known to have died of AIDS.

In 1985, the Maryland Board of Morticians even voted to allow funeral directors to turn away AIDS cases. Howard Raether, a mortician who narrowly missed AIDS infection from blood transfusions, was against this: “My forty-five years of funeral service and when I die you refuse to take care of me?” But cremation became more legitimate and common during the AIDS epidemic; it began to be recommended in some cases by morticians; the corpse was replaced by the ashes as an object for ritual.

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