Funeral Customs: The History of the Funeral Industry in the U.S.


The funeral industry in the United States is in a constant state of flux. In fact, the funeral service industry started only in the 1800s. Back in the 20th century, families used to organize funerals at home and bury the dead within their property.

But as communities became more extensive and common cemeteries began to rise, businesses began offering funeral services to celebrate the life of the dead. These include memorial care services, such as cremation, brick engraving memorials, online funeral viewing, and church ceremonies. As a result, families no longer carry the logistical preparations whenever a family member dies. Also, they now have plenty of ways to honor their deceased loved ones.

But considering all the different trends in funeral ceremonies, how did the funeral industry get to this point? Keep reading as we unravel the fascinating story of the funeral industry in the U.S.

Early America

During the 20th century, early American families are entirely in charge of organizing funerals by taking care of their own dead. They make funeral preparations, from dressing up the body and setting it for display. Most of the time, women within the community handle these preparations.

The term “undertaker” began when furniture makers took the responsibility of making funeral arrangements. They treated “undertaking” as their second profession, where building caskets became the extension of their businesses.

Parlors did not initially exist in early American homes, but as houses became grander, parlors became the front room where families can display all their finest possessions. But when someone dies, families allow funeral visits at their parlor. The parlor became a viewing area where families display the dead inside a casket that they made or purchase at the general stored.

The mid-1800s to early 1900s

Funeral customs began changing during the Civil War. Although embalming dates back to ancient Egypt, Americans learned to preserve the bodies of dead soldiers to bring them home for burial. As embalming became common, undertaking became an actual profession in the form of morticians and funeral directors.

The casket-making industry developed when undertakers started making coffins. By 1950, there were over 700 casket manufacturers all over the U.S. At that time, caskets are made of cardboard, and cloth-covered wood, while larger companies manufactured metal caskets.

As consumer preferences evolved, funeral homes, cemeteries, and casket manufacturers decided to consolidate their businesses. The reason behind this is that producing metal caskets requires large amounts of investment. By 1990, metal casket represented 60% of the funeral industry production.

Over the years, families continued to dominate cemeteries and funeral-related businesses, where they passed them down to succeeding generations. By the late 1960s, large companies acquired more funeral homes and cemeteries. But to retain a funeral home’s patrons, companies continue to operate using the original family name. More often, the seller takes on the management role, while all the existing staff remained.

Despite continuous mergers of funeral businesses, there are around 89.2% of funeral homes managed by families and private individuals. Meanwhile, the four largest funeral service operators own about 23,000 (15-20%) funeral homes in the U.S. But they only manage around 1,000 cemeteries out of the remaining 20,000. According to analysts, the top operators collectively manage only 25% to 30% of funeral services around North America.

The funeral industry today

Currently, the funeral industry has become even more competitive, along with the rise of alternative funeral service providers. These businesses market their services as a cheaper alternative to traditional funeral homes. These providers function as funeral directors, but they also specialize in no-frills services, such as cremation or graveside services. They rarely have their own funeral homes, but they rent facilities on an hourly or daily basis to control costs.

Memorial Societies began emerging as a consumer organization that prefers simple and affordable alternatives to the increasingly costly funeral services. But many of these organizations have established relationships with funeral service providers, allowing them to receive discounts for those who pay a membership fee.

At present, consumers directly buy coffins and other funeral-related services in specialized funeral retail stores and websites. These retailers depend on federal regulations requiring funeral homes to accept a casket bought from other parties. Meanwhile, most major casket manufactures offer their products only through funeral homes.

Today, families have many options to choose from when honoring their loved ones. In turn, funeral homeowners offer different services to make sure families will easily get by during the most challenging times. So if you are looking for a financially profitable and emotionally rewarding business, establishing a funeral home might be an excellent option for you.

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