The transformation of American funerals

The death of political and cultural leaders brings the funeral rite to a new level of public scrutiny, with television commentators and print reporters explaining every ritual and custom. But while state funerals have changed little through the years, private funerals in this country have, reflecting significant shifts in America’s culture and religion.

Individually or collectively, these trends offer rich opportunities for storytelling. They also will become more prominent as funerals increase; the number of U.S. deaths per year is expected to nearly double between 2000 and 2055, to 4.7 million. The way people grieve and bury their dead reflects their deepest beliefs about the meaning of life and death.

Angles

Celebrate: Funerals have shifted from focusing on a person’s death to celebrating his or her life, with an increasing emphasis on individual expression through informal eulogies, secular music and wide variety of other means. Experts say this makes the funeral more about the mourners and their grief than about the dead and his or her transition to the grave.

Do-it-yourself funerals: A small in-home funeral movement is taking root, with friends and family washing, dressing, showing and burying loved ones on their own.

Cremation: More Americans – about 40 percent – are choosing cremation than ever before. This includes Roman Catholics, whose church only began allowing cremation in 1963. One reason for this increase might be that cremations are significantly less expensive than traditional burials.

Going green: Concern for the environment is extending to the grave, with people choosing eco-friendly caskets or promoting the use of “green cemeteries.”

Other faiths: The influx of immigrants of Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist religions has forced local funeral directors to educate themselves about these faith’s rites and adapt the services they offer.

Interfaith funerals: More and more, the faith tradition of the deceased is not shared by friends, family or even the spouse and children. How are families, funeral homes and clergy navigating issues related to the variety of faith traditions that may be present at a funeral?

Jewish burial societies: Among American Jews, there has been a growing interest in Chevra Kadishas, the extremely private Jewish burial societies that perform a range of burial rituals, from washing the body to maintaining watch over the dead.

Public mourning: Victims of war, terrorist attacks, disasters, murder, and car accidents have all inspired public mourning in communities across the country. Experts can explain why these public rituals are becoming more common and how they help.

Seeking spirituality: Studies show an increasing number of Americans consider themselves “spiritual but not religious,” often choosing not to participate in institutional religion. How are they adapting traditional funeral practices?

Children: In years past, deaths of family or friends were likely to be children’s first association with death. Now kids are exposed to death through news media, films, television, video games and more. How is children’s participation in funerals changing?

Funeral boom: As baby boomers age and die, there will be more funerals, which are one of few occasions that bring some people to houses of worship. Have clergy changed their approach to funerals, knowing they are likely ministering to more people who do not regularly participate in institutional religion or share their faith tradition?

Pagan rites: As neo-pagans age, they are crafting their own original funeral ceremonies and rituals.

Background

Faith Rituals

Here are some websites that offer information on the funeral customs and rituals of different religious traditions:

National sources

Academics

  • Gary Laderman

    Gary Laderman is associate professor of religion at Emory University in Atlanta and author of Rest in Peace: A Cultural History of Death and the Funeral Home in Twentieth-Century America (Oxford University Press, 2003).

  • Stephen Prothero

    Stephen Prothero is professor in the religion department at Boston University. He is author of Purified By Fire: A History of Cremation in America and American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon, which looks at popular images of Jesus in film, television and print. He has also written about American Hindus.

  • Thomas G. Long

    Thomas G. Long is a professor of preaching at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta. He frequently speaks and writes about Christian funeral practices and wrote Accompany Them with Singing: The Christian Funeral (2009) and, with Thomas Lynch,  The Good Funeral: Death, Grief and the Community of Care (2013).  He is also an expert on evil and its challenges to faith.

Funeral sources

  • Jessica Koth

    Jessica Koth is public relations manager for the National Funeral Directors Association, an organization of mostly independent funeral home operators, based in Brookfield, Wis. She can discuss the influence that the needs of different ethnic and religious groups have had on funeral directors and their services.

  • Charles Chafer

    Charles Chafer is chief executive officer and co-founder of Space Services, a Houston-based company that offers “spaceflight memorials” – the launching of human cremains into orbit around the Earth.

    Contact: 281-971-4019.
  • Scott F. McClure

    Scott F. McClure is marketing and communications director for the International Order of the Golden Rule, an association of more than 1,000 independently owned funeral homes.

  • Lisa Carlson

    Lisa Carlson is executive director of the Funeral Ethics Organization in Hinesburg, Vt., and author of Caring For the Dead: Your Final Act of Love (Upper Access, 1998), a consumer guide to making funeral arrangements. She can discuss the influence baby boomers have had on the funeral industry.

  • Bob Boetticher

    Bob Boetticher is Vice Chairman/CEO of the National Museum of Funeral History in Houston.

  • Kimberley Campbell

    Kimberley Campbell runs Memorial Ecosystems Inc., a company that promotes using memorial parks to restore and protect nature by allowing only biodegradable caskets. It is based in Westminster, S.C.

  • Final Passages

    Final Passages is a home-based funeral nonprofit organization in Sebastopol, Calif. They say that personally caring for the body of a loved one – washing it, dressing it and displaying it in the home – can be healing for survivors.

Clergy and others

  • M. Macha NightMare

    M. Macha NightMare is co-author of The Pagan Book of Living and Dying (HarperSanFrancisco, 1997) and is an expert on neo-pagan death and funerary practices. She lives in San Rafael, Calif. Contact her via her website.

  • Maurice Lamm

    Maurice Lamm is an Orthodox rabbi and lecturer at Yeshiva University in New York, N.Y. He is author of The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning (Jonathan David Publishers, 2000).

    Contact: 212-960-5400.
  • Edward Searl

    Edward Searl is author of In Memoriam: A Guide to Modern Funeral and Memorial Services (Skinner House Books, 2000). He is a Unitarian Universalist minister in Hinsdale, Ill.

     

  • David Zinner

    David Zinner is executive director of Kavod v’Nichum, a nonprofit resource group in the greater Washington, D.C., area that educates and advocates for Chevra Kadisha groups in North America.

  • Elizabeth Westrate

    Elizabeth Westrate wrote, produced and directed A Family Undertaking, a documentary about the home funeral movement.

     

Regional sources

In the Northeast

  • Jewish Funeral Directors of America

    The Jewish Funeral Directors of America in Sterling, Va., is an international association of 100 Jewish funeral homes and 170 Jewish funeral directors.

  • Ray Neun

    Ray Neun directs two New Hampshire funeral homes. He can discuss changing funeral trends and how the funeral industry has adapted to meet new consumer demands.

  • Lucy Bregman

    Lucy Bregman is a professor of religion at Temple University in Philadelphia. Her writing focuses on religion, death and dying; her books include Death and Dying, Spirituality and Religions: A Study of the Death Awareness Movement.

  • Beth Knox

    Beth Knox runs Crossings, a nonprofit organization that assists families with home funerals. She lives in Silver Spring, Md.

  • Charlton McIlwain

    Charlton McIlwain is Associate Professor of Media, Culture and Communication at New York University. He is the author of Death in Black and White: Death, Ritual and Family Ecology (Hampton Press, 2003), which examines African-American funeral practices.

  • Regina Sandler-Phillips

    Regina Sandler-Phillips is a rabbi, chaplain and educator. She is the founder of the Hevra Kadisha (sacred Jewish burial fellowship) at Park Slope Jewish Center in Brooklyn, N.Y. She has kept the vigil over Jewish dead in hospitals, private homes and funeral parlors, and is an acknowledged authority on Jewish funeral issues.

In the South

  • Justin Holcomb

    Justin Holcomb is a lecturer in the sociology and religion departments at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. He is author of the essay “Contemporary Funerals: Personalizing Tradition” in  Death and Religion in a Changing World (M.E. Sharpe, 2005).

  • Karla Holloway

    Karla Holloway is a professor of English at Duke University in Durham, N.C., and author of Passed On: African American Mourning Stories (Duke University Press, 2002), in which she examines African-American burial and embalming rituals, funeral services and the undertaking industry.

  • Sarah York

    Sarah York is author of Remembering Well: Rituals for Celebrating Life and Mourning Death (Jossey-Bass, 2000). She conducts workshops based on her book and is a Unitarian Universalist minister who lives near Asheville, N.C.

  • Christopher Leevy Johnson

    Christopher Leevy Johnson is a funeral director and was an African-American studies professor at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, S.C. He researches the role of African-American funeral directors in the black church, politics and community affairs.

  • Gayden Metcalfe

    Gayden Metcalfe is co-author, with Charlotte Hays, of Being Dead Is No Excuse: The Official Southern Ladies Guide to Hosting the Perfect Funeral (Miramax Books, 2005). She lives in Greenville, Miss.

  • Oliver Leaman

    Oliver Leaman is a professor of philosophy and Zantker Professor of Judaic Studies at the University of Kentucky and co-editor of Encyclopedia of Death and Dying, which describes a history of American funeral practices.

  • Qadeer Qazi

    Qadeer Qazi is a Muslim and a funeral director at Rahma Funeral Home in Dallas. He writes about Muslim burial practices.

  • Michael Kearl

    Michael Kearl is a professor in the department of sociology and anthropology at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, and an expert on death and dying in America and around the world. He has maintained an extensive website on the sociology of death and dying that includes a good deal about funerals and burials.

In the Midwest

  • Brendan Freeman

    Brendan Freeman is a Cistercian monk and abbot of New Melleray Abbey, a community of about 30 monks in Peosta, Iowa. The monks hand-make wooden caskets and urns that they bill as a “soulful alternative” to more elaborate caskets.

  • Masih Siddiqi

    Masih Siddiqi is a member of the Islamic Center of Naperville, Ill., where he is part of a group that coordinates Muslim burial services. The center has contracted with two local funeral homes to use their facilities to wash (khusl) and dress (kafan) the bodies.

    Contact: 630-302-6274, 630-426-3335.
  • Jonathan C. Smith

    Jonathan C. Smith is an assistant professor of American studies at St. Louis University and is researching African-American funerary customs.

     

  • Rochelle Millen

    Rochelle Millen is a religion professor at Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio, and author of Women, Birth, and Death in Jewish Law and Practice (University Press of New England, 2004), which examines the role of women in Jewish funerals.

In the West

  • Corky Ra

    Corky Ra is the founder of Summum, a nonprofit organization in Salt Lake City that offers mummification services. The group bills itself as “the source of all spiritual progression.” The mummification process involves soaking the body in embalming fluid, wrapping it in gauze and covering it with polyurethane before installing it in a bronze casing that is then filled with resin.

    Contact: 801-355-0137.
  • Dave Burrell

    Dave Burrell is a historian for Historical Insights who has studied American funeral practices and written four papers on the subject. He says one of the major shifts in American funerals and attitudes toward death are that the body is now seen as “symbolically empty.” He lives in the Denver area.

  • Ronald Barrett

    Ronald Barrett is a psychology professor at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. He is an expert on African-American contemporary funeral practices.

  • Cari Leversee

    Cari Leversee is director of Thresholds Home Funerals. Founded in 2003, Thresholds is a non-embalming funeral establishment in San Diego, Calif. It has offered classes on “reclaiming death as a sacred event.”

  • Tom Bruce

    Tom Bruce is a psychologist, thanatologist and author who teaches a class in death and dying at Sacramento City College in California.

Relevant source guides