The History of the North American Funeral Home
Part Two
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This is "Part Two" of the required text for this course. After reading this section proceed to "Part Three".

Some of these early undertakers would simply narrow the scope of their businesses to selling furniture, cabinets and carpet as a  primary  business , and  made  themselves   available  as  funeral directors when needed. In some parts of the great mid west it would not be uncommon to find two or three funeral directors operating furniture or carpet or hardware stores in a town with a population under 1000 people. They were not making their primary income off of the funeral trade, but simply using it as a supplement to their retail store.     

In the large cities where things were more industrial and retail oriented, livery stables were the primary occupation of the advertising undertakers. Many of these urban funeral directors had access to short term education for embalming and would offer the service to their clients on a supplemental basis.

In either situation, rural or urban, when embalming started to be a regular service offering, equipment and facilities were the next major concern. Some furniture stores utilized a back room in their facilities exclusively for embalming to take place in. An addition might be made to the livery building large enough to accommodate the necessary equipment and supplies needed to prepare a body for burial.

Prior to World War I, most of the embalming was done in the home of the deceased itself. This is because that is where most deaths occurred. Only in cases of an institutional death (hospitals, prisons or asylums) would the undertaker receive the human remains into their own facility and utilize the proper embalming skills there.

Another reason why embalming took place in the homes of the deceased was primarily because almost all of the funeral services were held at the decedent’s church, preceded by a wake (usually a day or two long) at the deceased’s residence. It was a custom that found long term acceptance across the United States during the late 19th and early 20th century.

 

CHANGING CUSTOMS CHANGE FACILITIES

 

The custom of residential wakes and church funerals would begin to change with the advancement and availability of communication technology and the development of more and better medical care and treatments in the early 19th century. These two things caused more deaths to take place in medically related facilities.

Another catalyst for the change in funeral customs would be the general public’s attitude towards religious preference or the lack thereof. As the United States became more of a melting pot for the peoples of the world during the first two World Wars, there came diversity of religion and philosophy regarding life in general. No longer would the “Christian church funeral”, be that protestant or Roman Catholic be the only generic popular choice. If that choice was not the option in all cases, than a place to hold a funeral would become a necessity. If people were not dying at home as frequently, the selection of a location for the funeral defaulted to the undertaker that was chosen to serve the family of the deceased.

If the funeral director’s facility could accommodate the attendance of a typical size funeral in the community, it could be held there. This led to the concept and evolution of the “funeral home” in most communities. The first funeral homes were actually the residence of the funeral director. In many cases the undertaker would modify a living room and dining room combination area to create an adequate chapel setting to accommodate these funerals.  In some  cases  a back  porch  or  even  a  kitchen would be converted to a make shift embalming and preparation room.

In many ways this shift to provide a facility in which funerals could be held in was the forerunner of what we now know as the personalized funeral. By the time this need was becoming more in demand, most funeral directors in the first three decades of the 20th century had taken a few days out of their busy schedule to complete a course or a series of lectures on arterial embalming. Most states did not begin to establish educational requirements for the licensing of embalmers or funeral directors until after the first World War, and some as late as the late 1930s

At that time, a complete portable embalming kit could be purchased for under $ 50.oo These instruments and supplies could still be easily transported to the home of the deceased if need be, or they could be easily used in a dedicated room in their own funeral home for preparing the deceased for burial.

The popularity of a funeral home environment contrasting and away from the decedent’s own residence began to swell during and after World War II. Even Christian protestant funerals became more commonly held at funeral homes in any given local community. It was becoming especially comfortable for Protestants who attended smaller and less liturgical styled churches to utilize the “funeral home” as a facility in their time of need. By the mid to late 1950s, the original and traditional customs regarding the location of a funeral had changed so much that the local funeral home operators needed more space in their facilities because of the growing demand placed on them to hold funerals in their funeral homes. 

This caused changes in one of two major ways, and in both of two major ways there emerged two obvious supplemental ways. Most funeral homes opted to modify their facilities in one of the two major ways. Some funeral homes added on to their existing home to obtain the necessary space required to accommodate more and larger funerals. This would often include a chapel, casket and merchandise selection room and gender specific rest rooms. Some of these additions would even include a new and extremely functional room for embalming and preparation, holding the latest and most advanced equipment for the process.

These typical additions would usually be built onto one side of the existing funeral home. This would make more room to accommodate larger numbers of funeral attendees in a more spacious and comfortable environment. Some of these new additions even included lounge areas for people to retreat to if needed.

Another major option was primarily used by those funeral homes which were land locked and limited in how much floor space they could build on. These would generally opt to purchase undeveloped land, maybe on the other side of town or in a suburb, and build an entirely new facility dedicated completely for use as a funeral home. Ironically, these new and specifically dedicated funeral facilities often still looked like massive homes. Some very progressive funeral directors in the late 1950s and early 1960s chose more of a “church” or “chapel” style of architecture in their newly constructed funeral facilities. Still others looked far into the future and built prototype facilities that today resemble modern or contemporary office buildings. All of these styles obviously had some appeal to the general public. Many still exist today and many of them are still being used for their original intent as funeral homes.

The unique twist to this new building emphasis is that many of the funeral directors did not close their old land locked funeral homes up upon the completion of a brand new facility. In some cases, they left the old funeral home open for many years, allowing families to still use them as their own family preference or tradition dictated. In every large city it is still very interesting to drive around the community and have someone who knows the local history point out which homes were at one time funeral homes. There are often times many more than would be expected.

The two supplemental ways in which the funeral homes changed was almost completely mandated by all funeral homes, regardless if they built on to their existing facilities or if they built entirely new facilities. One way was with the provision off street parking. After World War II more Americans were purchasing homes and automobiles. Home building in both the urban and suburban areas of larger cities was expanding rapidly. Because these new home owners were living more than a comfortable walking distance from the urban funeral homes they attended funerals at, they were now traveling to them in their own cars.  

Before the suburban expansion of the 1950s and early 1960s, many people had used neighborhood funeral homes and many people often walked to these homes for viewings and funerals. They also attended local neighborhood churches and parishes. But now funeral homes needed to provide more parking for those who were driving to funerals instead of walking to them. Being able to park their car close to or at the funeral home was a welcomed convenience for those who attending viewings and funerals.

If the funeral home simply built onto their facilities, they would often pave some portion of a side yard or back yard to provide some additional parking for clients. If a funeral home  built  a  new  facility  they  would  always  be sure to purchase enough land to provide a large off street parking lot for visitors. In addition to the comfort and convenience of off street parking, it also made creating a funeral procession line up much easier than it had been when such a formation was created out on the public streets years earlier. It was not uncommon for these expanding funeral home facilities to advertise their parking capabilities with phrases like “ample off-street parking available”.

The other supplemental way which funeral homes provided more comfortable facilities for their clientele and visitors was with climate control, specifically that of air conditioning in the summer time. Today funeral home visitors would never consider air conditioning to be anything but a standard expectation. But in the post World War II time frame this was something that could be a very attractive drawing card for funeral home promotion. Not many homes in that era had had central air conditioning. And so this too was a note worthy point of advertising. Advertising phrases of those decades commonly used phrases like “completely air conditioned for your comfort”. 

 Ultimately, the post World War II funeral home felt the necessity to provide larger and more comfortable facilities mainly due to the changing funeral customs in the society of the United States culture. Those who made various attempts to expand and provide for these perceived needs generally attracted more business. Those who didn’t adjust accordingly ended up slowly dwindling to a non-profitable caseload and ultimately closing their doors.

 

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