Ads from the 1914 Indiana Funeral Directors Convention, Indianapolis Star
Funeral directors, morticians, undertakers… They get a bad rap. Admit it. You might cringe or giggle when you meet one at a cocktail party. Or worse yet, sit in awkward silence, unsure how to proceed with conversation. But, historically speaking, the art and science of undertakering has played as big a role in public health policy as modern plumbing, and refuse disposal.
Indeed, the funeral industry as we know it, emerged in the US in the aftermath of the Civil War. The foundation of this emergent industry was the process of embalming — a practice that gained legitimacy during the mid- and late-1800s. Although medical schools had employed various European methods of preserving dead bodies for instructional purposes, most Americans abhorred any “unnatural” violation of a loved one’s body, or any intervention in the organic processes of decomposition (despite the fact that those bodies were often displayed in the parlors of the family home for days before interment).
Duing the Civil War, embalming became acceptable to more Americans who wanted to ensure that they could have one last look at their dearly departed. Many Northern families who could afford it arranged to have the remains of their fathers, sons, brothers, and husbands shipped home from Southern battlefields. Some hired death specialists who found innovative methods, including arterial injection, to preserve bodies for the long journey home. The critical turning point in popular acceptance of embalming, however, was the cross-country journey of Abraham Lincoln’s body after the war. Embalming enabled thousands of Americans to pay respect in person. This made an impression.
Post war, more undertakers began to experiment with embalming as an alternative to other modes of preservation. By the early decades of the twentieth century, embalming had become a standard practice in much of the country. American undertakers, many of whom had connections with the furniture industry and had a growing interest in the production of coffins, began to focus on the appearance of the body.
Indiana’s own Funeral Director’s Association (IFDA) was founded in 1880 by 47 charter members, and headquartered in Indianapolis. The IFDA was established as a brotherhood of professionals who promoted the most modern practices, and supported legislation to benefit the profession as a whole. It was through organizations such as the IFDA that embalming assumed a central place in American burial practices. Instructors representing embalming chemical companies were regularly invited to present courses and confer diplomas that signified professional expertise at local events. In time, many of these companies established full-fledged mortuary schools. In addition, Indiana began to recognize this occupation through a licensing board made up of funeral directors and other civic leaders.
In the early part of the 20th century, the rhetoric surrounding embalming relied on contemporary theories about public health and sanitation. Some factions argued that embalmed bodies posed less of a threat to the health of a community than bodies left to rot in the ground naturally. Others advocated burial within 24 hours with as little contact with the body as possible — particularly in the case of epidemic diseases such as Diphtheria.
The modern-day funeral aesthetic emerged in these early years, based in part on assertions about the psychological necessity of providing mourners with a viewable corpse. So, though the profession as a whole was sometimes the object of embarrassment, derision or distrust, local funeral homes won respect as a source of comfort for families suffering from a loss.
The rapid professionalization of the field spurred the equally-swift emergence of funeral homes in the first few decades of the twentieth century. Undertakers no longer traveled to the home of the deceased to prepare the body but instead transported corpses away from home or hospital to the funeral home.
A strange mixture of business, residence, religion, and consumerism, the funeral home would become an institution in local neighborhoods. Funeral directors lived with their families in these homes, and very often wives and children worked with the father in preparing services for people in grief.
As funeral homes multiplied, so did a variety of professional associations, trade publications, and educational institutions. The funeral industry gradually emerged as an economically-sophisticated, politically-adept, and consumer-oriented powerhouse that revolved around the one thing in life more sure than taxes: death.
But the industry encompassed much more than chemical companies and professional organizations; Casket manufacturers, florists, cosmetic corporations, automobile companies, cemetery associations, and other related businesses played an important role in the industry — and in the Indianapolis economy.
Today IFDA has grown to over 480 member firms. Headquartered in Indianapolis, IFDA still provides membership services and continuing education opportunities throughout the state. Conventions still offer the newest in industry technology, continuing education, fellowship and… yes… some opportunities for attendees to have some FUN while they learn.
There. Now you know enough about the Hoosier history of undertaking to make comfortable, polite conversation the next time you meet a funeral director at a cocktail party. Mission accomplished.
Happy Halloween, everyone!