Prior to the 20th century, most Americans prepared their dead for burial with the help of family and friends, but today most funerals are part of a multi-billion dollar industry run by professionals. There is a growing home-funeral movement that would like to see more people forgo the typical mortuary funeral and take care of their loved ones funeral at home.
It was the Civil War slaughter that led to the relatively recent tradition of using morticians to administer to the dead. War dead had to be embalmed in order to make the long trip home. Until then, caring for and preparing the dead for burial on family farms or in local cemeteries was both a domestic skill and a family responsibility.
The reality today is that death can be very expensive. The funeral business has become a blood sucking monopolistic enterprise in more ways than one. As The Sacramento Bee reported in 1999:
Start with a $1,595 non-declinable fee, which is supposed to help pay for everything from a mortician's advice to the cost of his parking lot. Add a Cashmere Beige copper casket with Champagne Velvet interior ($4,305); a standard cemetery plot ($3,300); embalming, dressing, fixing the hair and "casketing" the departed ($460); grave digging ($475); gloves for the pallbearers ($120), and underwear for the deceased ($20).
Throw in a few dozen other items, from a casket crucifix ($25) to a tree for the grave site ($225), and you have an idea why the $20-billion-a-year American funeral business is generally prospering.
But its customers may not be feeling so well. Consumers face a former mom-and-pop industry that is being steadily devoured by a handful of major corporations and has a pricing structure that even confuses people in the industry.
"I don't have anything I can give you," replied a cemetery sales manager recently when asked for a price list. "It's just too confusing. It's like your taxes. It gets very confusing."
It does indeed. A Bee survey of 56 funeral homes in seven Northern California counties found a staggering range of prices for what in many cases are essentially the same goods and services: Embalming charges from $140 to $500; no-service cremations from $250 to $1,635; hearse rentals from $50 to $225, and caskets from $263 to $24,000.
These prices have certainly gone much higher in the last five years. So why take your dearly departed to a cold unfamiliar funeral home that will try and rip you off?
Elizabeth Westrate's film, A Family Undertaking, uncovers a growing social trend: the home funeral movement. More often, Americans are choosing to do it themselves when it comes to burying loved ones and easing their own grief. Far from being a radical innovation, however, keeping funeral rites in the family or among friends is exactly how death was handled for most of pre-twentieth century America.
A Family Undertaking [pbs.org]
The Funeral Business [npr.org]
Resources for Planning a Home Funeral:
- Final Passages
A California-based nonprofit organization that is a pioneer in the modern home funeral movement.
- The Funeral Consumers Alliance
A not-for-profit advocacy organization, the Funeral Consumers Alliance works to increase public awareness of funeral options, especially affordable and home funeral options.
- Affordable Options: A Guide to Funeral Planning
- Crossings: Caring for Our Own at Death
Works to integrate dying and after-death care back into the family and community.
- BBC: Do-It-Yourself Funerals
Information on how to care for the body, build a coffin, transport the body, and more. Since the site is UK-based, the legal information isn't applicable in the U.S.
Caring for the Dead: Your Final Act of Love by Lisa Carlson
A comprehensive tome on funeral law for the consumer, state-by-state — discusses how well, or not, prepaid funeral money is protected, ethical standards, and serves as a manual for families who wish to handle a death without the use of an undertaker.