The funeral industry did not emerge until after the Civil War when the process of embalming became widespread and more accepted by the general public. Before the mid-19th century, the dead were often displayed in the family home in the "parlor," hence the term "funeral parlor" that is still in use today.
While various methods had been used to prolong decomposition before the 1860s, embalming was the chosen method to preserve the bodies of dead Civil War soldiers before they were sent home. After President Lincoln's body was preserved through embalming and toured the nation on a funeral train, the public began to accept the idea. As embalming spread, so did the number of funeral homes.
As embalming became standard practice in the late 19th century, bereaved families began to see value in the entire "package" of a modern funeral. The preserved body could be presented in a neutral setting where the family could receive guests and hold a formal service. Private viewing in the home eventually disappeared in favor of using a funeral home.
Instead of traveling to the home to preserve a dead body, undertakers now transported the body from the home or hospital to a central place of business. Many undertakers lived in the funeral home and their families often assisted in running the business.
As more funeral homes were established in the 20th century, professional organizations emerged to serve the funeral industry. Formal training provided undertakers with the skills needed to perform their duties and to run a business. Florists, casket manufacturers and life insurance agencies developed alongside the funeral home industry.
Ethnic groups usually preferred funeral homes run by members of their own community. After immigration laws were relaxed in the 1960s, many newly founded minority communities had not yet established their own funeral homes. Where an ethnic undertaker was not available, funeral homes began providing services tailored for specific communities, such as Vietnamese, Latino and Eastern European groups. As a result, funeral homes began performing services in a variety of non-Western religious traditions, like Hinduism and Buddhism.
As cremation became more accepted during the late 20th century, funeral homes feared their services would soon be obsolete. There would be no need for embalming or a viewing of the body in the event of cremation. With the future of their industry at stake, many funeral homes constructed their own cremation facilities or contracted with existing crematoriums. Undertakers also established new customs at the funeral home, such as viewing an embalmed body before cremation.
There is a growing trend where large corporations are purchasing small, independent funeral homes to create a "big business" approach to funeral services. While the majority of funeral homes are still independently family-owned businesses, the corporate model will continue to spread in the 21st century.
- By the Museum of Funeral Customs at Wikimedia Commons