Undertakings: The Death Industry and the Business of Dying


Social Impact of the Death Industry: Aeron Scales

Dying in the United States is expensive. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the cost of death expenses has risen 227.1 percent, almost double the 123.4 percent increase for all other consumer goods, from 1987 to 2017.[1] An increase of this magnitude has brought the median cost of an American funeral up to $7,360 for a “traditional” viewing and burial, and $6,260 for viewing and cremation.[2] Since this increase has accompanied a rise of income inequality[3], and because death is not an optional event, the modern, institutional ways in which Americans care for their dead has been an immense burden financially as well as emotionally. The process of selling services to the deceased is ethically-tricky terrain, and, regardless of intent, the traditional American funeral the mainstream death industry provides has a detrimental effect not only on American wallets but also on their grieving processes.

Before discussing the modern death industry, it is vital to examine what preceded it. Undertaking as a profession did not evolve in the United States until the second half of the nineteenth century[4] and as such the care of the dead was primarily a family affair for much of American history. The dead were prepared for viewing and burial (which usually just meant washing and dressing the body) by their loved ones in their own homes. This changed during the American Civil War, when the bodies of wealthy Northern soldiers were being transported long distances back home to their families, often in hot weather that encouraged swift decomposition. Arterial embalming, then a relatively new practice, was used as a remedy for this problem, and early American embalmings, wherein the deceased’s blood was siphoned and replaced with preservatives, were performed on these bodies before they were placed on trains to be shipped home. The business of embalming did not gain widespread traction until after the Civil War, however, when President Abraham Lincoln himself was embalmed for his body’s funerary tour of the country.[5] The trend caught on after that and thus the artificial preservation of the dead before burial became a mainstay of American “traditional” funerals.

Since then, the idea of a “traditional” funeral has included arterial embalming, now with the somewhat-less-toxic formaldehyde instead of arsenic and mercury, and often cosmetic enhancements of the deceased, such as makeup and wound repair with materials like wax, to facilitate a staged viewing before the deceased’s cremation or burial. Of course, all this is expensive. According to the National Funeral Directors’ Association, the median cost of embalming and “other preparation of the body” in 2017 totaled $975.[6] High costs for funerals mean high profit margins for funeral directors, so it is not unreasonable to suspect unscrupulous funeral directors may take advantage of mourning families. The Federal Trade Commission therefore has rules in place to ensure the rights of mourners. These include a requirement that directors use caskets, urns, or alternative containers the family provides, and that they are upfront about the prices of caskets and services.[7]

Even with those protections in place, however, mourning families are a vulnerable population. Many may not ask questions of an authority figure like a funeral director in their grief, and accept the expensive casket and funeral package offered. Many people believe, as a result of over a century of custom, that embalming is required for a corpse’s viewing, when refrigeration is almost always an acceptable substitute for slowing decay,[8] or that it best preserves the dignity of the deceased after they have been buried, when embalming only delays the body’s decay and does not stop it entirely. Other forms of supposed body preservation have surfaced in recent years, too; so-called “sealed” caskets, which are typically a few hundred dollars more expensive than regular caskets, are sold, supposedly, to protect the deceased from the ground in which they have been interred. While funeral directors are not allowed to say this, since the rubber gaskets that make these caskets “sealed” are actually considered the weakest part of the metal caskets on which they are installed, they can certainly imply that this is the case. (Below is a video from a California mortician, Caitlin Doughty, about the merits of sealed caskets.)[9]

Link To Video

In their 1995 article on the subject of grief and public policy, marketing experts James W. Gentry, Patricia F. Kennedy, Katherine Paul, and Ronald Paul Hill assert this point, that those grieving constitute a uniquely vulnerable population. In their article, they cite another author, Simmons, who wrote that “The assumptions of classical economics that the consumer is always rational and completely knowledgeable seem absurd if they are applied to the purchase of a funeral.” He goes on to say that shopping for a funeral is fundamentally different from shopping for any other consumer good, because the arrangers are in the mindset of a mourner, not a consumer.[10] They do not typically, for example, shop around at multiple funeral homes or attempt to bargain with the funeral home for cheaper services the director may be able to offer. They are not the rational consumer expected by classical economics and therefore are vulnerable to exploitation, intentional or otherwise. Conventional embalming is an extremely invasive procedure that often involves suturing the mouth shut, gluing the eyelids (and occasionally removing the eyeballs), and various incisions must be made in the body to facilitate the removal of internal gases and fluids.[11] The details of the procedure are, frankly, horrifying to consider, and when it is explained to the mourning funeral arranger by a funeral director as the best way to preserve the deceased for a viewing (leaving out the possibility of simply refrigerating the body in the handful of days before the funeral) the director is likely to leave out the grisly details. Regardless of whether or not a funeral home is intentionally scamming its customers, since its director may legitimately believe that a pricey casket and embalming are the best way for a family to honor their deceased loved one, the fact remains that those experiencing the loss of a close friend or family member are not usually capable of making informed decisions for themselves about what they or the deceased really wants from a funeral.

Beyond financial cost, some believe traditional funerals promote unhealthy grief and limit the mourners’ understanding of the death. According to a paper by Doctors Palermo and Gumz, the effect of embalming, a “natural”-appearing corpse, leads to a denial of death’s reality, and they postulate that seeing the deceased as life-like only delays the acceptance of the loss. Furthermore, they consider it “the ultimate invasion of human privacy,” since it involves such extensive and violent procedures, and therefore “denies the sacredness of the human body.”[12] In this way, it is contradictory to what many seek in funeral arrangements: an honorable remembrance of the deceased as a transition from life with the deceased individual to life without them. The authors go on to assert that since, according to Lindermann, “the duration of a grief reaction seems to depend upon the success with which a person does the grief work,” embalming is counterproductive to a healthy mourning process.[13] By not being able to see the dead person as physically different from the way they were alive, mourners are not well-prepared to do the hard work of grief and instead are able to push it aside, which may cause much larger psychological problems later on.

Within the past decade or so, there has been an insurgence of advocates for alternative funeral and burial solutions. Home funerals and “green burials” usually involve no embalming procedures, and the deceased are, in the latter, buried in a plain wooden casket, or wrapped in a biodegradable shroud, which allows them to decay naturally without embalming preservatives that are toxic to the soil (and humans; formaldehyde is a known carcinogen), and without the need to use the fossil fuels necessary for cremation. These burials are far, far cheaper than “traditional” funerals, since the casket and embalming are two of the largest expenditures. Aside from environmental and financial cost, there is also the question of mourning. In an excellent and emotional article on the death, funeral, and natural burial of a woman named Kate Oberlin, Libby Copeland says, “The Oberlins coped, it seemed to me, by looking straight at what was coming and making it their own. It was the worst kind of adventure, but they were doing it together.”[14] The Oberlins began to discuss arrangements for the home funeral and natural burial Kate wanted well before she died, when she was diagnosed with terminal breast cancer. Her husband, Deloy, plans to be buried in the same wooden box that was used to transport Kate to her burial site, upon which the crowd of mourners constructed a garden plot. By taking control of Kate’s funeral in its entirety, the Oberlins were able to guide the funeral to suit the needs of their particular grief, and know that they were doing what Kate had wanted. This version of mourning is in stark contrast to the prescribed embalming and formal viewing of a traditional funeral and to Palermo and Gumz this funeral is psychologically healthier, since the family participated so much in the preparation and burial of Kate’s body. Others who visited Kate during the three days she was kept in her home (under careful temperature supervision) remarked upon their own experiences of loss, and emphasized their need for physical understanding of the loss. As Copeland writes:

A man spoke of touching his father’s “rough worker hands.” A woman spoke of praying over her husband’s body when he died suddenly, and of defying the emergency workers, who wanted to rush him to the hospital, even though he was clearly gone. “We just took time. It meant so much to me,” she said. “We kept him for hours.”[15]

In a home funeral, mourners are allowed more connection to the dead through the time they spend with the deceased’s body, and in a green burial, the remembrance of the lost loved one can be asserted through the planting of trees or gardens which, to some, is a more meaningful reminder of that person’s existence than stone monuments.[16]

Kate Oberlin’s friends and family bear her body to her chosen gravesite: https://www.esquire.com/lifestyle/a12845872/kate-oberlin-home-funeral/

The Psychology of Funerals: Rebecca Burton

As seen above, when it comes to the funeral business in the United States, the topics that most often come to mind are the economic and social impacts of losing a loved one. However, an aspect of the funeral business not often discussed is the psychological impact within this business. Psychology plays a role not only within those working in the funeral business, but also those who must use the funeral business.

Within the funeral business, one must consider how those working in this type of industry cope with their everyday work experiences. When it comes to working in the funeral business, funeral directors are confronted with experiences, sights, and smells that many others in the medical field will never have to confront. On top of this, they must also create an emotional balance to balance business and personal connections when dealing with those who have just lost a loved one. To become thoroughly educated and trained for this business, funeral directors must go through multiple stages of socialization.[17] During their professional education, funeral directors are directly confronted with death and corpses on daily basis. In his article, Cahill analyzes how students in the funeral director program at “Community College” handle this “unique” profession they are getting into. One aspect that these students reported was the social handicap that comes with their studies. For example, when checking out books for classes, the cashiers will not even look into their eyes when they see the topics of the textbooks they are checking out. At parties, other students will either walk away from conversations or ask inappropriate questions when learning that these students are wanting to become funeral directors. [17] In fact, most students in the mortuary science department typically live together to avoid the awkward conversations and social interactions with other students outside of this program who may judge them for wanting to become funeral directors.[17]

Within these social groups, these students also attempt to normalize the topics of their careers through their conversations. According to Cahill:

“mortuary science education requires students to adopt an occupational rhetoric and esoteric language that communicate professional authority and a calm composure toward matters that most of the lay public finds emotionally upsetting. That language, like the scientific, clinical language of medical education (Smith and Kleinman1989), encourages students’ “analytic transformation” of their potentially unsettling contact with human bodies. The corpse is no longer a dead person but an interconnected system of arteries and veins with numerous convenient points of entry and exit for injecting chemicals and draining blood. Students learn to think of the corpse as a series of technical puzzles and problems posed by the cause of death, the previously ingested substances that it may still contain, the chemical changes that it is undergoing, and the injuries that it sustained before, at, or after death.” [17]

However, this socialization found within the mortuary science department has been found in other departments of higher education. Cahill makes the argument that this socialization nods to directions of analyses focusing on secondary socialization and reproduction of social distinctions in other fields. [17]

In the United States society, most people avoid the topic of death and dying. However, funerals have actually become the tool individuals use to normalize these topics and processes. This avoidance of discussions on death and dying can be seen through the word choice within these discussions. When talking about death in the U.S., individuals often use phrases such as “passed on”, “expired”, “went on to a better place”, or “went to their heavenly home.”[18] People use these phrases in attempt to avoid the harsh realities included with death and dying. In their article, Bailey and Walter analyze how funerals can be seen as “conquering” death. They state: “We thus argue that funerals symbolically conquer death not only through words delivered by ritual specialists, but also through those who knew the deceased congregating and speaking.”[19] In this argument, funerals are seen as individuals’ way of defeating and being “above” death and dying in attempt to lessen the fear they have of the death and dying processes. Hayslip, Booher, Scoles, and Guarnaccia also found similar results as Bailey and Walter. They conducted an experiment including 348 adults who had attended funerals of a loved one within the past year, and they found six factors explaining why these adults found difficulty coping with funerals. They state:

“Principal components analysis of these data indicated that difficulty in coping with funerals could be understood in light of six factors explaining 56% of the common variance among relationships between items: 1) protocol/mechanics of the funerals; 2) general personal and interpersonal difficulties related to the death/funeral; 3) trust in the funeral industry; 4) concerns regarding the cemetery; 5) issues pertaining to grief; 6) post-funeral personal responsibilities.” [20]

When it comes to the actual funeral, many individuals implement specific details to the funeral in attempt to lessen the burden and seriousness associated with the topics of death, dying, and funerals. One detail manipulated for this reason is the music chosen for funerals. In his article, Cross argues that music is used within funerals in attempt to mark a change in social status and social transformation within the community connected to the death. [21]  Often, the music used during funerals symbolize how the loved ones of the deceased would like to mourn and grieve.


Signed: Aeron Scales & Rebecca Burton


[1]Bureau of Labor Statistics. “The Rising Cost of Dying, 1986–2017.” TED: The Economics Daily, ( 31 October, 2017). https://www.bls.gov/opub/ted/2017/the-rising-cost-of-dying-1986-2017.htm.

[2]National Funeral Directors’ Association. “Statistics.” http://www.nfda.org/news/statistics.

[3]Bureau of Labor Statistics. “A Look at Pay at the Top, the Bottom, and in Between.” Spotlight on Statistics, (May, 2015). https://www.bls.gov/spotlight/2015/a-look-at-pay-at-the-top-the-bottom-and-in-between/home.htm

[4]Zena Beth McGlashan. “Caring for the Dead: The Development of the Funeral Business in Butte.” Montana: The Magazine of Western History56, no. 4 (2006): 32-100. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4520843.

[5]American Council on Science and Health. “How Lincoln’s Embrace Of Embalming Birthed The American Funeral Industry.” (15 February, 2015). https://www.acsh.org/news/2019/02/15/how-lincolns-embrace-embalming-birthed-american-funeral-industry-13821

[6]National Funeral Directors’ Association. “Statistics.”

[7]Federal Trade Commission: Consumer Information. “The FTC Funeral Rule.” (July 2012). https://www.consumer.ftc.gov/articles/0300-ftc-funeral-rule.

[8]Federal Trade Commission: Consumer Information. “The FTC Funeral Rule.”

[9]Caitlin Doughty. “Are “Protective” Caskets a Scam?” YouTube, December 14, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W54fpeRZVsw.

[10]Gentry, James W., Patricia F. Kennedy, Katherine Paul, and Ronald Paul Hill. “The Vulnerability of Those Grieving the Death of a Loved One: Implications for Public Policy.” Journal of Public Policy & Marketing14, no. 1 (1995): 128-42. http://www.jstor.org/stable/30000385.

[11]Funeral Consumers Alliance. “Embalming: What You Should Know.” 2007. https://funerals.org/what-you-should-know-about-embalming/.

[12]G.B. Palermo and E.J. Gumz. “The Last Invasion of Human Privacy and Its Psychological Consequences on Survivors: A Critique of the Practice of Embalming.” Theoretical Medicine(1994) 15: 397. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00993797

[13]Palermo and Gumz.

[14]Libby Copeland. “Kate’s Still Here.” Esquire, November 15, 2017. https://www.esquire.com/lifestyle/a12845872/kate-oberlin-home-funeral/.


[16]For more on this specifically, see “My Dead Mother, the Tree That Never Was: The Psychology of “Green Burial” Practices,” by Jesse Bering in Scientific American: https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/bering-in-mind/my-dead-mother-the-tree-that-never-was-the-psychology-of-green-burial-practices/.

[17]Cahill, Spencer E. “Emotional Capital and Professional Socialization: The Case of Mortuary Science Students (and Me).” Social Psychology Quarterly 62, no. 2 (1999): 101-16. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2695852.

[18]Giblin, Paul, and Hug, Andrea. “The Psychology of Funeral Rituals.” Liturgy21 (2006): 11-19. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/citedby/10.1080/04580630500285956?scroll=top&needAccess=true

[19]Bailey, Tara, and Tony Walter. “Funerals against Death.” Mortality 21, no. 2 (2015): 149-66. doi:10.1080/13576275.2015.1071344.

[20]Hayslip, Bert, Suzanne K. Booher, Michael T. Scoles, and Charles A. Guarnaccia. “Assessing Adults’ Difficulty in Coping with Funerals.” OMEGA – Journal of Death and Dying 55, no. 2 (October 2007): 93–115. doi:10.2190/OM.55.2.a.

[21]Cross, Ian. “Music and Communication in Music Psychology.” Psychology of Music 42, no. 6 (November 2014): 809–19. doi:10.1177/0305735614543968.