Embalming: The Religion of Funeral Service?
Death rites and rituals are hardly ever static. Change is the constant in both life in death. And so it is that change is here for the funeral business in the United States. We sit in liminality.
The “traditional funeral” (aka embalming and burial [as defined by the FTC]) in the US is becoming outdated for many reasons. It’s being replaced by cremation and (hopefully) a more natural orientation.
Yet, some (many?) funeral directors here in the United States and elsewhere are still preaching the Gospel that the presentation of an embalmed body is the foundation of the funeral business. Our preaching is so religious that when someone questions the value of embalming, some funeral directors kinda freak out like we’re questioning the very existence of God.
If embalming is the foundation of our practice, it’s a very shaky foundation. Here are ten reasons we probably shouldn’t deify embalming.
One. Embalming Will Slowly Die
Cremation is on the rise. Arizona has a 60% cremation rate. And the projections are that the rest of the country will eventually catch up.
Embalming and burial is “the traditional funeral” for a generation that is dying. And we should serve that generation and their needs. But, when that generation is dead, most will eventually opt for cremation. Embalming is more so a trend than an religion; and that’s an important distinction.
Two. Value Vs. Cost
There’s a difference between value and cost. People will pay for things that they see as valuable. And people are increasingly NOT seeing value in the traditional funeral to justify the cost of embalming, casket, vault and burial plots. Increasingly, people don’t have enough money for life, yet alone death. The lack of funds combined with a perceived lack of value is creating a smaller and smaller market for the “traditional funeral.”
With the increasing rise of Botox, people are already embalmed and will look just as good in death. Have you seen Joan Rivers? Donatella Versace? Pete Burns? I’m just kidding. Botox has nothing to do with this conversation. Okay, bad attempt at humor. Moving on to the thesis of this post.
Four. The Gospel Isn’t True
I used to believe the Gospel of the “Traditional Funeral”. I was taught to believe the Gospel. That if you saw the body of the deceased you could repent of your death denial and place your faith in death acceptance.
Don’t get me wrong, I do see value in the traditional funeral. There is value in restoring the symbol of death. And, in many ways, the traditional funeral is a microcosm of the grief process. But the psychological value and sociological rites that come with embalming can be had from other types of disposition, especially when there’s more involvement from the friends and family of the deceased.
Five. Cremation Can be Converted
In funeral school, we were taught to fear this transition. We were taught that cremation and other alternative burial forms were THE ENEMY. They were the enemy to our bottom line (if people cremate, they wouldn’t need embalming, they won’t need a casket and they probably won’t need a vault). The ENEMY to our way of life.
AND, cremation and natural burial are the heresy to the Gospel. With cremation you just can’t repent and have faith. BUT, even cremation can be redeemed. We – at our funeral home – always give the family (and often encourage the family) the option to have a small private viewing before cremation. Allowing them the viewing helps their grief process AND allows them a more inexpensive funeral option.
Six. The Zombie Apocolypse
And there’s always THAT to worry about.
Seven. There’s Probably Better Psychological Benefits in Natural Burial
It just makes more sense that those who took care of the deceased in life should also do so in death. And when we (the so called funeral “professionals) are cut out, it may (probably) be a better aid in grief work to do it yourself.
Embalming helps confront death denial. But natural burial does it better because it often allows the true professionals to play their part.
Eight. Urbanization Creates Expensive Cemetery Space
One practical reason we can still bury casket, vault and body in the US is because we still have land. Where land is scarcer and urbanization is more of a reality, cremation is the pragmatic choice. As we become increasingly urbanized, and local cemetery space becomes more sparse, we will – by necessity – opt for cremation. For instance, in large towns in Europe the cremation rate is between 70 to 90% while a full burial is only reserved for the wealthy aristocracy who can afford grave plots.
Nine. We Live and Die in Transience
In times past, generation after generation lived and died in the same area, if not the same small town. Today our jobs, dreams and wanderlust have pulled our families and communities all through the US and the world.
In the past, you wanted to be buried with your people. And you see this in old cemeteries. Generation after generation of Suchandsuch family are all buried within a couple caskets lengths of each other. We live in transience and our desire to be buried with out people isn’t so easy anymore because our people are buried all … over … the country. And so we don’t bury with our people, we spread the ashes in an area that best represents the deceased.
Full burial just doesn’t have the same communal appeal that it did for older generations.
Ten. We Are Selling Ourselves Short
If we think embalming is the very best we have to offer the grieving masses, we’re missing out on our true potential. I think the value that funeral directors have to offer is much less “services provided” focused and much more rites and rituals focused, where we’re able to translate our experience with death and death rites into meaningful ritual. AND, if those meaningful rituals include embalming, then great.
In fact, I envision future funeral schools becoming much more focused on bereavement studies with the recognition that funeral directors are on the front line of the grief process. Our value, I believe, shouldn’t be solely in our ability to embalm (I still love you Jack Adams), but in our ability to help you through healthy rituals and aid in celebrating the life and death of your loved one.
I see a future where funeral directors — more than now — can stop serving our religion and start serving families. Because our religion is — and always should be — helping You.