Giving Death a Makeover

The funeral industry wasn't always like it is today. Rituals and practices evolve over time, and made relatively sudden changes when society changes. Collector's Weekly spoke to undertaker Caitlin Doughty, the founder of  the Order of the Good Death, about how funeral practices have moved away from the personal to the industrial.   

Originally, the way we handled death in America was very simple, something I would ideally like to go back to. If somebody died, the family kept the body in the home. They washed them, wrapped them in a shroud, and then carried them to the graveyard and put them directly in the ground.

Collectors Weekly: All within a short time after a person’s death?

Doughty: Yeah, two days or so after the death. But this was in very small towns with communities that could rally to make this happen. There were huge numbers of fatalities during the early years of the American Colonies. Eventually capitalism took over, and death was pulled away from the family.

The first major change was embalming, a chemical treatment of the corpse to preserve it, which is a uniquely American practice. Embalming started during the Civil War, and soon after, anybody could be embalmed, and it was more about creating a standardized product, or what they now call a “memory picture.” Especially in the growing cities, it became clear that taking care of the body yourself was hard emotional work, and people realized they could pay somebody to do it. People who used to be cabinet makers now said, “I can make coffins,” and people who were just dressmakers were like, “I can make funeral mourning clothes,” and all these things now sold as part of the funeral industry.

The services quickly became centralized, with a funeral director or mortician or undertaker, somebody who could take the body away and handle everything. Now the family didn’t have to do any of the hard work around their loved one’s death. This transition happened in the late 19th century, and spilled over into the early 20th century as well.

Read more about the traditions of the past surrounding death, and how historic events shaped the way we deal with the loss of a loved one today. Link

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