The Public Outcry for Funeral Reform

Lake View CemeteryAccording to Gary Laderman in Rest in Peace: A Cultural History of Death and the Funeral Home in Twentieth Century America, from the 1920’s to the 1950’s, calls for reform of the American funeral came from many segments of society. The thrust of these public attacks was that America’s funeral homes were dishonest, and the attacks contributed to the unfortunate public image of funeral directors that was circulating in the public imagination. There were many popular press reports and articles which claimed to expose the funeral business as a fraud. Writers on the funeral beat contributed to all this, sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly; at times they joined the chorus of those critics who were sinking their teeth into the pant legs of America’s growing class of funeral experts.

In 1921, the University of Chicago Press published Funeral Management and Costs: A World Survey of Burial and Cremation, by the Reverend Quincy L. Dowd. In the book’s preface, Dowd states why he felt moved to write it, as Gary Laderman quotes: “To awaken your interest in certain significant and heart-moving facts brought out by this investigation, which, while setting forth the efficient municipal management of burial and protective provision made by European states and cities for people bereaved, plainly show the urgent need in America for similar municipal control and public protection on behalf of all citizens alike.” Dowd suggests “treating burial as a public utility,” and strongly argues for cremation, that alternative way to dispose of the dead which was only beginning to appear in America — “a beautiful and economical, not to say Christian practice.” Dowd also talks about funeral practices in other cultures.

Diverging from the mythical story line which held the American way to be the most advanced, Dowd implies that America’s practices are actually backward and in desperate need of rehabbing. When he talks about the economics of death, and especially the burden placed on the middle and lower classes by the high cost of funerals, he raises questions about the wisdom of how people actually want to dispose of their dead.

There were many similar published studies in the first half of the twentieth century which essentially said the same thing. The common people are not making the right choices when their loved ones die.

Instead of making “enlightened” choices — simplicity, refinement, and austerity — they were giving in to unwise consumer impulses, especially the poor who tend to make a show at funerals, driven by misplaced concerns about social status. The typical American experience of death had the potential to be financially devastating, as Dowd spells out in his economic and class analysis of the cost of dying, which contains sections on “burial expense,” “last sickness bills”, “mourning apparel,” and even “the florist’s bill.” Dowd estimates the public spent 84 million on flowers alone annually, which he finds utterly outrageous and incomprehensible, even sacrilegious. He points out that such “waste” is not encouraging by any religious teachings, may even be disapproved of by the church. He calls flowers at funerals “misplaced love of display.”

But the real culprits for Dowd and other reformers were the funeral directors, those vulgar capitalists running rampant in American society. Not that Dowd accuses all funeral directors. Not everyone was guilty of unscrupulous exploitation of the bereaved. The funeral industry was rarely condemned as a whole. Dowd wrote “most undertakers are esteemed now for their work’s sake and for personal qualities. Therefore‚Ķ ample justice should be done to men and women whose professional duties require skill and peculiar aptitude for ministering in bereaved homes.” Having said this, Dows lists many instances of overcharging, deception, and greed in the industry.

Dowd names the church, also, as an institution in cahoots with undertakers and profiting from expensive funerals. He accuses the church of sometimes placing unfair burdens on poorer parishioners, in conspiracy with undertakers.

Dowd doesn’t like the capitalist logic of supply and demand which undergirds the funeral industry. Funeral and burial charges are “dire, forced necessities.” Adding the “class sentiments and ecclesiastical ceremonies” to the mix and families can easily be overburdened when they’ve already been paying medical costs, nursing and pharmaceutical bills. To counteract the economic rise of the funeral industry, Dowd suggests reforms: municipal control, education, public examples of simple, inexpensive funerals for public figures, a move to cremation, and committees looking in from the outside at funeral costs.

Religious leaders needed to teach a more austere style of funeral. Further recommendations from Dowd included eliminating funeral sermons and forbidding “the promiscuous showing of the corpse in public.”

In the next installment I will look at another writer who complained of the high cost of the American funeral, John Gebhart. Read Part II

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