Influencers and events leading to modern Death Care



Last week we wrote of the death of Robert L. Waltrip, founder of funeral and cemetery business Service Corporation International (SCI).   In the article I wrote that Waltrip was arguably the biggest influence on the direction of the Death Care in the United States during the last half of the 20th century.


That led me to think about what were other major influences on Death Care going back about 150 years or so to the time of the Civil War.  I’ve thought of a few, and I’m sure that there are more, but here’s a run-down on the items or people that I can list on how and why funeral service has evolved to where it is today.


Civil War Period / Embalming—  According to this article from the National Museum of Civil War Medicine when Colonel Elmer Ellsworth became the first Union officer to be killed on May 24, 1861, Thomas Holmes offered his services to preserve the body, via embalming, and take it to the White House where it could lay in state for several days.


From that point, according to the same article, “embalmers” were able to profit by following Union troops and charging rates for embalming the dead in a desire to bring them home after dying in far away states.  Embalming was also highlighted, to allow for preservation of the body, during the death of President Lincoln’s son in 1862 and moved into even more prominence following President Lincoln’s assassination in 1865.


I would argue that the movement of embalming into a ritual for the deceased was the impetus for the great growth of funeral homes in the nation during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s and would probably be considered the greatest influence in Death Care during the last half of the 19th Century.


Proliferation to a Business / Standardization of a Business — If we look to the first 50 years of the 20th Century, the preservation of the body through embalming allowed businesses to flourish as merchants of death.  These businesses, no longer restricted by the quick burial of the dead because of the proclivity of embalming, were allowed to organize services and merchandise for the burial of the dead and offer these services to the consumer.


Tom Anderson
Funeral Director Daily

During this time as the American movement westward was in full swing it is estimated that America had over 25,000 funeral homes.  While the National Funeral Director’s Association (NFDA) has some beginnings going back to the 1880’s, the first weekly newsletter was published in 1924.


It was also in the first half of the 20th Century that individuals looked for training in the art of embalming and so it was that the University of Minnesota established the first Program of Mortuary Science at a state university with the first class graduating in 1908.


I would contend that these movements to “Standards” such as an association and education in the business and arts of a funeral home were the foundation that set up Robert L. Waltrip to have the ability to begin growing funeral operations in the 1950’s.  In essence, there was a business and operating system that funeral homes followed that allowed Waltrip the ability to push geographic operating boundaries farther and farther out from a centralized management team.  Without standardization and education of the profession in the first half of the 20th Century, it is doubtful that Waltrip’s genius would have been possible in the latter half of the 20th Century.


Vatican II — In 1963 another event led to what certainly has been a trend in consumer death care choices.  That was when the Roman Catholic church changed its policy and lifted the ban on cremation as a means of human disposition.  While Waltrip may have been a man who changed the business operations of Death Care, I believe that this decision by the Vatican changed the consumer mind about cremation and over time has led to a reformation of death care final dispositions. . . . at some point in the near future we may see cremation being chosen by 80% of the populace for their final disposition method.


What Happens Next?

So, we are now almost half-way through the first half of the 21st Century. Do we know what events happening now or which people in our midst will be the overriding influencers of how Death Care is treated in the 2nd half of this century?  Will those in the new disposition methods such as alkaline hydrolysis or green funerals, or natural organic reduction prove to be the trailblazers or will their ideas phase-out?  Will the idea of putting cremated remains in solidified form or using existing forests to memorialize our loved ones be in vogue 50 years from now?


There is no shortage of ideas but if history teaches us anything it will be an idea, coupled with consumer acceptance, and a plan by a business to do it in a profitable way that will move Death Care forward into that new frontier. . . . .a frontier that we may not even recognize in the world we live in today.


Related —  Could some of the 21st Century influencers come from this group?  “The Disruptors who want to make death greener”.  Wired


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