The Evolution of the Funeral Home and the Occupation of Funeral Director

Jerome J Salomone. Handbook of Death and Dying. Editor: Clifton D Bryant. Volume 2. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Reference, 2003.

“Run, run as fast as you can. I will meet you here.” — Inscription on the archway of a Sicilian cemetery

Death, Wakes, and Funerals

The inexorable passage of time permits no interruption, disallows any pause, and requires the unrelenting march to the grave. Because of its inevitability and its gravity, the end of life is one of the most essential existential facts of human existence. Our exit from life is such a crucial social consideration that everywhere death is surrounded by beliefs and ceremonials called rites of passage that signify the transformative immensity of the event.

In the United States, during the course of the last 150 years, ritualistic funeral practices have gradually fallen under the sway of the funeral director who, in modern times, is typically in charge of the funeralization process. There is no legal requirement for this arrangement. No uniform code of federal law exists governing the disposition of the dead. The prevailing laws, and the rules and regulations emanating from legislation, are the province of the individual states. In actual fact, within those laws, everywhere in the United States it is possible for the next of kin to personally handle every funerary responsibility from the moment of death to the burial or other disposition of the corpse. In other words, by properly following the existing rules and regulations in the community, anyone of age can legally dispose of dead human bodies. Indeed, that is the way it was before the development of the modern funeral industry. Today, the thought of acting on behalf of oneself in conducting the activities associated with the death and final disposition of a corpse is an idea so foreign to our consciousness, it is for all practical purposes inconceivable. That is the nature of custom. Once any practice becomes ingrained in our cultural life ways, it is habitually taken for granted. Of course, only licensed funeral directors can operate a funeral home and conduct funerals on a contract basis with a client who represents a corpse.

Funeralizing the dead includes three distinct components: the wake, the funeral service, and the final disposition of the body, which traditionally has meant coffin burial with a graveside observance. Increasingly, however, disposition of the body involves cremation, which may or may not be accompanied by a wake, funeral, and burial. The wake is an Anglo-Saxon word that simply means “to watch a corpse.” Actually, waking the dead is a worldwide custom of unknown, ancient origin. It may be an uninterrupted vigil over the body from the time of death until the committal of the corpse to the grave. Indeed, this custom, unmodified by time, can still be observed in many parts of the world. Before the advent of funeral homes with specialized parlors designed for wakes, the wake was held in the home or, less likely, the church. On rare occasions when important public figures or celebrities died, they might lay in state (be waked) in public buildings before the funeral cortege conveyed their remains to the cemetery.

The contemporary wake in the United States is typically conducted in the funeral home under the supervision of the funeral director. It is much abbreviated in comparison with former times, as is revealed in obituary columns run as public service announcements in local newspapers. Obituaries proclaim opening and closing hours for wakes much like other businesses and offices. Typically, parlors are open for viewing the encasketed remains for approximately 4 evening hours on the day prior to interment and perhaps several hours the next morning before the graveside ceremony. In effect, the wake (waiting and watching) has become a part of the funeral service, which in addition to waiting and watching includes other elements, such as prayers, eulogies, poetry readings, music, and perhaps other customized forms of memorialization.

The wake is a product of both practical necessity and belief. Originally, it was necessary to wait with and watch the corpse to protect it before burial from predators such as scavenger animals that might mutilate or devour the body. Sometimes wakes served to protect the community from the spirit of the dead person, which was feared because it might, if left unattended, return to haunt the living. Others believed just the opposite. For them it was important to attend the body because only then could the spirit of the dead person be released from its bodily host.

The modern wake, unlike its historical antecedent, is largely for the living. Although respect for the deceased remains a significant motivation, visiting and offering condolence to the bereaved relatives and friends of the decedent is now perhaps the most important function of the wake.

The other two constituents in the funeralization process, the funeral service and the internment service, may be conducted using either sacred or secular rituals. If the ceremonies are of a religious nature, the clergy conduct these scripturally based rites on cue from the funeral director who is in the background inconspicuously orchestrating the events. The funeral service may be held in the church but increasingly is performed in funeral chapels located in funeral homes and cemeteries. Should secular or humanistic themes guide the funeral and interment services, then family and friends rather than clergy take the lead. Instead of scripture readings, poems may be recited, intimate stories retold, and testimony given by relatives and friends of the deceased. Customized arrangements are becoming more popular, especially when memorial services are held after the wake, or in lieu of it, without the corpse present. Then, the participants may assemble anywhere, including the decedent’s favorite pub. As cremation gains in popularity, memorial services are gaining public favor, and funeral directors are eager to arrange these services.

Embalmers, Undertakers, and Funeral Directors

It is difficult and confusing to disentangle the meanings of the terms embalmers, undertakers, and funeral directors. The trouble lies in the gradual, evolutionary unfolding of these overlapping kinds of activities. Embalming is an ancient art directed toward the artificial preservation of a dead human being. By artificial, it is meant the intervention by human means in the natural process of decomposition, as opposed to natural means of preservation. Dead bodies untouched by human hands have been found relatively well preserved for long periods in frozen tundra, in arid deserts, and in soils with heavy concentrations of minerals and chemicals that act as spontaneous preservatives.

The history of embalming in the Western world can conveniently be divided into three distinct periods. Embalming began in Africa, was transported to Europe, and eventually emerged in its modern form in the United States of America (Johnson, Johnson, and Johnson 2000). Deliberately preserving human remains originated in Egypt where it was developed about 3200 B.C. and practiced and perfected for nearly 4,000 years. Applied especially to the nobility, it became a highly celebrated art form whose purpose was religious. Embalming was meant to keep the body whole so that it might be resurrected. “The practice of embalming attained major importance [among the Egyptians] from the belief that the deceased would resume his normal, everyday activities in the afterlife” (Habenstein and Lamers 1962:8).

The second era in the history of embalming is located in Europe. This period coincides with the Enlightenment, a time in Europe when naturalistic explanations of life began to challenge supernaturalistic interpretations. Curiosity and reason called into question traditional beliefs associated with religious faith, giving rise to modern Western science. The principal aim of embalming at this time was to preserve the corpse for subsequent anatomical dissection and study. Medical science, not spiritualistic concerns, was its inspiration.

The modern period of embalming history is centered in the United States. It begins with the American Civil War in 1861 and extends to the present. Unlike the earlier periods, which were identified with religious and scientific purposes, modern embalming practices are inspired primarily by psychological and social motives. Embalming is performed at this time principally to prepare the corpse for the wake. Typically, the embalmed remains are visited (viewed) by family, friends, and other sympathizers to show their respects for the dead and to comfort the bereaved. During this era, embalming and funeral directing are combined in the institutional setting of the funeral home. In effect, embalming is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for contemporary funeral practices. Without embalming, funeral homes would not exist in their present form, yet embalming alone cannot explain the modern funeral home.

Embalming as we know it today owes its greatest debt to scientific discoveries and technical advances made in Europe by the anatomists in the 300 years between 1500 and 1800. These practitioners were a mixture of physicians, surgeons, barbers, chemists, apothecaries, and military surgeons (Gottfried 1986:9-52). Progress in chemistry, anatomy, surgery, and engineering eventually culminated in the invention of a technique for the use of preservative chemicals in arterial embalming, a technical innovation that was essential for the evolution of undertakers and funeral directors (Johnson et al. 2000). It was a natural, sequential transition for embalmers, after they had prepared the body for the grave, to undertake to provide whatever other services were required by the family before the committal of the remains to the grave. Consequently, embalmers became undertakers and funeral directors, but not all undertakers and funeral directors are embalmers, and some embalmers are not funeral directors.

In earlier times, the disposition of the dead took place without the benefit of embalming. Moreover, in many parts of the world today, the dead are not embalmed, not at least as we think of it. The body may be rubbed with oils (balmed), wrapped in a cloth, and buried, burned, or left exposed in a protected area. The point is, funeralizing the dead existed long before embalming. Except in the most unusual of circumstances, down through history (and prehistory) undertakers were undoubtedly invisible as a distinct occupational group because they were family members who mourned and buried their own according to custom. Attending to the dead was simply a family responsibility, another domestic chore undertaken by the elders or their designees who were not specialized funeral functionaries.

There is no difference between modern undertakers and funeral directors. In 1961, The American College Dictionary’s first meaning of undertakers simply refers to persons who undertake something—anything, whether or not it relates to funerals. The second meaning of the word defines undertakers as persons whose “business is to prepare the dead for burial and to take charge of funerals” (Barnhart 1947:1321). Forty years later, the publisher had reversed his preference so that undertakers now are referred to in the first instance as funeral directors and only secondarily as individuals who undertake generalized tasks or challenges (Flexner 1987:776, 2064).

There is a sign about undertakers attached to a post in front of a building in a scene from Cat Ballou, a film set in the Old West in the 19th century. The sign exemplifies the diverse occupational backgrounds of early undertakers and funeral directors. Its inscription read “Carpenter, Wheelwright, Cabinet Maker, Undertaker.” Carpenters and cabinetmakers built furniture and, when necessary, coffins. Wheelwrights often owned carriages as a natural extension of their craft and not infrequently used them to transport bodies to grave sites. These craftsmen were often joined by a host of others who supervised funerary activities. Habenstein and Lamers (1962:175-83, 227, 239-41) report that 18th- and 19th-century undertakers were drawn from the ranks of clergymen, midwives, nurses, sextons, town health officers, tradesmen, and of course, embalmers. The embalmers significantly added to the occupational heterogeneity of the funeral director’s background because, as we have already seen, they, themselves, were a diverse lot.

Arterial Embalming, the Civil War, and the Growth of Cities

The modern funeral home in America owes its existence to the collective influences of three factors shaping the life of the nation in the period between the Civil War and World War I. One of those elements was the development of arterial embalming. Such a procedure required specialized training unavailable in the general population. This technique for prolonging the time between death and burial provided the undertakers with two important advantages: control of the corpse and expansion of the time between death and disposition. Thus, their skill enabled them to “buy time for the social amenities potentially inherent in the death crisis” (Porter 1968:38). Now that the embalmed body could successfully resist decomposition for several days, perhaps longer, it was possible for funeral services to be invented, lengthened, and elaborated for those who desired such arrangements.

As is the case so often with war, the Civil War was the instrument of change in American funeral practices. The existence of arterial embalming did not guarantee its application in society. Successful implementation of this technical advancement in embalming practice required widespread social acceptance, and the Civil War provided the setting for that acceptance. Tragically, the war furnished the nation with a multitude of corpses, men killed in action away from home. Upon request, when feasible, dead soldiers were embalmed and released to their next of kin for transport and burial in their hometowns (Johnson et al., 2000:463-64). Colonel Elmer Ellsworth, Commander of the 11th N.Y. Volunteer Infantry, was the first prominent Northern officer to be killed in the war. He was embalmed, with subsequent funeral services in the White House, New York City, and Albany, New York, then buried in the place of his birth. Ellsworth’s funeral became the model to be followed by other important military officers who were also embalmed before they were funeralized, culminating in the embalmation and funeral for President Lincoln. These celebrity funerals were national events, widely reported in newspapers across the country and were instrumental in calling favorable attention to embalming techniques previously unknown to the public (Johnson et al. 2000:464).

Between 1880 and 1920, the growth of commerce, the expansion of industry, and the development of new technologies combined to increase dramatically the nation’s urban population and to change the character of the city. The transformed city would ultimately be the seat of new, different cultural values and behaviors that would eventually influence every aspect of life in America (Current et al. 1983:544), including funeral practices. For one thing, a cash nexus prevailed in cities, where fee-for-service market relations were the norm, whereas in the countryside nonmonetary systems of exchange such as bartering and trading were more likely to be found. Urbanism, therefore, stimulated the expectation that people should pay for the services they received, not return a service rendered by a service-in-kind. Gradually, people in the city came to understand they should buy a funeral just as they would buy nearly everything else they needed or wanted.

Furthermore, the need for separate, specialized facilities such as funeral homes to conduct funeral services was greatly increased by urban residence, especially in big cities where multistoried apartment buildings were found in abundance. Often without elevators, multiple-story tenement apartments with narrow passageways were patently unsuitable for wakes conducted in the home. Space was at a premium, and there was the practical impossibility of maneuvering the casket up and down steps in confined stairwells.

Associations and Professionalization

The Associational Impulse

William Graham Sumner (1959) speaks about crescive and enacted institutions. Crescive institutions spring up spontaneously in response to some challenge, problem, or need. At first invisible, they gradually emerge without deliberate intentions on the part of the group. Like Tevya in Fiddler on the Roof (Jewison 1971) when we look back on their origins and ask, “Where did they come from,” our answer must be, “I don’t know!” By contrast, enacted institutions are deliberately created for the purposes envisioned by their creators. Funerary practices in the United States can be said to have arisen initially without conscious planning. There was a time when funeral directors were on their own. They were unlicensed, self-trained providers of a service occasionally called for by the public. They may or may not have operated out of a specialized building called a funeral home; they may or may not have embalmed or encasketed a body before its disposition. There was no discernable institutional framework within which they were required or encouraged to operate.

That has all changed in modern times. Gradually, a specialized occupation, the funeral director, working out of a stand-alone business establishment, a funeral home, emerged complete with deliberate business strategies and marketing plans. Currently, the funeral industry is dominated by an alliance of associations of funeral home owners, manufacturers, insurers, and service providers in the multibillion-dollar death care industry. They are collectively responsible for the enactment of a wide variety of laws, rules, regulations, licenses, and professional and ethical standards related to the manufacture of caskets and other funerary artifacts. The alliance also sets embalming and funeral directing practices and promulgates standards for the establishment of funeral homes, cemeteries, and crematories. As such, the industry has undergone a remarkable transformation to a formal, bureaucratic, officially structured set of institutions (enacted, as opposed to crescive).

The National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA), established in 1882, is the largest organization in the world representing funeral professionals. This international association includes members from more than 20 countries. Its stated purpose is to provide advocacy, education, information, products, programs, and other services to its members for the purpose of enhancing the quality of funeral service. It is the leading special-interest group supporting the vested interests of the nearly 45,000 licensed embalmers and funeral directors in the country. It is by no means the only professional association looking after the interests of funeral service personnel. No less than 15 other national and international associations offer funeral industry professionals their services, which range from trade shows at national conventions to personalized instruction in every phase of funeral service (American Blue Book of Funeral Directors 2002:20-34).

In addition, there are state funeral service associations in every state and the District of Columbia (Washington, D.C.). Licensed embalmers and funeral directors are required to belong to their respective state associations. In some states, it is mandatory that they also hold membership in the NFDA, whereas in the others, membership in the NFDA is optional.

The associational movement is at the heart of the crusade to professionalize.


The story of the occupational evolution of embalmers and funeral directors in American society is the story of the movement toward professionalization. It is one thing for an occupational group to proclaim its professional standing in the community; it is quite another for the public to acknowledge that claim. On every count, embalmers and funeral directors formally qualify as legitimate professionals whose work embraces the full range of professional attributions (Krause 1971:75-77).

The nature of the work is believed to be essential to the well-being of the community.

The occupation is based on an integrated body of intellectual knowledge that can be described as theoretical.Incumbents are experts in their respective fields and self-governed by their peers.

To this end, they work toward legislation that establishes licensing requirements, standards of admission, and occupational standards of all practitioners.

Formal schooling is the vehicle for acquiring the knowledge, developing the skills, and enforcing the standards of the profession.

Protagonists claim that modern funeral practices serve the well-being of the community medically, socially, and psychologically. Arterial embalming is believed to be a sanitary medical practice that protects the community from the possibility of communicable disease. Moreover, it was thought to have been a humanitarian advancement in society over the previous practice of encasketed, unembalmed remains packed on ice in preparation for viewing. Finally, advanced embalming procedures go beyond temporary preservation by employing the restorative techniques of cosmetology and dermasurgery to reestablish, as much as possible, a lifelike remembrance of the deceased, thereby, according to funeral home advocates, providing therapeutic value to the bereaved.

Formal permission to embalm dead humans by a legally constituted political authority was first required in 1894, at which time the first license to embalm was issued, shortly followed by licensing for funeral directors. Embalmers are now licensed in every state in the United States, and except for Colorado, so are funeral directors. To obtain these licenses, which according to state law may be separate or combined, successful completion of examinations is required. These examinations are administered by gubernatorial appointees (or their designees) established under state law. The boards are composed, respectively, of embalmers and funeral directors, usually recommended to the governor by the state association of embalmers and funeral directors, perhaps with one outsider representing consumers.

Before a license may be applied for, certain minimum requirements must be met. Embalmers must complete a program of study in a school offering curricula in an accredited mortuary science program. With the concurrence of state licensing boards, accreditation standards are established and enforced by the American Board of Funeral Service Education, the National Association of Colleges of Mortuary Science, and the National Conference of Funeral Service Examining Boards. There are 52 accredited mortuary science programs in the United States. Some are in schools devoted exclusively to mortuary studies, others are in community colleges, and two are offered in universities. The university programs grant 4-year baccalaureate degrees, the community college programs usually require 2 years of study, and the mortuary college programs are 12 to 18 months in duration. All these various programmatic arrangements may satisfy the educational requirements to become licensed embalmers and funeral directors.

In those states where funeral directors are not required to hold embalming licenses, in general, they must have successfully completed 2 or more years of university study, interned on a full-time basis under the direct supervision of a licensed funeral director in a funeral home setting, and assisted with a specified minimum number of funeral services, usually 25.

Two different kinds of specialized knowledge are thought to be essential for embalmers and funeral directors. Toward that end, educational institutions require study in the embalming sciences and the funeral directing arts (see the Cincinnati College of Mortuary Science 2000-2002 Catalogue). In the preparation room where bodies are embalmed, technical competence is essential and depends on scientific and medical study of a theoretical nature, augmented by practical experience. Consequently, either concurrently with or immediately after classroom study, the student does an internship in a funeral home that includes assisting in the preparation of a minimum number of bodies for viewing, usually 25. The internship also involves guidance in funeral home management and operation.

Directing a funeral does not depend on embalming knowledge and skills, although familiarity with mortuary information obviously is beneficial. Funeral directors must have an understanding of human behavior, and they need to know about the business end of the enterprise. Thus their formal schooling emphasizes training in business and learning in the liberal arts and social sciences.

Most programs of mortuary science assume that embalmers will also serve as funeral directors; therefore, their program of study and internship contains knowledge and experience in both occupational venues. Typically, courses of instruction include roughly equivalent amounts of natural science, social science, and humanities, with somewhat lesser measures of English and business studies. Specific courses in biology, chemistry, zoology, psychology, sociology, philosophy, religion, management, computer science, and accounting are also normally required.

One of the more recent educational initiatives in funeral service is the establishment in some states of mandatory continuing education requirements for licensed practitioners. To renew licenses, 30 states now require credit in continuing education courses, seminars, and workshops ranging from 4 to 12 hours annually. These educational offerings are provided in schools of mortuary science and other approved training institutes by the Funeral Service Educational Foundation and through seminars and workshops conducted by the NFDA at their annual meetings (Habenstein and Lamers 2001:377).

Work has a special set of meanings for those who do it (Bryant 1972:4). In the case of embalmers and funeral directors, this fact is complicated by the nature of their work and by the contradictions and dilemmas inherent in it. Embalmers and funeral directors who are owners are surgeons, counselors, logistics strategists, and entrepreneurs all wrapped up in one occupation. As self-proclaimed professionals, they are supposed to put the welfare of the community and their clients’ interests ahead of their own concerns, yet as owners they must give priority to the fiduciary needs of the funeral home as a business. Furthermore, they are occupationally stigmatized because they handle dead human bodies, an activity shunned by the general public who regard this as tabooed work. As grief therapists who counsel the bereaved, they lack the more rigorous formal training required of other counselors such as psychiatrists, psychologists, or clergy. For these reasons, embalmers and funeral directors have not yet won full public support for their claims as first-class citizens in the company of the established professions (Cahill 1995, 1999; Crouch 1975; Keith 1996-97; McDonald 1973; Salomone 1972; Thompson 1991; Turner 1975; Unruh 1976, 1979). Nevertheless, their presence in the community is very well accepted. Indeed, on this point, critics of the funeral industry have not given them enough credit because ordinarily they are pillars in the community, especially in small towns and small to midsize cities.

Funeral directors are also called morticians and undertakers. They never call themselves embalmers, although most of them are licensed embalmers. They take pride in the services they provide, especially in comforting aggrieved survivors. They are physically present and orchestrating funerary events at all times during the wake, funeral, and interment services. Although most funeral directors are also licensed as embalmers, not all embalmers are licensed as funeral directors. The actual number of funeral directors licensed in the U.S. in 2001 was 34,588, but the number of funeral directors per state varied considerably, ranging from a low of 50 each in Wyoming and Alaska to a high of 2,175 in California. There are also another 69,000 funeral service personnel of various specialties (NFDA 2002).

In terms of the actual number of funeral homes operating in the U.S., the total of approximately 22,000 has remained essentially stable over the past 6 years.

Inasmuch as most funeral homes have a volume of business somewhat under the capacity of their facilities, the total number of funeral homes will also likely remain at about today’s level for the foreseeable future. According to the NFDA (2002), the average funeral home today handles 187 funeral services a year (about one funeral every other day), has 1.5 locations, and employs an average of three full-time employees and three part-time employees.

Upward of 90% of the funeral homes are family owned and average 65 years in business (NFDA 2002). Compensation in the funeral industry varies considerably depending on the particular position that is occupied.

Based on the wishes of the family and in consultation with others, perhaps clergy or sextons, funeral directors arrange the details of funerals and handle all logistical arrangements. The funeral director establishes the date, times, and location of wakes, memorial services, cremations, and burials. In addition, they do the following:

  • Arrange for the hearse to transport the body
  • Prepare the obituary notice and place it in desired newspapers
  • Arrange for pallbearers and clergy
  • Schedule the opening and closing of the grave with sexton
  • Decorate and prepare the sites for all services
  • Take care of transportation for the remains, mourners, and flowers between services
  • Handle paperwork associated with death so that a death certificate can be issued by state authorities
  • Serve as intermediaries between family and Social Security Administration, insurance companies, and others as required by the family

Funeral directors who are owner-operators are responsible for the success of their businesses. They must, therefore keep records, prepare invoices and reports, pay taxes, and itemize bills for customers.

Although funerals are purported to be exorbitantly expensive (and sometimes are), this is generally not the case. The NFDA, for example, reports that in 2001, the average cost of a funeral was $5,180, without a vault, and $6,130, including vault. This figure, while a significant sum for many families, is nevertheless not too much in excess of what an average middle-class family might spend on an annual vacation or in the purchase of a set of furniture for a single room; it’s less than the cost of installing a central air conditioning system in their home. Funeral prices can reflect the taste and economic means of the purchaser.

Although the cost of funerals have risen over the past half century, their annual costs increase has been at about the same level as inflation, or approximately the same rate of increase as that of the price of automobiles or other consumer goods.
Funeral Service Trends


Death care in the United States has been a highly fragmented industry, characterized by relatively small, family-owned enterprises that have been passed down through successive generations within the family. The last decade ushered in a movement toward consolidating these privately owned family businesses within larger organizations. The funeral industry is now a more complex network of interrelated business enterprises located in what Wall Street refers to as the health care industry, a partial misnomer because it includes death care. It is difficult to dissociate completely funeral homes from cemeteries, casket manufacturers (who also make many other kinds of funeral products such as urns, burial markers, and a wide variety of specialized memorabilia), insurance providers, and crematories because sometimes they are bound together in a single multinational corporation traded openly on the stock market. One such company is Service Corporation International, the largest funeral and cemetery company in the world with operations in North America, Europe, the Pacific Rim, and South America. It owns and operates 3,611 funeral homes, 55 flower shops, 193 cemeteries, and an unspecified number of crematoria (Service Corporation International 2000). Stewart Enterprises, another stock company, controls 600 funeral homes and 160 cemeteries; it provides death care products and services on a pre-need basis through insurance and trust arrangements (Stewart Enterprises 2001). Funeral industry figures currently indicate that there are four publicly traded funeral corporations in the United States that control 2,175 funeral homes, or about 10% of the 21,757 funerary establishments in the country (NFDA 2002). Consolidation apparently has its limits because it was the rage only a few years ago. Since 2000, it has slowed, halted, and reversed itself. Public corporations that were actively purchasing privately owned properties are pulling back by selling off some of their more speculative acquisitions. Faced with uncertainty, it is impossible to predict what the future of consolidation will be in the funeral industry.

Nevertheless, it is plain to see that the funeral industry remains overwhelmingly in the hands of private owners, who represent 90%, or 19,582, of all such establishments. But private owners are about equally divided between those who own multiple locations and those who own single locations. And many private, family-owned funeral homes are tied corporately to cemeteries, crematories, floral shops, and monument and grave marker manufacturers. As a result, the funeral business is larger and more complex than it once was, even for privately owned establishments.


Clustering is a technique used by stock companies that organize their operating units—funeral homes, cemeteries, floral shops, crematories, and insurance business—into integrated groups in the same market. Such a strategy allows the company to pool resources, assets, personnel, and services in the interest of higher profits (Stewart Enterprises Incorporated 2001). Clustering is also beneficial to privately owned funeral establishments with multiple locations in the same market.


Preplanning has the advantage of simultaneously serving both the funeral home and the client. Purchase of a preplanned funeral—that is, one not needed at the moment, but one that will be required at some future time upon the death of the client—allows the client to arrange his or her own funeral rather than having it arranged by a grief-stricken surviving spouse or other relative at the time of death. It also commits the funeral home to a fixed price at the time of the agreement, resulting in a hedge against inflationary increases in the subsequent cost of the funeral. For the funeral home, preplanning serves the same purpose as burial insurance; it locks in a customer base so as to ensure subsequent business eventually.

Preplanning works like this: The individual and the funeral director negotiate the desired arrangements for an agreed-on price. Then the client (customer) makes a lump sum, up-front payment for the total cost of the funeral, or several installment payments may be made until the total payment is satisfied. The funds received from the client are placed in escrow either in a trust fund or in a restricted bank account until the death occurs. Third-party agreements are available through financial institutions that have been created to support funeral homes that are active in the prearranged funeral market in the United States (Hillenbrand Industries 2001). At any given time, an estimated 25% to 35% of funeral homes offer insurance and trust services to fund prearranged funeral plans.


Funeral profits have been declining over the last 20 years, with profitability slipping from 13.73% in 1980 to 8.64% in 2000 (American Blue Book of Funeral Directors 2002). This is a 37% decline in profits and represents a dramatic loss of income. Industry sources claim this situation is the result of funeral home operating expenses growing more rapidly than the cost of funerals. As a consequence, funeral home owners are searching for economies and additional services to provide their clients that might offset these recent declines.

There has been a strong desire by industry leaders to develop and market aftercare services among funeral home owners. No other topic receives more attention in the American Funeral Director, the industry’s leading trade magazine. Thirteen separate articles were devoted to aftercare themes in the 12-month period ending June 2001. The precise nature of aftercare is still not yet clearly defined, but maintaining postfuneral contact with clients is paramount, whatever form it may take. A wide variety of aftercare possibilities are available to clients through funeral homes, including memorial services for birthday, wedding, and death anniversaries or for other special occasions. Aftercare may represent follow-up contact with clients who might require support groups for emotional affirmation or temporary assistance with the practical necessities of life while they are working through their grief. Should aftercare gain in favor among the public, large funeral establishments with access to a substantial client base may employ licensed staff psychologists or social workers as professional counselors. The funeral industry stands ready to provide these and other services on demand to those who desire them.

DNA Coding

National Public Radio reported that several funeral establishments are now offering DNA coding services to interested clients. Participating funeral homes will package and preserve blood and hair samples from a corpse for possible future use by consanguineal (blood) relatives of the deceased who might want to know the probable genetic links to certain diseases. This innovative service is in its infancy, and it, therefore, is much too early to know if it will be purchased by enough eligible patrons to make the practice feasible. Moreover, ethical and legal considerations will surely play a role in this unfolding innovation.

The Internet

There is now a digital merchandising system for funeral homes that allows the funeral salesperson, typically a licensed funeral director, to sell a funeral in the family’s home rather than in the funeral home. The flexibility, portability, and convenience of displaying the casket showroom, clothing apparel, limousines and hearses, and other funeral products on the screen of a laptop computer in the bereaved person’s home rather than in the funeral home is thought to provide an additional option (service) to clients. One old-timer who has held his embalming and funeral director’s licenses for 50 years but knows very little about computers remarked, “Sounds like a good idea to me. I’ve sold many a funeral over the phone when the people couldn’t or wouldn’t come to the funeral home” (personal interview, Brian Faust, March 21, 2002).

Online wakes, memorials, and even cremations are becoming increasingly available as a growing number of mortuaries provide live Web casts for those who want to participate in virtual space because they cannot be there in person. Online obituaries, testimonials, e-mail condolences, and other forms of homage to the dead are available at hundreds of Web sites that accommodate sympathizers who want to participate electronically. More than that, the dead who previously could speak from the grave in their wills, videotapes, and letters, can now do so with posthumous e-mail messages beamed back to the living (“Death Finds Life on the Web” 2000).


There are approximately 1,500 crematories in the United States, located in every state in the country. Despite periodic scandals, cremation is rapidly growing in popularity. Cremation accounted for slightly more than 25% of all dispositions of the dead in the United States in 2000, a dramatic increase of 60% in the past 12 years. If the current trend continues unabated, then cremation will account for 36% of all human dispositions by 2010 and an astounding 50% by 2020. In response to the dramatic increase in cremations, 200 additional crematories were constructed between 1998 and 2000.

Cremation is growing in popularity for many reasons: (a) People are dying later in life away from home and family in retirement communities; (b) it is environmentally unobjectionable; (c) religious prohibitions are diminishing; (d) ties to tradition are weakening; (e) educational levels are increasing; and (f) it is less complicated and less expensive than traditional wakes and burials.

Some regions of the country more readily embrace cremations than do others. Hawaii, Alaska, and the states on the Pacific Ocean lead the nation in the percentage of cremations, followed by the Rocky Mountain states. Cremation is comparatively unpopular in the South Central states, which make up most of the Bible Belt. New England, the Atlantic Seaboard (except for Florida, which is a leading state in cremations), and the Midwest have cremation rates lower than the West but higher than the South. These regional differences are expected to diminish, but not disappear altogether, over the next decades. Funeral industry surveys indicate that even when cremation is selected by the family, it is preceded by a traditional wake and funeral service nearly 60% of the time, and it is followed by a memorial service in another 25% of all deaths. When other customized arrangements are factored in, in only 11% of all cremations is no ceremony performed (NFDA n.d., 2000, 2001).

Funeral owners with multiple locations in the same market have either constructed or purchased crematories so as to capture a share of this increasing business market and to better serve their customers. In most cases, however, smaller family-owned, single-location establishments must make the necessary arrangements for cremation through a separately owned crematorium.

Rental Caskets

One of the more recent developments in the retail merchandising of caskets by funeral homes to their clients is the practice of casket rentals. The arrangement works like this: The deceased is encasketed and waked in an upscale, more expensive casket, then removed and placed in a less expensive casket prior to burial. The rental casket is used for perhaps as many as four different wakes (viewings) before it is sold at a discount as a pre-used unit to another client. This is done in the interest of holding down the cost of funerals, which is estimated to be approximately $6,130 per funeral. This price does not include the cost of a vault, nor does it include any cemetery expenses, such as the cost of the plot or the headstone.


From its inception, the hallmark of funeral practice has been service performed with tact, decorum, and respect. Customer satisfaction is paramount. This is the historical legacy of the industry. To achieve their aims previously, it was necessary for funeral directors to reach back into the Judeo-Christian past to discern which religious traditions most appropriately served their clients’ needs and organize their services around those customs. In the great majority of cases, that formula worked well. There were exceptions to the rule, of course, but the exceptions were not that numerous, certainly not in rural and small-town America.

The emphasis on service and customer satisfaction has not wavered over the years, but service and satisfaction no longer depend so much on tradition. The ritual response to death is changing, reacting as it must to the altered conditions of life in America. People are moving about more than ever, living longer, and living away from the places where they grew up, dying away from family and childhood friends. They are better educated and more open to funerary alternatives. Then, too, America is even more racially, ethnically, and religiously polyglot than before. And religious traditions are under siege from within so that Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish funeral rituals are no longer what they once were. These demographic and cultural transformations are compounded by technological innovations that challenge the imagination. No wonder contemporary thought regarding funeral practices is much more diverse and personalized than ever before. As a result, service and satisfaction now depend on funeral directors who must be infinitely more flexible than their predecessors.

The traditional religious funeral will not disappear, but because consumers now demand alternative funeral services, more and more wakes and funerals in the future will be replaced by, or will accompany, cremations, memorials, and other personalized arrangements.