Facing death

Deathbed portrait of Elizabeth Royall, attributed to Joseph Badger, ca. 1747. NEHGS Fine Art Collection, photograph by Gavin Ashworth

Unfortunately, over the last month I had to visit a few different funeral homes. On one visit, my husband asked why funeral homes always resembled a house. Knowing a bit about the evolution of how we handle death in America, I explained that it is because a wake or viewing used to take place within the person’s home. Funeral “parlors” or “homes” are intentionally designed to resemble the parlors in homes where we once laid out our dead for visitation.

This question led me to revisit some of my old studies about death in America and how handling the dead went from being a very personal and hands-on experience for the survivors to something that is handled by professionals outside of the home. As genealogists, we often note the death dates of our ancestors without much thought of what the family was going through at the time of the death. We read obituaries that illustrate lifetime accomplishments, notes of their character, and sometimes a description of how the person died, but we do not stop to consider that the way our ancestors processed death was very different from the way we approach it today.

Before the mid-nineteenth-century, families prepared their own dead for burial. This required bathing and dressing the deceased; it was a very intimate experience for the surviving family members. It seems likely that this became a part of the mourning process as well. Individuals learned how to care for the dead from observation and being a part of the process within their own homes. Death was also accompanied by long periods of public mourning, displayed by wearing black clothing or other mourning symbols. It was not uncommon to have portraits done or take photographs of the dead laid out in the home. Death was personal, intimate, and hands-on for the survivors.

Individuals learned how to care for the dead from observation and being a part of the process within their own homes.

Embalming changed this process in America starting with the Civil War, when soldiers needed to be sent home for burial. The idea of embalming and the modern funeral gradually became more popular. Families were no longer responsible for preparing a loved one for burial and bodies were removed to funeral homes shortly after death to be washed and sterilized for viewing. By 1882, the first school dedicated to educating professionals in the field was established at the Cincinnati College of Mortuary Science. The practice became even more professional in nature with the National Funeral Directors Association, which established itself as a group of professionals contributing to public health.

The rise of funeral homes also coincides with the rise of hospitals, places where the sick and dying go for hope of treatment. When deaths occur within a hospital, the body is then removed to the care of a funeral director and never returns home. The modern way of death can be viewed as sterile and impersonal, leading some to argue that it has been detrimental to the way we approach death and mourning. Advocates for a more natural and personal approach often align with the so-called “Death Positive Movement” and suggest skipping the embalming process and burials in biodegradable coffins (or no container at all), among other practices.

The professionalization of death has certainly benefited genealogists, with over 130 years of paperwork created by funeral homes. For better or worse, the prominence of funeral homes has shaped our relationship to death and has removed survivors from the need to intimately handle the dead. Still, some expectations remain the same. Even though it has been several generations since it was commonplace to present the dead within your own home, we still expect and appreciate the “homelike” environments that funeral homes strive to create as a place to say our final goodbyes.

Meaghan E.H. Siekman

About Meaghan E.H. Siekman

Meaghan holds a Ph.D. in history from Arizona State University where her focus was public history and American Indian history. She earned her B.A. in history from Union College in Schenectady, New York, the city where she grew up. Prior to joining the NEHGS team, Meaghan worked as the Curator of the Fairbanks House in Dedham, Massachusetts, as an archivist at the Heard Museum Library in Phoenix, Arizona, and wrote a number of National Register Nominations and Cultural Landscape Inventories for the National Park Service. Meaghan is passionate about connecting people with the past in meaningful and lasting ways. She enjoys finding interesting anecdotes about an ancestor to help bring the past to life.View all posts by Meaghan E.H. Siekman