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The oldest funeral home in the United States began in 1759 in Williamsburg, Virginia, started by cabinet manufacturer Anthony Hay who made coffins as a side line. Prior to the mid 1800’s, women were in charge of preparing the deceased. Many communities had a group of women who came in to help with the “laying out of the dead” who were then placed in the parlor or nicer room of the family home. The body was closely observed for three days to make sure the person didn’t wake from a deep sleep or illness before the burial – thus the term “wake” that we know today for visiting/viewing the deceased. This was followed by a procession to the church, cemetery or burial ground. The only person involved outside of the family, was the cabinetmaker who measured and built the coffin. With the establishment of organized cemeteries in the late 1800’s, the funeral “industry” took hold, including mortuary science, and creating a predominantly male based trade. An undertaker was literally a person who under took the task of funeral planning, taking the burden of responsibility off of the family. Since it was very common for a cabinetmaker to make coffins, it made sense for them to branch out into the undertaking business, but the furniture business often remained their primary occupation.

At the end of the 19th century undertaking was becoming a full-time business, and coffins were starting to be manufactured commercially. To make the financial ends meet, it was common for an undertaker to have a sideline which might include renting horses, buggies, carriages, ambulance service, selling furniture, or other local business. Mourning in Victorian times was very much a way of life where social etiquette resulted in the practice of public mourning rather than private, and dictated mourning clothing for women and children, jewelry fashioned from the hair of the deceased, and strict rules for widows. A point of interest: It was generally accepted to be bad luck to carry the body feet first out of the home, and whenever possible, never out of the door that the living used. Upper class residences back in the day were known to have a hidden “death” door built into the home to avoid this issue.

Embalming (which originated in Egypt) was used in the U. S. for the first time during the Civil War, and it gained in popularity very quickly after President Lincoln’s funeral train toured much of the nation. Dr. Auguste Renouard was a leader in this field whose work was the basis for present day methods of embalming. President Lincoln took a great interest in the process and directed the Quartermaster Corps to utilize embalming to allow Union dead to be returned to their home towns for burial. Dr. Thomas Holmes, who served as a captain in the Army Medical Corps in Washington, D.C. reportedly embalmed over 4000 soldiers and officers. When he realized the commercial potential of this procedure, he resigned his commission and began offering it to the public for $100.

After the Civil War, embalming fell out of favor for a time because of the lack of demand, and few people available to perform the procedure. The undertakers of the day were more likely to use ice (if available) to ward off decomposition long enough to have a funeral. When embalming of the body was performed, it took place in the home. Over time the process moved out of the home to a funeral “home” with a funeral “parlor” and eventually progressing to separate preparation rooms. This also created a need for transportation from homes or hospitals and for other tasks, thus, ambulances and hearses became a common part of the funeral business. Many funeral directors lived on site and employed family members to perform duties, and this continues to be the case in many communities. Early in the 1900s, undertakers were becoming known as Morticians and Funeral Directors, and were encouraged by the new National Funeral Directors Association to become a profession rather than just a trade. It was during this time that home parlors became known as “living rooms,” because they were no longer used to display the dead.

In more recent times, cremation has become a growing trend in the United States, and many funeral homes have created their own facilities or contract with larger crematoriums. Green burials have also had an impact on the funeral business, but are still not as common. Funeral homes have necessarily shifted to be more for viewing and embalming prior to cremation, and many people now prefer to have a celebration of life rather than a formal funeral. Most funeral homes are still family owned, but many larger corporations have emerged while keeping the family names on local funeral homes and the former owner managing the facility. It is
interesting to note that open casket funerals and visitations are very rare in places like the United Kingdom and most European countries. Usually only close relatives actually see the deceased relative, and it is more common for no one to see the body. The funeral service itself is almost always closed casket and services are almost exclusively held in the church, cemetery, or crematorium chapel.

Pagan rituals provide the historical basis for many funeral customs:

  • Modern mourning clothing came from the custom of wearing special clothing as a disguise to hide identity from returning spirits. Pagans believed that returning spirits would fail to recognize them in their new attire, would be confused and overlook them.
  • Covering the face of the deceased with a sheet arises from pagan tribes who believed that the spirit of the deceased escaped through the mouth.
  • Floral offerings were originally intended to gain favor with the spirit of the deceased (and also helped with covering odors).
  • Feasting and gatherings associated with the funeral began as an essential part of the primitive funeral where food offerings were made.
  • The firing of a rifle volley over the deceased comes from the tribal practice of throwing spears into the air to ward off spirits hovering over the deceased.
  • Holy water originally was sprinkled on the body to protect it from demons.
  • Funeral music originated from the ancient chants designed to placate the spirits.
  • The lighting of candles comes from the use of fire in attempts to protect the living from the spirits.
  • The practice of ringing bells comes from the medieval belief that spirits would be kept away by the ringing of a consecrated bell.