The Death Care Industry Today



Read the entire text of this course before completing the written examination.

in America

An informative conversation about the way it really is right now.

A progressive conversation about the way it can be in the future.


Joel L. Getts  Ph.D.

Copyright 2014

Physchbayte Publishers

P.O. Box 750491 Dayton, Ohio 45475




There’s an old saying that goes something like this “You can’t get to where you are going if you don’t where you are. You can’t know where you are if you don’t know where you’ve been.” It probably could not be more true than in its application to many of the professions practiced in the world today. The participants and members of the death care industry in America cannot know truly what they are and how and why they do what they do, unless they understand how the historical process brought them to where they are.

If the participants of any trade, professional or industry can make an accurate appraisal of who they are, and what and why they are doing within their occupational arena, they will be better able to predict and adjust to the future that awaits them. That in turn will create a better ability to plan and develop more seamless transitions throughout the course of the occupational journey.

When looking at the death care industry in America, the first thing that will benefit the discussion is to properly define what exactly it is and who its participants, associates and membership is comprised of. The death care industry is all of the related people, professions and businesses that cooperatively care for and process not only the dying and the dead of a specific culture and society, but also act as a support and guidance team for survivors of the dead that are cared for.        

What is the death care industry in America composed of? The quick and incomplete answer would be the 20,000 or so funeral homes operating in North America. In reality it is not just those funeral homes, funeral chapels, mortuaries and crematories that we so easily identify in the cities and towns across America. It also consists of the funeral merchandise suppliers such as casket, urn, burial vault and custom printed materials manufacturers and distributors.

In addition, the more “nuts and bolts” suppliers are those companies that manufacture and distribute the actual supplies and goods used in the handling, preparation and procurement of the dead human remains during the time of processing for final disposition. Companion businesses such as cemeteries, memorial parks and other permanent memorialization providers are also part of the death care industry.

Other professionals such as counselors, social workers and faith based or spiritual leaders function regularly within the framework of the death care industry. Companion institutes such as hospitals, nursing / long term care facilities, hospices and religious organizations and their facilities all support such professionals and often play key roles in the processes surrounding death and the dying.  

Government agencies such as state and local licensing boards, local coroner’s and medical examiner’s offices play very active roles in the death care industry. Consumer advocacy organizations help in balancing the death care industry from becoming its own worst enemy.

Many other people and organizations also function in the peripheral wings of the industry as a whole. Some play into constant roles and positions, while others surface from time to time as participants in this rapidly changing industry and service provider base.

One of the questions that often arises is “Is there that many people really dying?” The answer to that question is yes. For the last three or four decades there has always been a fairly steady death rate. The death rate in North America will vary and spread over about a 1.5 – 2% margin on any given year. As the baby boomers started hitting the 60 year old mark in and around the first decade of the new millennium, the death rate was 8.1 % of the population in 2006.     

By the year 2020, the death rate is predicted to reach 9.3% (Business Week - June 2008). Many people see this as a troubling factor because they perceive that medical care and treatment for previously thought to be terminal illness has greatly improved. However this supposed improvement in medical treatment is typically offset by the lower birthrate.




When we look at the national death rate and other death care related trends from the angle of final disposition, there is a growing trend that the funeral / memorialization aspect of the death care industry has been experiencing during the last couple of decades. It is that of cremation verses ground burial. Historically, the cremation rate of final dispositions was virtually non-existent until the mid to late 1970s. The national cremation rate at before the mid to late 1970s was under 3% of the overall death rate. Ironically, cremation was generally only endorsed amongst the elite of the society in North America and had virtually nothing to do with the economy influencing one’s preferences.     

It was during the 1960s and the 1970s that the social morality of our nation was placed in a posture of serious scrutinizing. That scrutiny by the up and coming generation of baby boomers caused societal transition to accelerate rapidly. The baby boomers are those post World War II children who were born between 1945 and 1964. Because the questioning of accepted authority was often unrelenting, many of the cultural traditions such as ground burial that could not be philosophically or practically defended slowly began to give way to cremation.

There was also more immigration of non-native people groups into the North American continent after WWII and during the Korean Conflict and the Viet Nam War. Many of these people who became naturalized US citizens brought the diversity of their memorialization of the dead with them from their native countries. This included an unexpected use of cremation as a form of final disposition for the deceased human body.

All of this played into a culture and society that was moving faster each day due to the rapid technological advances it was encountering. This faster lifestyle developed the personality of the nation to generally become more self-sufficient and thus more self-focused. Their time became more valuable than their need for long drawn out and somewhat more expensive funeral / memorialization processes. Cremations and private time controlled memorial services grew ever increasingly popular in the 1970s and 1980s.

Even when traditional families opted for more mainstream funeral services, the one or two day long wakes (viewing or visitation of the actually human remains) quickly started to vanish. By the mid 1990s the viewing of the remains had become either a private family event, or had been compressed to a one hour block of time just prior to a scheduled funeral or memorial service at the funeral home, church or graveside. 

Likewise, by the mid 1990s cremation with or without a memorial service of some type, had become very socially acceptable across the United States. The national cremation rate was edging closer to the 20% rate throughout the decade of the 1990s.            

In 2005 the state of Ohio, culturally perceived to be in funeral service values a moderately conservative state when compared to others, experienced a 25.36 %* cremation rate. In the year 2010 Ohio experienced  a 30.91 %* cremation rate placing just under the national cremation rate in that same year of 38.1 %* (* courtesy of the National Funeral Directors Association 




The funeral and memorialization aspect of the death care industry in North America in its own perception, compose a very quiet and unique professional guild. Most people who get involved with this part of the death care industry without being born and raised around it, are often surprised at the mentality and ideals that are valued within it and expressed by its participants. It is a very private sub culture in any community that the profession is practiced in.

Because of the nature of the business processes and the basic lack of public education regarding their practices concerning the funeral and memorialization processes, its practitioners are usually categorized as a business with unlimited potential for growth. They are often thought to be somewhat different because of their chosen career.

Nearly 80% of the funeral homes in the United States are family and/ or multi generationally owned businesses. ( This figure increased during the last decade of the 20th century because many large corporations that owned multiple funeral homes across America gradually became aware of the reality that the funeral / memorialization industry was still very relationally and emotionally driven rather than price or location driven. During that time frame those large corporate chain operatives within the funeral industry began to sell off some of those more relationally and emotionally driven businesses that were producing a lower volume of business and were located in the suburban or rural communities where they owned larger volume firms. It proved to be a wise move that benefitted all involved with the transition

The funeral and memorialization segment of the death care industry generally recognizes authority from within its own ranks. This is to say that a younger licensed funeral practitioner will listen and adhere to a fellow practitioner with more experience and seniority than they will an outside authority such as a government licensing board. It doesn’t mean that the will operate contrary to an imposed non-discerning law affecting the business. But generally compliance will not be found in the attitude. The death care industry reflects a very private demeanor and desires to govern itself as it did for nearly a century before government licensing and regulations began to be imposed around World War II.

The overall mentality amongst funeral service professionals is that they know what they do and how to do it well, not only for the benefit of all they serve, but for themselves also. They generally resent uneducated and inexperienced advisors and consultants attempting to control their practice or regulate their boundaries.  

Well trained and experienced funeral professionals and memorial event planners realize that they are providing a needed service for the entire human experience. This is evident not only in the preparation of the deceased human remains for final disposition, but also in the psychological care and the spiritual environment they provide for the surviving families who have suffered the death of a loved one. Yet, to many of these practitioners the services they provide are deeply rooted in sociological acceptance and in well-established cultural traditions. Transition and change often come very slow and very gradually within the industry. Because of this, funeral service practitioners occasionally find themselves somewhat behind the pace of technology and the mainstream societal trends. There is a saying that describes the overall mentality of the funeral industry in somewhat of a comical way - “Tradition dies screaming!”           




There are a couple of myths have surfaced in the last fifty years or so within the general population that haunt the death care industry. These myths are not really new, they just have emerged to more notoriety in recent decades. .

The first such myth is that of body donation. This is when someone bequeaths their mortal body to a recognized learning institution to become the object of instructional dissection. This bequeathal is different than that of simply allowing the retrieval of transplantable body tissue and organs for the perpetuation of other human lives.

Bequeathal for instructional dissection generally is terminated with the cremation of that which remains of the completely dissected body. Typically the cremated remains are returned to the surviving family members if so desired.

Bequeathal of human tissue and organs for the expressed purpose of transplantation does not a terminating effect on the preparation of the human remains for a funeral or memorial process. However, it is widely known that a very small percent of these harvested organs and tissue are ever used in actual transplants.         

When someone says “I’ll just donate my body”, they are generally really wanting to avoid the process and maybe the expense of permitting their family to grieve properly and to experience a meaningful memorialization.

Some family attempt to donate their loved ones body immediately after death for the same unspoken reasons. However, most medical and educational institutions require that all bequeathal arrangements be completed by the potential decedent prior to their mortal death. Often times a family attempting to do this after a death of a loved one has occurred is very disappointed and upset because they are basically then forced to deal with the memorialization and final disposition of the loved ones remains in a more mainstream manner.     

The second myth is rooted in a statement made by the person dying, “Let the government take care of me”. The government doesn’t take care of any funeral expenses for anyone except those of active duty military members experiencing service connected deaths. Typical monetary benefits awarded to veteran’s families under various circumstances do not begin to cover minimal funeral or memorialization costs.

The Social Security Administration only pays a minimal benefit to and if there is a surviving spouse. Because of the downturned economy in the United States, almost all local municipalities have stopped assisting economically suppressed families even with a minimal cash benefit or a grave space in local municipal or state owned cemetery.

It is apparent that the way the US Government is modifying healthcare insurance and practices that the end result will obviously be some form of socialized health care. This is highly indicative that eventually the same thing will occur with a government induced form of impersonalized socialized funeral and memorialization procedure. It is then that the government will take care of the dead in our Nation. However, that time is not yet here.  




Unfortunately, there really is no “Master Plan” in the death care industry. There appears to be too many independent perceptions to be able to form a foundational plan for the beneficial sustaining of current memorialization and funeral processes much into the future. The industry is in flux and has been for decades.  

Even with the ever increasing government regulations imposed through commissions such as OSHA, ADA and FTC there is often no real formal hard-line definitions that determine how, when and where everything in the death care industry should be accomplished as rendered by government officials.

The death care industry is a unique service profession encompassing the entire human experience where everything is very personalized. Memorialization events (funerals) are planned in detail around a specific life, not around life in general, or even a specific culture or society. They are not loike a sporting event in that the memorialization event has a defined structure and outcome. These memorial events include a beginning, a display and communication of the life being memorialized, and a predictable summary ending. They are held at meaningful locations and they are attended by those who knew, loved and experienced the life being memorialized. In the death care industry this is indeed the essence of “service” and not just a specific event called a “service”.  

Then there is the tangible merchandise aspect of the funeral service industry. While this aspect of the industry may include very personalized items such as a memorial register book for those attending a memorial event to sign, it may also include printed pamphlets, bookmarks and mementoes with pictures and a text summarizing the decedent’s life. But the ultimate aspect of merchandising in the death care industry is the “container” for the deceased human remains.

If the body is cremated the ultimate container will be an urn to hold the ashes. Often the ashes are divided up amongst surviving family members in smaller containers referred to as “keepsakes”. Some of these smaller containers are small enough to be considered as jewelry in which small amounts of the remains are placed in them. They are necklaces, bracelets and rings which can be worn by the family members of the deceased.

Other container option include bio-degradable burial urns so that they elements may more easily return to the Earth. Another unique “container” is the trend of placing the cremains (ashes) in gelatin capsules so that they may be imbibed by those who loved the deceased person, so as to allow their elements to join together once again.

Then there is what is commonly referred to as the casket or the burial container that the actual body is placed into for final disposition by ground burial. These are made of various materials such as wood, fiberglass, steel, stainless steel, copper, bronze and other synthesized substances and materials. These caskets may contain various cloth material liners that can be personalized with names, dates and pictures. They may even have hidden drawers or compartments in them used for notes from the family or various items that were important to  the deceased to be buried with them.

The era of high quality high priced funeral merchandise has pretty much been lost to history. With the economic and moral decline experienced in North America over the last quarter century, it is not hard to discern that the consumer is not interested in high quality merchandise that will simply be buried.

The self centered mentality of the North American population would much rather spend any money they have or desire to spend on creating a memorable event to recognize the deceased. The actual presence of the deceased human remains is readily becoming less necessary for the memorial event to remain meaningful. These attitudes reflect a growing need for a change in the death care industry in not only services and facilities that are made available for grieving families, but also for the strategic marketing of both services and merchandise.

This is beginning to be noticed more as the industry renames itself. Formerly known as “funeral homes” or “funeral chapels”, now new business and facility titles such as “family life celebration centers”, “life memory homes” or “legacy centers” are starting to crop up even in very unlikely areas of the country. These facilities are usually more focused around banquet style seating, and offer various catering options as well as visual presentations.

In many cases the huge rooms with evenly spaced rows of chairs resembling a religious institution or a theatre have been replaced by sofas and comfortable chairs arranged in casual conversational style configurations. The focus in these settings is on the content and the social aspects of the memorialization event, and not on the casket or urn, if it is even present at the event.                        




The individual career people that make up the death care industry will eventually redefine the industry probably more by their own job descriptions, more than any other means. As the North American society and culture continues to morph, hopefully so will the death care industry. 

What has previously been known as a funeral director is now becoming more of a special event planner and / or coordinator. These professionals now primarily coordinate and facilitate various memorialization processes and events. They still procure the necessary legal documentation for the ultimate disposition of the deceased human remains, but they are becoming more recognized in the general public as event planners and overseers.

Embalmers still prepare the deceased human remains for final disposition, be that burial or cremation. However, as the national trends sway more toward immediate disposition by cremation or prompt burial, the practice of embalming for disinfection and preservation is noticeably decreasing. This is evidenced in the curriculum of most of the nation’s mortuary science colleges. That curriculum very heavily leans toward the business management and psychology arts aspects of the death care industry by as high as 80% in some schools. Many industry analysts predict that the practice of traditional embalming as it is known today, will all but be concluded by the end of the first half of the 21st century.  

Cemeterians (those who manage and/or own cemeteries) provide space for permanent memorializations. This may be in the ground or above the ground. Learning and providing better ways to produce and market permanent space for disposition of deceased human remains and cremains will be the only source of endurance for this division of the death care industry.

Counselors in the death care industry are agents that provide a practical and valid strategies and plans for the future, both to families expecting a loss and to those who have experienced one. They are a crucially important part of a healthy psychological balance for those experiencing a death or a loved one that is in the process of dying. Their practice and their results will no doubt influence the current society and develop and refine cultural trends more than any other division of the death care industry for years to come.

In conclusion three important questions must be asked of those involved in the industry that will help them procure a productive future for it. The first question is “How did the industry become what it is today?” The industry must recognize the historical influence of the cultural environment it has practiced in over last 150 years.  They must also consider the relational issues in the North American society between businesses, professionals and pertinent individuals in caring for the dead and their surviving families. The industry has developed slowly from the pre-Civil War self taught proprietor’s sideline endeavor to become recognized needed industry in the mainstream of services industries in North America

Spirituality and a multitude of various religious influences have also contributed a very pertinent and dynamic set of practices to the historical accounting of the death care industry. During the last two millennia religion and spirituality have both experienced many transitions that have played a key part in the care of the dead.   

The second question is “What are the currently prevailing conditions in the industry?” The acknowledgement of a downsized employment base within the industry must also be re-evaluated so as to be able to provide competent and adequate services that are helpful and productive to those who are in need of them. There is also an evolving corporate mentality even amongst the smaller practicing groups of the industry. This mentality is spawned by the increasing government regulations placed on the industry. This trend also appears to be a necessary development in order to keep pace with the competitive mandate for quality goods and services.   

The third and final question is “Are there potentials that need to be avoided?” The answer is an obvious “yes”. The follow up question is also very obvious. That question is one of “how” will these potentials be avoided or properly worked through. The immediate answer dictates that there must be a mandate to continually practice what is referred to as moralized ethics in a more constantly improving manner.

Moralized ethics are ethics that are deeply supported by the accepted moral standards of a specific people group, local community and / or a nation. Human and societal morality is generally defined by comparing three pairs of opposites. The first pair is those things which a specific group considers to either be right or wrong. This may vary from people group to people group depending on the perception and application of the truth of any given subject or situation. In the last fifty years the North American society has begun to see truth as both absolute and relative. Because these two  perceptions are competitive in nature, truth is constantly a debatable subject.  

The second pair is based in the determination of what is healthy or unhealthy. This generally (but not always) applies to human relational issues. There are various factors that contribute to either a healthy or unhealthy relationship between people or institutions. The third pair is that of safe or hazardous. This angle of moralized ethics is generally evaluated from the physical, tangible and or health related aspects of morality. It is generally not difficult to determine what situations or circumstances can be dangerous or very harmful. Safety is usually a learned behavioral practice for most people.  

Other potential problematic issues that may confront the death care industry in the future must be addressed by yielding a dynamic community presence that both educates the community around it and is willing to be educated within the framework of its constituency. The more external interaction with not only the clients of the death care industry, but also the community and world of those clients reside in on a daily basis, the more helpful and demonstratively productive the death care industry will find itself to become in the upcoming decades.

P.O. Box 750491
Dayton, Ohio   45475