Cemeteries and Funeral Rituals: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow

Date Published: 
June, 2004
Original Author: 
Trina Duke
Forest Lawn Memorial-Parks, Glendale, California
David Sloane, Gary Laderman, Stephen Prothero
Original Publication: 
ICFM Magazine, June 2004


How has the work of funeral directors and cemeterians changed?
What sorts of challenges do funeral service professionals face in the future? Forest Lawn Memorial-Parks' symposium on the American way of death focused on these issues.

Three renowned scholars recently examined the American way of death at a symposium hosted by Forest Lawn Memorial-Parks in Southern California. The symposium, organized by the Forest Lawn Museum, brought together experts in the fields of history, urban planning and religion to discuss cemetery history, funeral rituals and changing attitudes toward death in the United States.

Speaking in the newly renovated Hall of Liberty at Hollywood Hills Memorial Park, David Sloane, Stephen Prothero and Gary Laderman offered historical overviews of the cultural and religious foundations of cemeteries and funeral homes, as well as insights into current and future trends that could affect funeral and cemetery services.

More than 50 people attended the symposium, including members of the funeral profession, the Neptune Society, museum professionals, historians, university students and the general public. Forest Lawn Memorial Parks offered this program as part of its continuing effort to help the community celebrate life's meaningful moments.

The Forest Lawn Museum offers a year-round calendar of free events designed to enrich, inspire and educate the community through programs about history, culture and religion.

The three scholars approached the subject from different angles and sometimes differing viewpoints.  This article offers a summary of each of the presentations.

Cemeteries: The Challenge to Stay Relevant
By: David Sloane
Cemeteries today face a significant challenge: Staying relevant in a rapidly changing society.

One aspect of this challenge is the growing ethnic diversity in America. As new immigrant communities embrace traditional cemeteries, they also are asking them to incorporate modifications that reflect their own beliefs, values and ways of expressing grief. By accommodating these differences, traditional cemeteries can strengthen their service to new communities.

Yet another aspect of the challenge for traditional cemeteries is a renewed sentimentality that has reshaped both public and private memorialization. By recognizing different styles of memorial expression and experimenting with new styles, cemeteries will be better equipped to serve a broader clientele.

A major example of non-traditional expression is Maya Lin's 1982 Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the starkly modem composition of which caused innovations in public memorialization in the United States. The ''Wall,'' designed not as an unchanging monument but as a moving composition to be understood as we move into and out of it, has become a living shrine owned by those who visit the site.

In similar fashion, the AIDS Memorial Quilt begun in 1987 now includes more than 44,000 panels and seems like a type of ever growing "fabric cemetery" that serves not only as a poignant memorial but also as a tool for prevention and education. It is the largest ongoing community arts project in the world, incorporating messages of remembrance, awareness and hope expressed in highly personal ways.

Rather than depending solely on traditional avenues of public relations, many new and older cemeteries are demonstrating resiliency in the face of change and challenge as they forge new relationship" with their communities.

The incorporation of "friends" groups and the addition of nature walks, historic tours, contemporary art exhibitions and public lecture programs represent renewed efforts to establish and sustain community interest in cemeteries. Roadside shrines, virtual cemeteries and video biographies are alternative modes by which Americans express themselves with regard to death, grief and memory. Through these innovations, American cemeteries are demonstrating flexibility and adaptability to changing times.

Coming from a family that for four generations has designed, landscaped and managed cemeteries in Ohio and New York, Sloane is uniquely positioned to explore the history of cemeteries in America. He holds a doctorate in American history and serves as an associate professor in the School of Policy, Planning and Development and holds a joint appointment in the Department of History at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. In 1991, he published "The Last Great Necessity: Cemeteries in American History," which traces the transition from churchyards to urban cemeteries to suburban memorial parks and explores how the landscape of the cemetery is created and altered by economics and practical needs, by institutions and powerful ideas.

Rituals Do Matter
By: Gary Laderman

Within all human societies there are questions, indeed dilemmas, regarding death that require culturally relevant answers.

Why do we die and how do we make sense of it? What should be done with the body and who should handle it? How should the living relate to their dead? What meaning does death give to the living?

Far from shunning or fearing death, 20th century Americans have been obsessed by it and the material culture surrounding it. Popular culture both reflects this behavior and attempts to make sense of death in a manner that reveals the issue's complexity and its relationship to larger societal trends and events.

Rituals matter, and most cultures place a great deal of emphasis on the disposition of the body. For many people, such rituals ultimately have a bearing not only on the living but also on the post-mortem destiny of the deceased. Herein lies the value of the American funeral.

The story of disposition in the late 19th century reflects the rise and triumph of the funeral home and the funeral director. Most of the social and cultural transformations that resulted in the modern funeral profession were complete by the 1950s. Today, the anchor and focus of the profession remains the funeral home.

Within a larger cultural context, the rise of the funeral director and the funeral home parallels the rise of the hospital and the doctor. It is significant that both gained authority over the body, removing the care of the dead from friends and family and placing it in the hands of experts. In the same manner, the funeral director and funeral home also relegated priests, ministers and other religious figures to subordinate roles. However, despite what may be seen as an increasing secularization of death, American religious values associated with death are deeply rooted and remain strong.

Examples from 20th-century popular culture that document America's fascination with death and the religious meanings circulating in the rapidly changing century include Thorton Wilder's "Our Town"; the early animated films of Walt Disney such as "Bambi," "The Skeleton Dance" and "Fantasia"; contemporary animation, including "Finding Nemo" and "The Lion King"; horror films; rock and roll, hip hop and heavy metal music; and the high-profile funerals of Rudolph Valentino, whose body was displayed in a funeral home window, and John F. Kennedy.

Tracing the stereotype of the funeral director in popular culture before Jessica Mitford's "The American Way of Death" reveals that a negative image existed long before the publication of her 1963 book. There is the corrupt, exploitative undertaker in Mark Twain's "Life on the Mississippi," the damning depiction of the mortician in Thomas Wolfe's "Look Homeward Angel" and the friendly and ridiculed undertaker Digger O'Dell in the radio show "The Life of Reilly."

The true complexity of funeral directors is only beginning to appear in the public arena, with a fuller picture finally emerging in the eyes of the media through shows such as HBO's "Six Feet Under," in which the profession is portrayed as a respectable one that supports the community's deepest needs and wishes.

In the latter half of the 20th century, numerous events shaped the funeral industry and American attitudes toward death. During the 1960s and 1970s, the Vietnam War gave rise to questions about the meaning of and necessity for death in the service of our country, questions being raised again today. In the 1970s, the Federal Trade Commission's investigations into the funeral profession led to consumer empowerment. In the 1980s, AIDS brought a number of changes, including an interest in cremation in some cases because of the condition of the body.

Also during the past few decades, new immigration patterns have brought increased populations from East Asia, Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe and Central and Southern America. They bring with them different traditions and customs surrounding the handling of the dead that they want to see continued in their new country.

Laderman is an associate professor in the Department of Religion at Emory University, where he serves as director of the Graduate Division of Religion, is associate editor of "Journal of the American Academy of Religion," is on the editorial board for the electronic-only "Journal of Southern Religion" and directs the department's Pluralism Project, which studies and documents the growing religious diversity of the United States. He wrote "Rest in Peace: A Cultural History of Death and the Funeral Home in Twentieth-Century America" as a follow-up to "The Sacred Remains: American Attitudes Toward Death, 1799-1883." Most recently, he published the three-volume "Religion and American Cultures: An Encyclopedia of Traditions, Diversity and Popular Expressions." 

Cremation: Why the Rate Has Risen -And Why It Isn't Higher
By: Stephen Prothero

How did cremation make the transition from being a radical idea to a practice that any American can comfortably choose?

Why has the cremation rate reached 27 percent in America and why is it not higher still, as in Great Britain (71 percent), Japan (98 percent) or Sweden (68 percent)?

Following a 1874 landmark article published first in Great Britain and immediately afterward in the United States, cremation gained widespread attention as a possible solution to urban epidemics. For the remainder of the 19th century, intellectuals, health practitioners, theologians, ministers and the general public debated the issue, either supporting cremation for public health reasons or opposing it based on traditional religious values.

By the end of the 19th century the practice of cremation was widespread enough that more crematoriums were being built. During this time, the handling of cremations moved from the non-profit to the profit sector, from the control of intellectuals and ideologues promoting it on principle to the purview of profit-driven business people equipped with economic strategies.

From 1945 to 1963, the growth in cremation remained flat, with the rate hovering around 4 percent. Two events in the 1960s the publication of Jessica Mitford's "The American Way of Death," which among other things promoted cremation, and the end to the Catholic Church's ban on cremation caused the cremation rate to start rising again.

The 1970s saw further growth, as direct cremation businesses developed new business models for efficiently and inexpensively making cremation available to more people, notably in the West, where cremation rates today range from 47 percent to 60 percent. The 1980s and 1990s brought cultural values such as environmentalism and simplicity into the mainstream with the aging of the baby boomers, further increasing the cremation rate. Cremation has also benefited from today's "customization" culture, in which Americans are increasingly intent on expressing their individuality, with a need to put a personal stamp on everything, including funeral rituals.

Cremation rates in the United States remain lower relative to many other countries for a couple of reasons. First, neither federal nor state laws mandate a type of disposition—the free market reigns and personal choice prevails. Second, the American public remains strongly religious. Data documents lower cremation rates in states where traditional and evangelical religions remain strong.

Cost is not the reason for the cremation boom, since data show the wealthiest people are the most likely to choose cremation, while the poorest are more likely to spend more on traditional funerals. Burial choices are not typically made for financial reasons.

More important to the cremation boom is a change in the theology of everyday life that has become increasingly evident over the past 20 years. American religious thought is migrating toward a gnostic view of the self, viewing the soul as external from rather than one with the body. Under this view, sited memorialization—which is not universal—may be seen as unnecessary. This offers a challenge to traditional funeral and cemetery practices.

Prothero is chairman of the Department of Religion at Boston University, where he teaches a popular course called "Death and Immortality." He is co-editor of "Asian Religions in America: A Documentary History" author of "The White Buddhist: The Asian Odyssey of Henry Steel Olcott" and co-author of the Encyclopedia of American Religious History. His 2001 book "Purified by Fire" is the first historical study of cremation in the United States.