Critiquing the American Funeral and Enlightening the Masses

Funeral ShoesQuincy Dowd and John Gebhart are only two among many who strove to “enlighten” the American public about, and it general to shed light on, the economics of the funeral. Their interpretations of why funerals cost so much, and why the poor demonstrate such seemingly irrational wastefulness as they bury their dead, are clearly informed by class bias which places a great deal of responsibility on ignorant consumers who don’t understand what is appropriate when it comes to ritual and the financial aspects of funerals.

The authors of the many texts critiquing the funeral industry felt ambivalent about directing their critiques at the entire industry, but much abuse and dishonesty comes to light in their studies…and they do attack the motivations, business practices and ethics of any who seek to profit from others’ tragedies. Some form of industry or governmental regulation of the funeral was suggested, and that funeral directors, a newly formed class of business professionals, should not have sole responsibility for the dead. It was also frequently stated that embalming must disappear to restore dignity to the funeral.

The studies that were written, various in focus, were published in books, newspapers, magazines, and academic journals. F. A. Manaugh, in his book Thirty Thousand Adventurers: An Informal Disclosure of Observations and Experiences in Research on the Funeral Industry, differentiated between the “right wing” of morticians, who had high ideals and good practices, and the “left wing,” where, as Gary Laderman quotes, “the long dark shadows of moral corruption and commercial deviltry” led to unethical or sometime criminal practices.

The testimony of W. W. Chambers, a hugely successful undertaker, was reported in newspapers around the country; he asserted publicly that the funeral business was a “highly successful racket.” In order to sell more papers, some newspapers highlighted especially sensational aspects of the funeral story, for example the March 8, 1945 edition of the Washington Times Herald had an articles on Chambers with the lead-in quoting Chambers as stating: “To Embalm Elephant Would Cost $1.50.”

Writers other than newspaper reporters began to look to the funeral industry for social insights and to advocate for reforms in the middle decades of the century. A sociologist from the University of Pennsylvania, William M. Kephart, wrote an article for the American Sociological Review in 1950 that described funeral costs and the importance of class in shaping attitudes. Kephart studied the city of Philadelphia, finding significant differences between the rich and the poor. In poorer families, there was more public viewing of the body, and more participation in processions to the cemetery after the funeral service.

Among the rich, there was an increase in cremation rates. Good Housekeeping attempted to educate its readers about funeral costs in June, 1959, explaining that “What’s spent on the funeral is in part a matter of personal choice, and families are often so carried away by emotion that they spend more than they need to. Advance knowledge about prices, and about what you are and aren’t obligated to spend, can help reduce needlessly high costs.” The piece covers other topics, including the question of whether cremation is actually cheaper than burial.

The economics of death were highlighted by these critics, and the spending habits of consumers. But, following the recommendations of John Gebhart and others who wanted to enlighten the masses, many religious leaders spoke out publicly against the funeral and the industry during this time. They identified something in addition to funeral economics and the exploitation of the bereaved: the insidious and abominable threat of paganism. In other words, they felt the glorification of the body during the funeral was at best misdirected. This two-fold charge of paganism and profiteering was not brand new; it had cast a shadow over the funeral industry from the beginning of the century. The religious critiques of the funeral wanted to educate the public about the demons and temptations that lurked in their local funeral home.

Those who took the lead were the white Protestant clergy and the Catholic priests, who were dominant in American culture in the first part of the twentieth century. They publicly denounced what they saw as aberrant values in the conduct of American death rituals. Like the more scientific reformers, many of these leaders focused on the plight of the poor and the extravagance often displayed at their funerals.

But some, especially from the more liberal congregations, who addressed the problem from the pulpit and in church publications, argued that there was something deeper going on…a more prevalent spiritual malaise.

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