March 13, 2010

The Business of Death

Now, when someone dies, we depend on the local mortuary to care for and, for a lack of a better term, dispose of the body. It's very clinical, clean, and shut away from the public. Morticians, and funeral directors, are the people who we depend on to care for our dead. These people are willing to do what the general population is not. Most people can not imagine being this close to death and see it as "gross", and"creepy". To most, death is something off in the distance, something better not thought about, something macabre.

At the turn of the last century, death was looked at in a very different way. The Victorians saw death as natural, and inevitable. They embraced death when it came to call, and saw mourning in public and death rituals as a very acceptable thing to do. To them, death its self wasn't something to fear, but not properly mourning their loved ones was more of a taboo.

Prior to the 20th century, the family often cared for the deceased. The body was washed, and dressed, and put on ice, to stop decomposition. A coffin was often made by the local wood worker or cabinet maker. The body was then laid out in the family parlor for a short time. The local livery would move the dead to the grave yard. Mourning wasn't something done in private, and caring for the dead wasn't looked upon as something taboo.

Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War believe it or not, helped to start the modern way of caring for the dead. Embalming and preserving the body in modern times, came about when soldiers were dying on the battle field, far from home, and not only needed to be transported to their families for burial, but to stop the decomposition process. Dr. Thomas Holmes, a captain in the Army Medical Corp is accredited with embalming over 4,000 soldiers.
Embalming didn't catch on, however, until Lincoln's assassination and the technique was done to his body. Lincoln was put on a train and was taken home to Springfield for burial. There were numerous viewings of his body on the way and millions looked upon his well preserved corpse. The mass public began to accept the idea of embalming their loved ones.

The tradition of having the family care for the body turned into a commercial enterprise, over time, that was done by someone who specialized in embalming and funeral arrangements. With embalming their loved ones the families now had the time to plan funerals,  and memorials for their loved ones, with out the immediate worry of decomposition. Families started to look outside the home to have their dead cared for. At the turn of the century, eventually funeral service were handle by one person or one business, the mortician and mortuary was born.

Morticians, now have to be licensed in the art of embalming. There are now colleges that specialize in mortuary science. These colleges teach wannabe morticians, not only how to embalm a body effectively and safely, but also business management, restorative arts, and how to work with distrait and grieving family members. Mortuary Science degrees are often obtained in 2 to 4 years, including a year of apprenticeship.

Caring for the dead is now very much a business ranging from small town funeral homes to large corporations such as Forest Lawn Memorial Park and Mortuary in California. Coffins have turned into caskets, which are made, for the most part, by large companies, such as Batesville Casket Company. We no longer depend on the local livery to transport our dead, they are driven in beautiful funeral coaches like the ones manufactured by Eagle Coach Company. The dead aren't just buried in the local crowded church yard anymore, but spacious green cemeteries, or memorial parks, can be found all over the world. They are designed to resemble spacious parks complete with water fountains, and sculptures.
The business of death is necessity in today's society but there are alternatives ways to care for and bury our dead that are starting to become more popular. Green and home funerals, are starting to become in favor versus a traditional funeral.

Green funerals are designed to lessen the impact on the earth's resources than a traditional burial and funeral. The body is often not embalmed, wrapped in shroud and either buried directly in the earth, or put into a biodegradable basket, or green coffin. There are green cemeteries that one can be buried in. These cemetery don't look like cemeteries at all, rather they look like open fields. The traditional headstones are gone, often no markers used. To located a person, the cemetery relies on a global positioning system.

Funerals are starting to be hosted at home again. Home funerals put the family in control, much like it use to be at the turn of the last century. The family often prepares the body and hosts the funeral at their home. Not only is this a less expensive option, but also the family has more time to say goodbye.

You can check out these websites to find out more about funerals, embalming, cemeteries, hearses, and green funerals.

Grave Addiction
Photos of cemeteries
Information and photos of burial places of celebrities.
Information on planning funerals

Coffin It Up
Handmade custom coffins

Mr. Ed's Hearse Pictures

Awesome, awesome, (Did I say Awesome yet?) pictures of retro hearses.

National Museum of Funeral History

Green Burial Council

Graveyards of Chicago
One of my favorite sites! Awesome photos of historical Chicago cemeteries.

National Funeral Directors & Morticians Association, Inc.
Membership association of professional funeral directors and morticians and embalmers.

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