informative conversation about the way it really is right now.
conversation about the way it can be in the future.
Joel L. Getts
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
IN FINAL DISPOSITION
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
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.
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 www.nfda.org)
ASPECTS OF FUNERALS AND MEMORIALIZATION
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. (www.Funeral-Help.com)
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
THE MASTER PLAN
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
DEFINING THE FUTURE
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.
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.
(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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.