The Funeral Empire Strikes Back


According to Gary Lauderman — in spite of the outcry of would-be reformers — by mid-century, funeral directors had managed to make themselves an important part of everyday American life. It was possible for them to do this because most Americans simply wanted their services. All the suggestions made by the critics of the industry about alternative ways to handle the dead body, including the advocating of municipal control over bodies, and the advantages of cremation, or the emphasizing of the primacy of the spirit over the displayed remains of the deceased, did not slow down the entrepreneurial spirit and the almost pious sense of vocational duty that inspired those involved in the funeral industry. Indeed, the critics were unable to transform the nature of the funeral service or stop the rise of the funeral home, and this made funeral directors more confident that the new traditions they had to offer were pleasing to the American public.

Still, funeral directors did not ignore the challenges nor try to hide their professional duties behind a veil of secrecy. They reacted to national headlines, and conversed on the streets of their communities, thus establishing lines of communication and communal participation that made the public feel they could be trusted to be responsible and proper in handling their dead.

While the media was more interested in the scandalous, an almost unnoticed degree of cooperation existed between the funeral director and the religious community to create the level of trust the public had in the industry. Granted, some Christian leaders felt disempowered by the level of control the mortician had in the funeral, relations between clergy and funeral directors were, by and large, amicable and based on mutual respect. In most funerals, the division of labor was clear: the undertaker presided over the body, the minister over the soul.

The media made a big thing of the real animosity that did exist between some religious leaders and undertakers, but when the local undertaker opened the doors of his funeral home as a place of business, most ministers supported the new enterprise either passively or actively.

One place where evidence of this harmonious relationship between funeral homes and religious institutions can be found is in the “funeral manuals” that were published in the early twentieth century for increasingly busy clergymen who had little time to prepare for funerals where they officiated after receiving notifications of death. Such manuals contained materials for the funeral service such as scripture readings, prayers, famous quotations, sometimes arranged in accord with the age of the deceased. They also delineated the division of labor for the entire funeral, making the centrality of the undertaker clear. A 1910 manual was called Pastor’s Ideal Funeral Book, by Arthur H. DeLong; he writes in the section “funeral etiquette” that the minister should understand he has absolute control over the religious part of the service, and only that part, the undertaker controlling all other matters.

In 1942, Princeton theology professor Andrew Watterson Blackwood published The Funeral: A Source Book for Ministers, in which he stated that the minister should defer to the mortician in matters related to the funeral, the mortician being an expert in his art. Blackwood says he has little experience of morticians “of the baser sort,” finding most he has dealt with to be “Christian gentlemen,” who are glad to cooperate with any minister worth his salt. Blackwood was well aware of the critiques of the funeral industry that had appeared by the early 1940’s, and set out to paint a different picture.

Pastor J. Douglas Parker wrote in 1950, in an article in the Michigan Christian Advocate called “How Pagan Are Our Funerals,” that funeral directors are being given a hard time in both the religious and secular press. Parker calls for restraint in such criticisms, and labels as “dictatorial” the suggestions the critics have for reform. Any Pagan elements in the American funeral were not the fault of the funeral director, but funerals reflected larger realities of American culture. That the church didn’t always recognize these realities was a sign of hypocrisy (Gary Lderman quotes in Rest in Peace, A Cultural History of Death and the Funeral Home in Twentieth Century America):

I once heard a minister decrying the use of expensive caskets. His righteous indignation was considerably weakened, however, by the fact that he took great pride in encasing his own corpulent body in a new Buick for his work and pleasure. Expensive caskets and more expensive automobiles are simply a sign of our gadget-studded and materially dependent culture. Families take pride in caskets. Granted that is the wrong emphasis, but so is our whole culture. When all Christians agree to take the chrome and luxuries off their automobiles, then we shall have a right to plead for simpler caskets.

As for the division of labor at funerals, Parker is very clear that it is not the place of the funeral director to preach immortality, but to take care of the details of burial. Cooperation is a more appropriate attitude for clergy than “indulging in self-righteous criticism.” Such voices as Parker’s were perhaps quieter than those of the intense critics, but they probably reflected the feelings of the public better.

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