The American Funeral

Bert Hayslip Jr, Kenneth W Sewell, Russell B Riddle. Handbook of Death and Dying. Editor: Clifton D Bryant. Volume 1. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Reference, 2003.

The funeral has long been a component of society’s attempts to adjust to and cope with the loss of one of its members. Traditionally, it has served as a ceremony acknowledging death, as a religious rite, and as an occasion to reassure and reestablish the survivors’ social group after death (Corr, Nabe, and Corr 2000). As such, it serves to commemorate life as well as establish a ritual for disposal of the body (Fulton 1988; Kastenbaum 2001). The funeral service itself serves at least two manifest purposes: completing the final placement of remains (its secular function) and confirming public recognition of the deceased person’s transition from life to death (its sacred function; see Schulz 1978). That the first function is an important one is illustrated by the public’s outrage in early 2002 at the failure of a Georgia crematory to dispose of several hundred bodies with respect and dignity; many had simply been stacked up rather than cremated. Decisions about cremation, embalming, whether the body is to be viewed publicly, and how the body is to appear under such circumstances also reflect the importance that society assigns to the funeral’s secular function. Regarding its sacred function, whether the service is religious or not, whether a memorial service or a more traditional ceremony is to be held, and the central role in the funeral service assigned to the eulogy and who is to give it all reflect the importance of the funeral as a public ritual that symbolizes the life of the person whose death is being mourned.

Mandelbaum (1959) described three latent functions of the funeral. The first two include structuring economic and reciprocal social obligations of mourners, as exemplified by taking financial responsibility for funeral costs, and the roles that participants take in the funeral, wherein obligations and restrictions are placed on members of the deceased’s family, such as dressing in a certain manner, observing a given (e.g., solemn) demeanor, and eating and interacting together after the funeral. A third latent function of the funeral lies in its acknowledgment and affirmation of the extended kinship system. As such, Mandelbaum (1959) argued that participation in the funeral ceremony adds to a sense of being part of a social whole and that the structure of the ceremony reinforces the presence of this whole and perpetuates order in the social system.

To the above functions, Corr et al. (2000) add that the funeral serves to make real the implications of death and that it assists in the individual, family, social, and spiritual integration of living after death. To the extent that funerals are typically short-lived events, such full integration through the funeral, in a long-term sense, may not be possible (or more properly stated, complete) in many cases. The grieving and redefinition of one’s life and relationship to the deceased person after the death of a loved one obviously goes on for some time after the funeral, and thus the funeral may help to initiate, but not necessarily maintain, the grief work necessary to come “full circle” emotionally and interpersonally after death.

Funerals obviously can foster social support among survivors and can redirect attention away from death and toward the continuation and renewal of life (Kastenbaum 2001). For many persons, the activities they engage in prior to, during, and after the funeral (e.g., viewing the body; selecting a casket, grave marker, or headstone; writing a eulogy; selecting music; placing items in the casket; attending to legal and financial matters; gathering with friends and family; writing an obituary) can be both distressing and fulfilling (Bolton and Camp 1986-87, 1989). However, the extent to which modern embalming practices make the dead person look “peaceful, as if he or she were asleep” or give the appearance that the person is “alive, but simply at rest,” underscores differences of opinion about whether funerals accomplish the goal of making the death “real” effectively. Likewise, concerns about the expense of items such as elaborate flower arrangements or a casket reflect diverse points of view regarding whether such purchases show respect and love for the dead person (Corr et al. 2000).

The Funeral as Ritual

As stated at the outset of the chapter, a funeral is—at least in part—a ceremonial (often religious) rite in relation to a death (Corr et al. 2000). Campbell (1988) defined ritual as the enactment of a belief system or “myth” (using the term myth to connote metaphysical notions, not to be confused with fallacy). Thus a ritual brings mythological/metaphysical concepts into the realm of time and space so that these beliefs can be expressed and experienced by those who rely on them. Funerals certainly function as rituals in this sense, allowing bereaved persons to enact—in symbolic and socially coordinated ways—their beliefs regarding the meanings of death and the duties, rights, responsibilities, and travails of the living.

Indeed, a strong case can be made that funerals were “invented” as the earliest of all rituals among hominids. The earliest evidence of ritualization comes from the Neanderthal period (ca. 250,000 B.C. to ca. 50,000 B.C.). Archeologists have uncovered grave sites from this period that contain tools, food supplies, sacrificed animals, and other meticulously arranged materials (Campbell 1959). Even lacking formally recorded historical accounts from this period, such sites strongly suggest a ritualized burial that involved beliefs of some life-to-come for the deceased. A clear continuity can be seen between this “prehistorical” hypothesis and funeral rituals from cultures for which we have much clearer historical records (e.g., Pharaoh period in Egypt, Native Americans, etc.). Thus although rituals have been defined to reflect all sorts of “rites of passage” events (from initiate to graduate, from unbeliever to believer, from adolescent to adult, etc.), they owe their form and function to the ritualization of death.

“The function of a ritual…is to give form to human life, not in the way of a mere surface arrangement, but in depth” (Campbell 1972:43). If a ritual is an enactment of mythological beliefs (which might be, but not necessarily, organized into a “religion”), what are the functions of such beliefs? Campbell (1972, 1988, 2001) offered a theoretical framework to answer this question that appears appropriate for the task of understanding the funeral. First, a mythological system serves a cosmological purpose, yielding a sense of understandable orderliness to the universe in which the person finds himself or herself. Second is the pedagogical purpose of myth, which is usually in the form of prescriptions for understanding and negotiating the various phases and potential crises of life (birth, childhood, puberty, marriage, illness, bereavement, death, possibly afterlife, etc.). Third, a mythological system serves a psychological function at the individual level, which Campbell (2001) referred to as “aligning waking consciousness to the mysterium tremendum of this universe, as it is” (p. 2; italics in original). In this way, the human believer (or “conceiver”) is psychologically transformed by metaphysical notions and develops a sense of awe in relation to his or her existence. Finally, a mythological system serves a sociological purpose, bringing the individual into the moral order of the group (i.e., the constellation of persons who share belief or investment in the system).

The funeral ritual, when considered from any particular belief system perspective, can be understood in terms of each of the above functions. For example, the burial ritual enacts and thus validates the agrarian cosmological framework based on the vegetation cycle (seed planted in the earth, growth, death, then returning to the earth as both seed and fertilizer). The pedagogical function of myth can be seen in the funeral through eulogizing the deceased in a manner that offers “lessons of life” for the survivors. Likewise, the psychological purpose can be seen in the common funeral practice of viewing the corpse; literally “facing death” provides a psychological confrontation with mortality that can place one’s living existence into sharp relief. Finally, and perhaps most saliently in current American culture, the communal and sociological aspects of the funeral provide a sense of social belonging both to the primarily bereaved and to those in the community whose relationship to the deceased is more remote (this topic will be further explored below in the context of wake rituals).

Funerals vary in their specific forms; they also vary in terms of the mythological systems that underlie the funeral. Nonetheless, funerals are rituals. As such, funerals enact, exemplify, and validate the complex belief systems of the bereaved and their communities.

The Evolving Funeral Ritual

Stephenson (1985) suggested that the funeral in America has transitioned from a rite of passage, understood by the attendees as being for the benefit of the decedent, to what is primarily a social ritual, understood by attendees as primarily for the benefit of the bereaved. He tracked funeral practices through hypothesized “eras” of American society.

In the era of sacred death, death was considered a sacred event associated with the dying person’s taking leave of this world on the way to the next. In its earliest expression, there was a clear distinction between the religious funeral (marking this metaphysical passage) and any civic event that might follow it. Over time, the religious and civic ceremonies began to merge, but the sacred significance remained inherent in the conception of the funeral.

During the era of secular death, urbanization brought about the specialization of death professionals. In its earliest manifestation, these professionals were often nurses for body preparation and furniture dealers for casket provision and internment. This eventually gave way to the development of the mortician-funeral director occupation. Funerals during this era took on more secular functions, including wealth display and the fulfillment of expected social roles. Whereas the focus of the funeral in the era of sacred death was on the deceased, funeral processes during the era of secular death focused on the bereaved. Such funerals tended to be long and morose in tone. It was expected that some grievers (particularly spouses) should display significant despair and should remain in mourning for extended periods of time.

Finally, the era of avoided death was facilitated by modern medicine’s victories in the face of many diseases and problems that kill children. Although death has never been a pleasant subject in earlier eras, the frequency of untimely deaths created an inability to ignore or “avoid” the continuing possibility of encountering death in everyday existence. With life expectancy increasing and much more uniform than before, and with the increasing professionalization of death care services, the vast majority of Americans could now live much of their lives as if death did not exist. This avoidant stance toward death is then played out in the funeral process, in which mourners maintain considerable distance from the ugly realities of death and decomposition. Euphemisms abound—such as “slumber room” and “final resting place”—that provide a language to discuss the logistics of the funeral without actually acknowledging death.

The shifts identified by Stephenson (1985) have coincided with a pluralistic shift in American society, in which persons live, work, and socialize with other persons who do not necessarily share their religious or metaphysical beliefs and values. So when someone dies, the “community” relevant to the death (and thus the community of persons potentially attending the funeral) may represent many religions, many attitudes toward death (e.g., professing a belief in an afterlife, a belief in reincarnation, etc.), and many funeral customs from their respective families and (sub)cultures of origin. Thus the evolution in this dynamic multicultural context has yielded a greater emphasis on the sociological function of the funeral ritual (see Irion 1990-91). Although the other functions continue to have personal (and sometimes communal) impact, the social coming together represented by the funeral and the direct expressions of social support for the primary mourners constitutes a large portion of the funeral events. This led Stephenson (1985:208-9) to suggest that the events immediately following the actual funeral (which can be seen as an extension of the funeral) have particular importance to the primary mourners. These events—often a meal accompanied by interactions that bear less direct reference to the deceased—represent a transition into a familial-social structure that has cohesion even in the physical absence of the deceased.

The Wake

The term wake derives from the Old English word wacu, meaning “watch” (perhaps once associated with a belief that a corpse must be watched over until buried to prevent it from being overtaken by evil spirits). Wakes are funeral-related rituals that further support the notion that primary mourners need and seek social togetherness as both a coping strategy for loss and for restructuring the social sphere in the absence of the deceased. Wakes, in their most common form, are indigenous to Gaelic peoples (although most usually associated with the Irish; Friend 2001) and were brought to America by Irish and Scottish immigrants (Stephenson 1985). Traditionally, the wake lasted from the time of death until the family left with the body for the funeral and burial. Friends and family would gather at the home of the deceased (where the body lay) for mutual consolation as well as celebration in the mode of a “send-off” of the deceased into the next life (see also Kraehenbuehl 1997). A combination of factors—bodies of deceased persons being less likely to remain in the home between death and burial, shifting family structures in the United States, cultural avoidance of death requiring the funeral to make the death “real” (discussed above)—has altered the modern wake in somewhat predictable ways. For example, formal “visitation” (usually conducted at the funeral home) has virtually replaced the gathering in the home in the presence of the body. Similarly, less formal gatherings both before and after the funeral ceremony for family members to reminisce, console each other, and often share a meal have come to replace the other aspects of the wake in many American families and subcultures. Although some families continue to engage in traditional wakes, most modern wakes in America are of this altered type and rarely have the celebratory tone of the traditional wake.

Blauner (1976) suggested that the multicultural context of American society—lacking a unifying and shared mythological framework—would lead (indeed, already is leading) to a “ritual-less society” (see also Stephenson 1985:212). It does appear likely that American society will continue to evolve toward greater diversity of values and beliefs in the foreseeable future. Thus such a prognostication should be taken serious, and its impact on the funeral ritual considered. However, since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, American culture has shown a clear affinity toward ritualized social action geared toward memorialization of death. This trend was already beginning to emerge following the Oklahoma City bombing; the memorial park now open in that city might be understood as a continual funeral ritual. Similarly, visits to “The Wall” commemorating those who died in Vietnam, have a ritualistic quality to them (e.g., taking rubbings of a loved one’s name; see Lopes 1987). It is worth noting that this reemergence of mass culture ritual has taken place without a corresponding homogenization of religious or metaphysical belief systems. Thus it appears that societies can develop meaningful shared rituals (that serve all the functions noted above) based on important shared experiences rather than on commonly held religious beliefs.

Given how the American funeral functions as a ritual that serves such complex personal and social functions, it should be no surprise that historical and individual variations exist with regard to how Americans view funeral processes. In addition, the “funeral industry” has been criticized as it has served (and perhaps directly influenced) these variations. The following sections will discuss criticisms of the funeral industry and then review the research published to date on these important variations in the American funeral.

Criticisms of the Funeral Industry

Among the funeral industry’s harshest critics have been Bowman (1959), Mitford (1963, 2000), and Howarth (1996). Howarth (1996) for example, feels that American society has given up control of the funeral to professional funeral directors, wherein such persons are now viewed as “experts” whose functions are (a) to both stimulate and satisfy the needs of bereaved persons (e.g., by providing services that both reflect and stimulate demand) and (b) to maintain the illusion that death represents both a painless state and the end of a fulfilling life. This may explain the desire to view the corpse as peaceful, where the funeral director’s control over death is emphasized. Freed of the responsibility for preparing the body for viewing, individual consumers may feel license to be critical of those whose services they have purchased, further distancing them from the harshness of death. This distancing reflects the “bureaucratization” of death (Howarth 1996:203), and the ambivalence that many feel is embodied in the power that the funeral director enjoys in possessing the body while his or her embalming “protects” the bereaved person from the realities of death. This power permits the funeral director to exert considerable control over the funeral ritual itself. As Howarth (1996) notes, the humanization of death and dying, principally via the growth of the modern hospice movement, has signaled a return of control to the patient and family both before and after death occurs. Moreover, debates over the ethics and morality of both euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide reflect the dissatisfaction that persons feel in ceding control over the dying process to others, emphasizing the quality over the quantity of life in so doing.

Mitford (1963, 2000) has perhaps been the most visible critic of the funeral ritual and the funeral industry itself. What underlies her criticism is that the funeral has evolved from a ritual whose purpose was to comfort bereaved loved ones to an “industry” into which few persons who are not morticians or funeral directors have insight. Indeed, the crux of her position revolves around the funeral as a business, where bereaved family members are treated as customers who must be “sold” a product by those whose purpose is to make a handsome profit, often to the emotional and financial detriment of a grieving family member or friend. The increasingly expensive nature of funerals, and especially cremations, the increasing frequency of corporately owned funeral homes, the tendency to stack state licensing boards with funeral industry personnel, the advantageous (to the funeral director) nature of prepaid funerals, the emotional manipulation (i.e., that purchasing a more expensive funeral will lessen one’s guilt and is an indication of how much the deceased person was loved and respected) by morticians of recently bereaved persons, and ignorance of the public regarding the actual nature of the services they are purchasing are among the specific issues Mitford raises. In addition, the partnerships between the funeral director industry and other death service industries (such as cemetery operators, monument makers, and vault and casket manufacturers) undermine the public’s ability to make informed decisions about what services they need or want. Ultimately, the question arises, “Does the funeral industry reflect or dictate the needs of grieving individuals?”

Although Bowman’s (1959) critique is more dated, it is indeed interesting to observe that he makes many of the same points as does Mitford. At the heart of Bowman’s concerns is the essentially dysfunctional nature of the funeral; its commercialistic and exploitive nature undermines its meaningfulness as a ritual to celebrate the life of a deceased loved one. Bowman speaks of the “bargaining” between the customer and the mortician. Customers are ultimately at a disadvantage because of a lack of knowledge about what to do when someone dies and because of the emotionally vulnerable state in which they make funeral decisions. Thus they often make decisions that are hasty or in response to pressure from the funeral director. Essentially, Bowman (1959) maintains that the funeral is materialistic, costly, and pretentious and fails to meet the spiritual and interpersonal needs of the grieving family, often operating in a void with respect to its relationship to the community.

In light of such criticism, it is interesting to observe that many studies suggest that the public is, generally speaking, satisfied with the funeral ritual; there is a general belief that the funeral industry does a credible job in meeting the public’s needs. For example, a study by the Funeral and Information Council (including the National Funeral Directors Association [NFDA]) in 1999 of 1,002 consumers indicated that the majority (approximately two-thirds) had a favorable opinion of those in the funeral industry. The study’s authors claim that positive comments outweighed those that were negative by a 5:1 ratio (NFDA 2000), and 80% “would not change anything about their personal experience with funeral homes.” Indeed, as reported by Kastenbaum (2001) and DeSpelder and Strickland (2002), the vast majority of persons state that they are satisfied with the quality of funeral services they have received. Yet only approximately 10%, when asked, indicated that those in the industry were helpful, compassionate, caring, and competent. Data collected by Hayslip (1995) from 438 recently bereaved individuals indicate that most were at least moderately satisfied with the overall funeral process and that the vast majority (90%) agreed that funerals served a valuable function. Yet most felt that more protection (from pressure) was needed for bereaved persons when making funeral arrangements and were ambivalent about whether persons were indeed emotionally capable of making such decisions, as well as about whether funeral directors were concerned about them.

With regard to desired changes, the most frequently mentioned issue (26%) was cost (NFDA 2000). Indeed, as a reflection of consumer concerns about funeral costs, a 1984 Federal Trade Commission Funeral Rule prevented funeral directors from quoting a single price for the overall funeral, requiring funeral homes to provide customers with an itemized list of charges and descriptions of available caskets, while asserting that funeral directors cannot prevent customers from purchasing a casket from someone other than the funeral director. Significantly, a pamphlet educating would-be customers regarding funeral costs and about the wisdom of prepayment has been developed by the Funeral Information Project at the University of Kansas (Bern-Klug 1996). Although NFDA data suggest that funeral costs have increased at the rate of inflation since 1957, a report by U.S. News and World Report (“The Death Care Business” 1998) indicated that funeral costs had risen three times the cost of living over the previous 5 years. Although the cost of funerals varies greatly, the average cost is just over $6,000 (NFDA 2000; see Table 1). Data collected from 438 recently bereaved individuals by Hayslip (1995) indicate that persons spent an average of between $4,000 and $6,000.

Attitudes toward the American Funeral: Historical Variations

Compared with the considerable work done on psychological aspects of death and dying (see Kalish 1985a, 1985b; Kastenbaum 1977, 1986; Kubler-Ross 1969, 1978), as well as grief and bereavement (Osterweis, Solomon, and Green 1984; Stroebe and Stroebe 1987; Stroebe et al. 2001), little psychological research has been conducted on the American funeral process. Moreover, much of this research is 20 years old or older (cf. Bowman 1959; Feifel 1969; Fulton 1976; Irion 1966; Margolis et al. 1975; Mills 1969; Mitford 1963; Pine et al. 1976; Vernon 1970), with more recent evidence suggesting that views of the funeral’s relationship to death and grief have changed (Irion 1990-91). These views have led to changes in both the American funeral and the ritual responses to death, which may make funerals more effective resources for coping with death and bereavement (Irion 1990-91). Indeed, funerals are a core element in helping mourners work through their feelings about loss (Romanoff and Terenzio 1998), targeting the family of the deceased (Corr, Nabe, and Corr in press).

Regarding cultural/historical variations in funeral attitudes, Fulton (1976) was among the first to explore this issue. He noted a regional difference in attitudes toward funerals and funeral preferences, wherein nonreligiously affiliated persons tended to be more critical of the funeral process in general. Moreover, persons who were more highly educated and who had higher incomes tended to be most critical of funeral rites and ceremonies.

Fulton (1988) observed that attitudes of the American public toward death, funerals, and funeral directors are affected by several factors. In this light, clergymen’s attitudes toward funerals understandably covary with their religious faith, although many in the past have charged funeral directors with ignoring spiritual matters and taking advantage of bereaved persons (see Mitford 1963, 2000). On the other hand, Fulton’s (1988) findings suggested that a majority of the public at that time felt that funerals do indeed make possible a meaningful emotional experience; criticism of funerals was found to be at least partially associated with geographic region, religious affiliation, education, occupation, and income. Because there are racial ethnic differences in funeral customs (e.g., African Americans, Native Americans, Asian Americans, and Hispanic Americans vary regarding the time frame within which the funeral ritual evolves and with regard to the importance of the role played by the funeral director; Corr et al. 2000), it would not be surprising to observe that some of the criticisms of funerals in part reflect their inability to be sensitive to such differences.

In light of the skepticism that surrounds the funeral industry in the minds of many, it is interesting to note that Turner and Edgley (1976) applied both social psychological and theatrical principals to portray the American funeral as intentionally dramatic in nature, constructed in a way to achieve a given desired effect. More recent work by Hyland and Morse (1995) also suggests that North American funerals are theatrical showpieces orchestrated by professional funeral directors to provide comfort and support to the bereaved.

Regarding cohort shifts in funeral attitudes, Fulton (1988) reported that a 1967 nationwide survey of funeral directors indicated that a funeral in America at the time was perceived differently by different people. This is because a funeral does not take place in a vacuum but, rather, depends on regional and cultural beliefs, customs, and attitudes. An overall cultural shift in beliefs and attitudes about death, dying, and bereavement would therefore necessarily affect attitudes toward funerals and assessments of their purpose. There is evidence that such shifts have indeed occurred (Hayslip and Peveto in press), wherein over a 30-year period, persons were more likely to have thought about practices such as organ donation, were more likely to feel “indifferent” about having their bodies embalmed, and were no more likely to have made funeral arrangements ahead of time. This suggests that over historical time, attitudes toward the traditional funeral ritual as a means of bodily disposal or affirmation of the life of the deceased person may have become somewhat more negative. Developments in health care technology, for example, could be interpreted by some as a reflection of a general reluctance to accept the inevitability of death (Kastenbaum 2001) and may reflect a lessening of the importance of the funeral’s sacred role. Historical shifts in demographic factors such as mortality rates or persons’ economic status (fostering concern about funeral expenses) could also influence variations in funeral attitudes, although no published work examines this.

Fulton (1988) argued that in the 1970s and 1980s an increasing tendency existed for people in modern society to believe that sacred ceremony is out of date, representing a general conflict between sacred and secular traditions in society at the time. Associated with increased secularity was an opposition to funerals or perhaps merely a desire for simpler, less expensive, or less ostentatious ceremonies. Some persons’ attitudes toward funerals reflect assertions that they are too formal or too impersonal, wherein a lack of church affiliation at the time among members of society resulted in greater criticism of funerals and funeral practices (Fulton 1988). Thus the funeral can often end up affecting those who believe it to be the least able to reflect its purported sacred function.

Attitudes toward Funerals: Individual Variations

Hayslip, Servaty, and Guarnaccia (1999) studied age cohort differences in perceptions of funerals, observing, for example, that because people vary in age, they therefore vary in the likelihood of having attended a funeral. Prior experience, tradition, and general knowledge of funeral practices, then, affect one’s expectations of a funeral ceremony. Hayslip et al. (1999) did find that cohort membership affected one’s expectations and attitudes toward funeral ceremonies and the processes involved in organizing them. Specifically, middle-aged and older persons tended to hold more favorable attitudes toward funerals and funeral directors. The authors hypothesize this to be due to young persons’ often less traditional approach to dealing with grief as well as covarying with the number of funerals one has attended (Hayslip et al., 1999).

Bern-Klug, Ekerdt, and Nakashima (1999) point out that attitudes toward funeral rituals vary with religious, ethnic, and socioeconomic factors, such as the actual merchandise one purchases (e.g., the type of casket), the disposition of body, and the funeral’s overall cost. The median cost of an entire funeral proceeding lies in the $5,000 to $6,000 range (Bern-Klug et al. 1999), and a family’s means of absorbing such costs would likely affect its attitude and perception of the entire experience. Other influences on funeral attitudes include who oversees the final arrangements and the level of that person’s prior knowledge of how to make such plans. Bern-Klug et al. (1999) found that 39% of adult children had never before met with a funeral director to make such arrangements.

Intrusive problematic events can also influence or distort the funeral process and one’s experience of it. Family tension and discord, for example, add stress to an already difficult time for mourners. Gamino et al. (2000), for example, found a high incidence of “adverse events” to occur during funerals that contributed to a perception of the funeral as not comforting. For example, a lack of consensus on matters such as deciding on an open- versus closed-casket ceremony virtually guarantees someone will be unsatisfied with the service. Nonetheless, Gamino et al. (2000) demonstrated that mourners who are able to find solace in the funeral do cope better in the long run, even if the funeral was marred by one or more problems.

Funeral directors themselves can also affect one’s experience and attitude toward the funeral process. For instance, the public may perceive conflict between the director’s job of hands-on body management and the desire to support the mourners’ grieving and bereavement (Fulton 1976). However, some data have suggested that attitudes and criticisms toward funeral directors are often based on aspects other than personal experience. For example, Fulton (1976) found that more people believed that funeral directors exploit family grief than admit to personal knowledge of such incidents. Moreover, although people often reported general hostility toward funeral directors, Fulton (1976) did not find that people also complained about wedding coordinators or feelings of being overcharged by other professionals.

Gender may also be related to one’s attitude toward funerals. For example, regarding funeral directors, the public often is more comfortable in dealing with women. Many of those making arrangements are widowers and may therefore prefer talking with female funeral directors (Kastenbaum 2001). In another study establishing an association between gender and funeral expectations, Sakalauskas (2001) found men to be most concerned with the costs associated with the funeral, whereas women were more concerned about the appearance of the body and with social relationships related to family and friends.

Fulton (1988) argued that persons’ attitudes toward funerals are likely to be more positive when the funeral and director(s) can effectively aid in the venting of emotions and when they respond adequately to the psychological needs of the survivors. The question of funeral beneficence, then, is likely to covary with individual survivor characteristics and the circumstances surrounding the death. Specifically, a “high grief” death, such as the unexpected death of a child, would greatly increase the chance of potential difficulties in psychological adjustment, whereas a “low grief” death, such as that of an elderly relative, could result in less psychological harm to the survivors in question (Kastenbaum 2001). As involvement in funeral rituals may help the adjustment of such persons (Bolton and Camp 1986-87, 1989), the therapeutic effect of funerals may be the greatest when the death was traumatic, as in suicides (Calhoun, Selby, and Steelman 1988-89).

The importance of the funeral, and its associated pre- and postfuneral rituals, is also recognized by those who provide religious services at funerals. Although clergy must speak to the emotional needs of the mourners, as well as give a religious proclamation of faith and a celebration of the person’s life within the context of the funeral ritual, Lageman (1986) argues that many clergy may only facilitate a denial of the loss that operates on a cognitive rather than an emotional level (i.e., by conducting the funeral of someone whom they did not know or by speaking of the deceased person in general terms). It is clear, however, that clergy and funeral directors see themselves as the first line of service providers to the newly bereaved (Lageman 1986) and often are in the best position to comfort the recently bereaved before, during, and possibly after funerals.

In this context, many (e.g., Fulton 1995; Irion 1990-91; Marrone 1997) have argued that the funeral can have many positive psychosocial and therapeutic benefits for both adults and children, such as providing support and comfort to survivors, as well as allowing for the public expression of grief (see also Bosley and Cook 1993; Dawson, Santos, and Burdick 1990; Leming and Dickson 1994; Oaks and Ezell 1993; Silverman and Worden 1992; Welford 1992). Although some studies suggest that the public generally views funerals somewhat positively (see Fulton 1995; Hyland and Morse 1995; Kalish and Goldberg 1979-80), criticisms of the funeral abound (“Death and Taxes” 1996; Fulton 1961, 1995; Kalish and Goldberg 1978; Mitford 1963, 2000).

Corr et al. (2000) have noted that data supporting the public’s positive perception of funerals are what permit the funeral industry not only to exist but also to prosper. Yet results of consumer surveys portray the funeral industry as necessary and potentially helpful, but not totally trustworthy (“Death and Taxes” 1996; Garmen and Kidd 1983). In addition, many consumers may not be comfortable with traditional funeral practices and may prefer to use alternative, rather than conventional, funeral plans for personal, religious, or financial reasons (Bergen and Williams 1981-82). In this respect, findings more directly exploring the extent of both the beneficial and the harmful effects of funerals are quite relevant and valuable to both funeral industry service providers and to the recipients of such services (i.e., bereaved, or potentially bereaved, persons who either have or will inevitably seek the services of the funeral industry).

Irion (1990-91) has argued that funerals now better reflect the psychosocial needs of both the mourner and the community in which the mourner is embedded. Persons who vary in age also vary in the likelihood of having attended the funeral of a friend or family member, and on this basis alone, one might predict that there would be age differences in perceptions of the funeral. Likewise, persons who are members of different cohorts, who were born in different historical times more than likely have had different experiences with loss in the context of the funeral. For example, older cohorts most likely have attended or have been more familiar with traditional funeral services, with the embalmed body in a casket. For this reason, it may be that such persons would be less open to alternative funeral arrangements, such as memorial ceremonies in the absence of an embalmed body, or cremation (Hayslip et al. 1999). Consequently, one might expect that older cohorts would distrust the funeral industry to a greater extent (Garmen and Kidd 1983), as well as prefer traditional over alternative funeral plans and services (Bergen and Williams 1981-82).

Age cohort differences in perceptions of funerals might also be important from a marketing perspective. Those who are bereaved or who have yet to lose a loved one will either be the direct recipients of funeral services (and consequently may express a preference for a particular type of ceremony in anticipation of their own eventual deaths) or seek out such services in the event of the death of a friend or family member. Likewise, variations in terms of ethnicity, gender (see Garmen and Kidd 1983), whether the survivor had experienced a sudden loss, whether the death was violent, or whether the deceased had died in a manner that might undermine the support available the griever through the experience of disenfranchised grief (Doka 1989); all must be considered in understanding persons’ orientations to the funeral and its benefits to individuals and to the community.

It is not uncommon to observe that by middle or late life, many families have established an ongoing, if not trusting relationship with a funeral director. The funeral director may even be seen as a quasi-family member, not simply as someone from whom a service is being purchased. As noted above, Hayslip et al. (1999) found that middle-aged and older persons, who are more knowledgeable and whose experiences with funerals are not only more numerous but also possibly more traditional in nature, are more supportive of the funeral and the funeral industry. It may also be that older adults, who have experienced more deaths and attended more funerals, are less death anxious, and consequently less threatened by most manifestations of death. This has been suggested by Holmes and Anderson (1980), Schell and Zinger (1984), and Selby (1977), whose findings collectively suggest that younger adults and those who have less direct experience with death-related situations are more reluctant to even tour a funeral home and would avoid funeral homes to a greater extent. Thus because of changes in the ritualized expression of grief (see Irion 1990-91), and accompanying changes in the funeral, younger persons’ disenchantment with issues such as arranging traditional funeral services, having flowers at the service, having the embalmed body available for viewing, or purchasing a casket and a burial plot may all simply reflect a desire for self-expression, acknowledging in a very private way that a loss has occurred.

Outward symbolic manifestations of grief that are culturally determined (e.g., having flowers to symbolize the continued existence of someone who has died, being able to view the embalmed body in a casket, being part of the funeral procession to the burial site) may be rejected by younger adults in favor of cremation or a memorial service, organized not by the funeral director, but by family, friends, or both. The latter expressions of grief may not only be less expensive but may also give family and friends more control over what happens, when it happens, and what is said by whom than might be possible when the funeral director takes the initiative in structuring the funeral service, such as in suggesting a range of caskets, music, flowers, the location of the funeral, alternatives to a traditional service, or the burial site itself. One might also speculate that younger persons, who have had fewer losses with which to deal, are consequently less knowledgeable about the funeral industry. Simply learning about what funerals and funeral directors do and do not do might mitigate such misperceptions.

Attitudinal differences or perceived benefits of the funeral may also reflect the nature of loss in the lives of young adults, wherein the deaths of friends whose funerals one has attended may have been either more violent or sudden and wherein the supportive or therapeutic benefits of the funeral might have had more of an effect. It may also be that such funerals may have involved the death of a parent or grandparent and thus may be viewed more positively (i.e., the funeral was an extension of the relationship with a parent or grandparent and consequently presented a greater opportunity for social-emotional support by siblings or parents). In this respect, Hayslip et al. (1999) found that when age cohort group was crossed with the expected versus unexpected nature of death (e.g., cancer or AIDS, vs. heart attack or car accident; see Hayslip, Ragow-O’Brien, and Guarnaccia 1998-99), younger adults were less likely to have reported on deaths that were anticipated than were middle-aged and older persons. When age cohort group was crossed with the deaths of close family (parent, sibling, child, grandparent, spouse) versus those of more remote family (aunt, uncle) or close friend or acquaintance, it was found that younger adults were more likely to report having attended the funeral of a close friend or less close family member than were middle-aged or older adults (Hayslip et al. 1999). These findings may suggest that for younger adults, funerals involving deaths that are categorized as unanticipated, sudden, or violent might be more beneficial in providing the opportunity to express one’s grief or to get needed social-emotional support from others. They could also suggest that the deaths of friends or family whose deaths are not perceived as having a personal effect may be associated with more positive views of the funeral. This may be because the deaths of others (friends or family other than one’s spouse, parent, or grandparent) engender less fear about one’s own inevitable death and, consequently, enable one to attend the funeral of a friend by representing the deaths of such persons as either unlikely or avoidable and thus less personally threatening. Those for whom the relationship to the deceased was emotionally close (Swanson and Bennett 1982-83) and those whose loved one died traumatically view funerals more positively (Hayslip et al. 1998-99), as do those who had used hospice care for a dying family member (Ragow-O’Brien, Hayslip, and Guarnaccia 2000). Thus prefuneral events and experiences may be as important in influencing funeral attitudes as are funeral-specific events themselves.

Funerals of the Future

Given the complex, culturally embedded nature and function of death rituals, it is impossible to prognosticate the exact direction of their continued development. However, several trends are already evident in funerals that might offer some insight into the possible ways that funerals could shift in the coming decades. Much like the evolutionary survival of specific consumer electronics (e.g., compact discs vs. audiocassettes, IBM vs. Macintosh, VHS vs. Betamax), the particular trends that survive and become accepted standards will likely have much to do with effective marketing and happenstance rather than functional superiority.

The “cyberfuneral” is a new development in death ritual that integrates computer technology with the memorialization process. At a cyberfuneral site on the World Wide Web, a mourner can view the body via live video or digital photography uploaded from the “brick and mortar” funeral preparation site. The mourner can read or even compose and post eulogies and obituaries on the Web site; given the flexibility afforded by the electronic medium, such postings may include text, photographs, video recordings, or audio recordings. The mourner can purchase flowers, candles, and/or food offerings (depending on the cultural norms) on the Web site and have the offering (or “prayers” as they are often called) physically delivered to the body site. Of course, cyberfuneral sites also offer the ability to arrange a cyberfuneral for oneself or a loved one via Web links, credit card payment service, and so forth. Cyberfunerals are gaining popularity around the Asian world, particularly in Singapore and Hong Kong. These cultures are extremely comfortable with the integration of the computer (and the Internet) into everyday life. The ubiquitousness of computer and Internet technology in the United States might make cyberfunerals attractive as a future form of American death ritual, especially as the generation of Americans who have no “pre-cyber-age memory” comes of age and inherits the responsibility for planning and conducting funerals.

Space-based cremains deposit is a new funeral variation that has originated in the United States. For a substantial fee (in the neighborhood of $5,000 for a 7-gram capsule and $1,000 for a 1-gram capsule), a small amount of cremains is loaded into a space capsule launched aboard an orbital spacecraft that then releases the capsule into a degrading orbit around the earth. The capsule eventually will reenter the earth’s atmosphere and then “harmlessly vaporize, blazing like a shooting star in final tribute” (Celestis Services 2003). The entire process is videotaped, from preparation and launch (complete with a memorial service) to atmospheric reentry; a copy of the videotape is provided to the family as a part of the service. Also, names and descriptions of the deceased are memorialized via the company’s Web site.

In Great Britain, youth culture is moving toward a qualitative transformation of traditional funeral customs, replacing black dress and somber music with flamboyant clothes and pop music. Some are opting for fireworks displays as part of the funeral ceremony. Others are considering “themed” funerals in which decorations and expected dress conform to some coordinated theme. It is interesting to note that the British clergy, who conduct the vast majority of funerals in the Great Britain, seem open to the variety of rituals chosen by the deceased and mourners. To the extent that such a trend takes hold and spreads to the United States, the tone of these memorials may be attractive to numerous persons who would rather celebrate a decedent’s life than lament the death.

The possible future funeral trends described above involve variations in the memorial process; they use traditional body disposal mechanisms (i.e., cremation or burial). One new variation that might or might not gain in popularity involves a novel method of body disposal. A freeze-drying process developed in Sweden has been approved in that country for body disposal. The freeze-drying process involves submerging the body in liquid nitrogen coupled with ultrasound wave bombardment (to ensure thorough internal freezing) and then removing nearly all the liquid from the remains by a vacuum process. The resulting remains consist of an odorless organic powder that can be safely dispersed onto soil with no toxic release. Developed as an ecologically sensitive body disposal method, the method is propounded as environmentally superior even to cremation, which uses considerable amounts of fuel and releases some toxic compounds into the atmosphere. With the increase in environmental sensitivity in the United States, freeze-dried body disposal might be a wave of the future.

Future Directions in Funeral Research

Although research exploring the impact of such demographic or experiential factors that might influence funeral attitudes is interesting and noteworthy (see Guarnaccia, Hayslip, and Pinkenburg-Landry 1999; Hayslip et al. 1998-99), there is much work, especially of a prospective nature, that has yet to be done to explore the impact and value of the funeral for survivors. This is especially important in that the funeral’s secular functions (being a means of disposing of the body that is both socially acceptable and publicly healthy) and its sacred function (a ritual that makes the life and death of the deceased both personally meaningful and spiritually important) may or may not be served for a particular person (see Schulz 1978). Consequently, it may be that those who market funeral services to the public need to consider such variations in the perceived need for or value associated with such services. These variations might also reflect the nature of the death or the level of education or ethnicity of the survivor. In that funeral rituals in their ever-widening forms are nearly universal experiences for most adults, an awareness of persons’ expectations of such ritualized expressions of loss is essential to their efficacy in facilitating the experience of the loss of a friend or family member in today’s culture.