The funeral industry, one of the oldest and among the most stable of industries regardless of economic trends, is facing one of the biggest challenges of its existence, and the threat is coming from an unlikely source – their own customers. People’s attitudes towards funerals have been changing and as a result, the number of traditional funerals has been declining.
"Show me the manner in which a nation cares for its dead and I will measure with mathematical exactness the tender mercies of its people, their respect for the laws of the land, and their loyalty to high ideals." -- Sir William Gladstone
Survival in the U.S. Funeral Industry: A PESTEL Analysis
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Some burial customs, no matter how strange, arose from crude efforts to protect the living from the spirits that brought death. The dead have been feared throughout history and remain feared today (Funeral Industry, 2010).
Many modern funeral customs have evolved from historical pagan rituals. Mourning clothing – the returning spirits would not recognize them in their new clothes; covering the face of the dead – the spirit of the deceased would escape through the mouth; wakes – ancients kept watch hoping that life would return; firing of rifle volley over the deceased – mirrored the tribal practice of throwing spears into the air to ward off hovering spirits; floral offerings – intended to gain favor with the spirit of the deceased; music – reminiscent of ancient chants designed to placate spirits (Funeral Industry, 2010).
The act of embalming plays a crucial role throughout the history of funeral customs and rituals and the modern emergence of the American funeral industry. The earliest preservation methods were developed by the Egyptians and were performed for both religious and sanitation reasons. Egyptians believed in the immortality of the soul and that it would return to its body following a required 3,000 year journey as long as the body remained intact at which point the whole body was believed to arise from the dead and live with the gods forever. Egyptians also quickly realized the necessity of sanitation as it became evident that unsanitary conditions led to more deaths. Various embalming methods were practiced across the globe throughout the centuries, but not all cultures believed in it. Jewish custom did not allow for embalming or cremation because they were believed to be mutilation of the body. As noted in the bible, preparation for burial involved wrapping the body in cloth and applying oils and spices. Early Christian burial customs were derived from the Greeks, Romans and Jews following the strong tradition of burial with no embalming. During Europe’s “dark ages”, embalming was generally not practiced. This period gave way to great medical advancements when bodies were needed for dissection purposes. Medical discoveries during this time influenced the development and perfection of modern embalming techniques that would continue to progress into the early twentieth century. Dr. Thomas Holmes, considered the father of modern embalming, was responsible for introducing modern embalming during the American Civil War. Dr. Holmes, commissioned as a captain in the Army Medical Corps, embalmed thousands of soldiers and officers killed in battle allowing return of the dead to their homes for proper burial. His efforts gained significant recognition and legitimacy of modern embalming in America and hence was born the American funeral industry (Funeral Industry, 2010).
Funeral homes rapidly emerged across the country in the first few decades of the twentieth century as American life was transformed by...