The history and evolution of funeral directors, funeral traditions and rituals

For as long as human beings have cared for their dead there have been funeral directors, funeral traditions and rituals. These have formed an important part of how communities and individuals expressed their grief and mourning.

This has been so for thousands of years and they are understood as an important means of taking care of the deceased, as well as those that are coping with the loss of someone they care for.

As a result, such rites and rituals are both particularly personal and enormously diverse – not only across cultures but across time. Different communities in different contexts have found unique ways of organising funeral rites that cater to their specific social values and beliefs, as well as the geographical spaces in which these traditions have taken place.

Early Beginnings

The earliest known attempts at mummification occurred in Egypt in 3600 BC meaning the ancient Egyptians were possibly the first society to support full-time funeral directors of sorts; with specialist priests spending up to 70 days preparing deceased royalty and nobility for the afterlife later in history.

We can see the first celebration of Day of the Death by the Aztecs in 1500BC as an early ritual and funeral rite. Later again wealthy Romans relied on their families to look after their remains, but professional mourners were employed to make a fuss of the deceased’s passing. We can see how the ways in which funeral traditions are practised is incredibly varied and unique amongst cultures.

In medieval Britain, an undertaker was originally anyone who performed an ‘undertaking’; there were those who undertook weaving, for example, as well as those who undertook funerals. Eventually, however, the funeral undertaker was shortened to an undertaker, and other trades abandoned the title to avoid being associated with the funeral vocation.

Undertakers Emerge as an Important Service

The first undertakers were woodworkers, furniture makers and carpenters, which had the skills required to make a coffin. In rural areas, if they had a horse and cart, they also provided transport, although, with most people dying at home, friends and family often carried the coffin to the local churchyard.

As society became more urban, walking funerals became less practical and funeral transportation more essential. Over time, moonlighting carpenters moved beyond making the coffin and transporting the deceased. They took on all the elements we consider to be an integral part of the modern funeral director’s role, from care and preparation of the body to organising the funeral service.

Funeral Directors Become an Established Trade

It is not clear when the funeral director title was first used, but the British Undertakers’ Association was named the National Association of Funeral Directors back in 1905. We can see the evolution over time of the switch from an undertaker to a funeral director is possibly a reflection of the increased responsibility involved in ‘directing’ every aspect of the modern funeral service.

Interestingly we see the progression of funerals moving out of the home, the practice of taking care of the deceased in the late 1890’s shifted with professional care and support of funeral rites become a more recognised profession. Society at the time had begun to rely on the profession’s experience and specialist knowledge of the funeral director to ensure that our loved ones get the final send-off they deserve.

It is also an acknowledgement of the care that is taken behind the scenes by a trade trusted with looking after the body of a loved one, from the transfer, or collection, from the place of death to chapel of rest. Author and academic Brian Parsons’ says the most important evolution in the funeral director’s role has been this care of the deceased.

“In 1900 we were pretty hands-off; people died at home, people stayed at home. Now that has completely changed. Death now happens in the institution, whether it’s a nursing home, a hospital or a hospice, and the body doesn’t rest at home between the death and the funeral.”

“The funeral director is now very much the custodian of the body, preparing the body and allowing access to it. Really that’s just because society has changed, the way we care for the living has changed and then the way we care for the dead has changed.”

About 130,000 Australians pass away each year and traditional funerals, in the form of cremation, embalming and burials are being pressed for change. The wave of newer alternatives is influencing funeral rites and rituals to meet the consumer needs are growing, the funeral rites and rituals to cater to new scientific understandings of death.

Rather than being far-fetched, the idea of futuristic or alternative funerals has now solidly entered the mainstream and can be found everywhere. For instance, you can see how the more recent examples of funeral traditions include practices such as biodegradable options for coffins, which reflect our global community’s growing urge for the welfare of our environment.

The options are practically limitless; green burials, human composting, modern cemeteries, new-age cremation, driverless hearses, floating cemeteries and cryonics.

In the end, the choice of where to go after-life, and how to get there, is entirely up to you. Funerals of the future are here to stay, not only because they offer limitless options but we are more aware as consumers, more conscious of our global footprint and the legacy we leave behind.

“Life is stressful, dear. That’s why they say “Rest In Peace.” – David Mazzucchelli