Looking into the past is a great way to understand the future. With so many changes facing the modern funeral, let’s take a step back and understand how we got here.
So long as people die, there will be funerals. It’s just a fact of life, and because of that fact, funeral rites have been around for as long as we have.
The earliest funerals date back 300,000 years, when early Neanderthals placed flowers on the bodies of the dead before burying them. Sounds familiar, right?
Even embalming dates back to early human history. As early as 6,000 B.C., Egyptians began to embalm and mummify their dead. It’s thought they had the first specialized morticians who would prep the body for mummification as well as the afterlife.
From there, funerals have taken many shapes and forms. Different religions helped shaped different traditions. The Roman funeral had a lot of similar traits to our modern funeral — there were processions, burials or cremations, eulogies, and commemoration.
There were other parts of a Roman funeral that we didn’t adopt, like animal sacrifices or a final graveside feast. When Christianity spread throughout the Roman empire, the funeral service at a church became increasingly common.
While there were some deviations, many of these traditions became standard to what we know today.
The American Funeral
Fast forward a few thousand years. It’s 1861 and the Civil War in America has just begun. Prior to the war, when a person died, the care for the body was left to the family. The burial was just a simple pine box.
The Civil War changed how we think about funerals. As soldiers died fighting miles away from home, there was a need to bring the bodies back to families for a respectful burial. That helped develop the common practice of embalming the dead in America. It took a while to catch on, but as embalming became professionalized, its acceptance in the public eye grew.
Some other big developments happened post-Civil War that helped shape modern funeral rituals:
- The printing of the Undertaker’s Manual in 1878.
- The Founding of the National Funeral Directors Association in 1882.
- In 1887 the Cincinnati College of Mortuary Science was founded — the first of its kind.
It was after this that traditional funerals really took off. By 1900, caskets became more elaborate. Burial vaults started becoming regularly sold. By 1920, there were around 25,000 funeral homes in America.
Now, new attitudes and new technology are reshaping how the public views funerals yet again.
Families are incorporating more technology into the way they memorialize someone, and funeral homes are embracing technology as well by providing obituaries with social features on websites so families can share and comment.
With all these new changes, what does it mean for a funeral director?
Just because certain traditions fall out of favor, doesn’t mean the role of a funeral director will. We don’t sacrifice animals at a funeral anymore, right? And while they weren’t called funeral directors, there were people needed to organize the ceremonies — from ancient Egypt to Medieval Europe.
The role’s name may change, but a need for a funeral director won’t. A director is needed to guide. They are the keeper of customs, rituals, and stories. That’s why it’s important for funeral homes to embrace the changes coming, so that they may better tell the stories of the families they serve.
Not all traditions fade. Maybe 50,000 years in the future, we will still be laying flowers on the graves of the deceased.