Short History of the Australian Funeral Industry

    As part of my honours research I have been looking into the history of the funeral industry, which might be interesting to a few people.  In doing so I have also discovered many sources are long and dense, or difficult to find.  So here is a short summary of what I know so far, everything in one place, and put simply!

    This is by no means a 'complete' history, and it might be filled with mistakes.  It is simply a briefe summary of what I currently understand as the history of the Australian funeral industry, with a focus on Sydney (as this is my current focus area).   So keep this in mind when reading it.

    The main sources will be provided at the end, I am not going to be citing them properly throughout the post as I simply do not have time and it makes no difference here.  If you are particularly keen on tracing a specific pice of evidence feel free to email me and I will see what I can do.

    Essentially I divide the funeral industry into two main sections, pre-WWI and post-WWI, as the war had a huge and direct impact on grieving and the funeral industry.  I further break up the post-WWI period into 1900s to 1950s, then 1960s to 1990s and 1990s to now, because this is when the notable changes occurred.

    The funeral before WWI was very different to what we know today, a big reason for this was the population.  Before WWI, specifically the 1800s, Australia had a very different demographic, for example it was infants who made most deaths, not the elderly.  In the 1880s only 78% of babies would make it to adulthood, but between 1904 and 1930 infant death rates had halved, a rather dramatic change in relatively little time (Jalland, 2006, pp.4).

    In the 1800s Australia was a more Christian place than it is today, and Christianity had a huge impact on attitudes and perceptions of death (Jalland, 2006, pp.5).  Through Christianity many developed a model of acceptance of death as gods will, and came to look at death as the inevitable, the death of a child was seen as god removing the child from a world of suffering.  There was a strong emphasis on happy family reunions in the 'next life' (Jalland, 2006, pp.5, 6).

    Through this style of acceptance and peace in death that the idea of a 'good Christian death' or 'good death' came to be.  The 'good death' needed spiritual devotion and submission to god's will, and fortitude in the face of suffering.  It was also expected to take place in the home, surrounded by family (Jalland, 2006, pp.5).  These 'good death' scenes were relatively popular, and were meant to be mimicked, but in reality it was not all that common except for the devout and comfortable classes (Jalland, 2006, pp.5).

    Memory of the deceased was reinforced through "frequent recall of treasured memories" of the dead, and in doing so the memory of the dead was kept alive (Jalland, 2006, pp.9).  Comfort was taken in tangible mementos, such as locks of the deceased's hair, photographs and other similar keepsakes.  This importance of memory gave graves significance, as visiting the grave became an important grieving ritual for many.  It strengthened the association between an individual deceased and a particular place, which became a way to preserve the memory of a lost loved one (Jalland, 2006, pp.7).

    As time moved on religion started to weaken in Australia, particularly after the 1870s and was only strengthened again in the 1950s with an influx of Orthodox and Catholic immigrants (Jappand, 2006, pp.6).  This can be seen with the 'In Memoriam' notices in the papers (now called obituaries), which began in the 1880s and were a secular and public memorial method (Jalland, 2006, pp.9, 10).  The emphasis of these notices was memory, with lines like "in loving memory" being quite popular (Jalland, 2006, pp.10).

    Before WWI many funerals were taken care of in the domestic setting, most often by women (Jalland, 2006, pp.10).  The body and funeral were prepared at home, by family and friends, women would lay out the body, dress and get it ready for the vigil.  Not only did people generally die at home, but their funeral was organised by their family and friends, often the women, from dressing the body to organising and running the funeral service (Cahill, 1995, pp.119; Jalland, 2006, pp.10).

    This had an impact on the funerals before WWI, one key concept is that of the 'beautiful death' which arose in the Victorian era.  The beautiful death is basically the idea of death as gentle and welcome release, a transition into the next stage of being, such as heaven (Cahill, 1995, pp.121).  Death was not necessarily seen as a dirty thing, and was looked at rather positively in some ways.  The ideal "good death" and the Christian idea of a joyous reunion as part of god's greater plan, as a release from a painful world into a pure world and so on.

    We can see this with Rookwood cemetery which was built during the Victorian era, and has a strong emphasis on relaxing and enjoyable grounds.  It was designed to be enjoyed and highlight the beauty in death, as mourner would vist regularly as part of memorial rituals.

    Of course this had a huge impact on the pre-WWI funeral and on the funeral industry of the time, funerals were more ornate and hands on.  The funeral was a celebration of the deceased and focused heavily on the mourning rituals, during this time we see the idea of the "beautiful funeral" as if death had beauty then so must the funeral.  This is also the time that embalming started to grow (especially in America) as not just a way to preserve the body, but to preserve and improve the beauty of the body (Cahill, 1995, pp.122).  These beautiful funerals often had lots of floral tributes, keepsakes, open grieving as well as open celebration, viewings, and so on.

    However, this started to change with WWI, both during and afterwards, WWI had a bigger impact on the funeral service and funeral industry than many realise.  Many Australian soldiers who died were never recovered or identified, especially the airmen, and often their very death was doubted (Jalland, 2006, pp.90).  Mass graves and unidentified graves were also common, between the battle field moving and the haste to bury bodies quickly a proper funeral and burial was often impossible (Jalland, 2006, pp.59).  Adding to this was the fact that most Australians would never be able to visit the graves or see the bodies of the soldiers who died, they were dying in a far country, in unmarked mass graves and often not known where, how or if they were really dead.

    This stripped the beauty in death and funeral services for many civilians and soldiers.  The importance of a proper burial was certainly being questioned, which is why the crematoriums were built after WWI.  After soldiers witnessed the mass graves and the conditions of the battlefield quite a few had lost their taste for burial.  For the civilians they could not visit the graves in Europe (if they even knew where they were), so again burial had lost the significance and beauty it once had.

    Cremation had long been seen as destructive to Christians, directly opposing the idea of resurrection and an afterlife (Jalland, 2006).  But now burial had lost its appeal, cremation was not only cheaper but also more desirable.

    After WWI death had lost the beauty, increased medicalisation meant many died in institutions  such as hospitals, and now the elderly were the most likely to die.  Causes of death had shifted from infectious diseases (like TB) to chronic illnesses (like heard disease).  With better medical technology death was now postponed, and no longer sudden.  As such many doctors came to see death as a failure, that it was their job to fight it, to hold it off, now the death of a patient was a failure on their part.

    This increased distance from death through institutionalisation, the increase of chronic illnesses being the cause of death, the view of death as a failure, and the impact of how people died during WWI all caused a significant shift in death attitudes.  Death had been stripped of its beauty, it was now a sick thing, an old decrepit thing, travesty of war, hardly the beautiful release to a happy reunion it was before WWI.

    As such the funeral changed, a lot, not only did cremation become possible and popular, but the funeral home really took off.  Before WWI most funerals were organised and carried out by the family and friends of the deceased.  After WWI many started to chose to pay professionals, undertakers, to do the work for them.  Funeral homes had existed before this time, such as Walter Carter which was founded in 1887, but funeral homes were not as common or as big as they are today.  I cannot find numbers for how many funerals the funeral homes did before WWI, as I doubt this sort of thing was recorded.  Yet I would be confident to assume it was a relatively small percentage of the total deaths.

    Many did not want to directly deal with death, as it was now stripped of beauty and seen so negatively. So the funeral moved away from the family and friends, combined with institutionalisation few would ever see a body or interact with a body themselves.  Funerals became distant, mourners simply turned up and let the system carry them through, with the undertaker taking care of the body behind the scenes.

    Another notable change was that grief was downplayed and privatised and the funeral was simplified.  Basically before WWI women grieved very openly and publicly, men also grieved openly but less so, there was a strong pattern of 'male silence' (Jalland, 2006, pp.11, 12, 35).  During WWI soldiers gained a heightened sense of this male silence, and often wrote home telling their families not to grieve too openly or publicly.  The soldiers directly informed their civilian families on how to grieve as demonstrated in numerous letters in Jalland's book 'Changing Ways of Death in Twentieth Century Australia', and so the civilians adopted this solder and male silence.

    We now see WWI as a senseless lose of life, a pointless and depressing war, yet at the time, and for a long while after, it was seen as a noble and valid fight (Jalland, 2006).  The deaths of soldiers were not in vain, but honourable sacrifices for king and country.  As the war wore on the large numbers of young men killed displease people, war lost the noble sentiments it once had and became a necessary fight (Jalland, 2006, pp.50, 61, 90).

    To grieve openly and publicly, to hold an individual funeral was seen as insulting to this mass sacrifice of so many.  There are many letters from the period telling people who had lost someone to the war not to mourn much, to show courage, as theirs was not the only death and many others were suffering like them.  To hold a public or elaborate funeral was now seen as selfishly self-indulgent and inappropriate, combined with the "soldiers silence" style of mourning the funeral and grief became simpler and more private.  And very importantly, but often overlooked, the focus of the funeral service moved from grieving rituals to honouring the deceased.

    By the 1940s the funeral service was very different than WWI, it had now moved away from the domestic and was taken car of by profesional undertakers, cremation was not only possible but there were several options.  The funeral had become simpler, mourning had been downplayed and privatised, and the focus was now not on grief but on honouring the deceased.

    The 1960s to 1990s saw a move towards more open grief, and more public discussions of death and funerals.  Funerals were changing again, although this time the change was not as dramatic or notable.  Rather, it was the attitudes about death which changed significantly.  Mainly that death which was starting the enter back into more public settings, an increasing elderly population, the AIDS issue, cancer, euthanasia and other things were all being discussed more and in a public way.  The idea of death avoidance was already popular, but was popularised further during this time, books like 'Psychology of Death' (published 1972) started to come out, the infamous 'American Way of Death' was published in 1963.  Death, and to a lesser extent funerals, were back in public discussions  however they were not always appropriate conversation.

    For the most part the changes were not that notable, funerals continued to be organised by funeral directors rather than those at home, funerals were still simple and downplayed mourning and so on.  However, the 1990s saw another serious change to the industry, if WWI was the 'first wave' of modernity this was definitely the second wave.

    Firstly, cremation passed burial in the main method of 'disposal', it was cheaper, secular and simpler, so the non-religious people preferred it.  And now supported by religions such as the Catholic church, so it was much more acceptable even to the religious population (Jalland, 2006).  Cremation was the hight of modernity for the funeral industry, it is a process away from the public eye, it is an efficient system, it is a mechanical thing and so on.  The new cremation with modern equipment in very fancy and ornate buildings was indeed a significant shift from burial.

    But more importantly this is when the American companies arrived, Service Corporate International Australia (SCIA) in 1993, and Stewart Enterprises (Larkins, 2007, pp.7).  There had already been a strong anti-American attitude with regard to the funeral industry, for example the first lawn cemeteries were looked down on for being American despite the fact they were a British thing (Jalland, 2006).  So to have two very large companies come to Australia and buy up established funeral companies had a very strongly negative backlash.  Many continue to describe the arrival of the American companies as though it was a foreign invasion, such as Larkins in 'Funeral Rights' (2007).

    Within just a few years both companies had gone, SCIA was sold off in 2001 and became InvoCare in 2003 and Stewart Enterprises became Bledisloe.  InvoCare had a huge impact on the funeral industry, and introduced true centralisation, which was necessary for InvoCare to operate as it was so big.  InvoCare had its main hold in Sydney, and so the company centralised the many brands down to just three main centers, the biggest being Lidcombe which now does about 10,000 funerals per year.  Quite a few criticised this, claiming depersonalisation and that it was turning noble funerals into a mass-production system.  Although this centralisation was necessary, InvoCare simply could not do the volume of funerals without it.

    Another less discussed side-effect of InvoCare was the improvement of quality, in the mortuary and on the funeral service.  There is not a lot of evidence to support this, and many would disagree, yet quite a few people have commented on how the industry as a whole improved from InvoCare.  That InvoCare set a bar, while it was not super high it was consistent and far reaching, and the other funeral homes had to raise up to this bar at the very least to survive.  The only real evidence I can find to support this idea is speculatory at best.  That InvoCare is strongest in NSW and NSW is the only state with real rules and regulations for the funeral industry.  Correlation does not necessarily mean causation, but this is a rather interesting coincidence considering the anecdotal evidence.

    The anti-American mentality and the idea of large corporate funeral homes proved to be rather unsavoury for most.  As such many funeral homes set themselves up in opposition to InvoCare, they focused on how they were different from InvoCare, such as being "Australian owned", or "independently owned".  Essentially this divided the funeral companies into one of two types, InvoCare owned and non-InvoCare owned.  A few funeral companies now rely on InvoCare for their identity, for the reason they exist and are unique, which is a rather odd thing.  To think that the anti-InvoCare mentality was so strong it all but divided the funeral industry into just two categories.

    Furthermore, those that set about trying to separate themselves from InvoCare only tied themselves to the company stronger than before.  They define themselves as "not InvoCare", without InvoCare they would lose a huge part of their identity.

    In the last few years society has started to move back to the hands on funeral and open mourning, specifically since the 1990s.  After WWI the funeral became about the deceased, honouring them, and now it is moving back to the pre-WWI focus on the grief process and celebration.  Personalisation has become one of the big words for the funeral companies, as now they are looking at ways to individualise the funeral, such as the customisable LifeArt coffins.  More and more families are having direct involvement in the funeral, with a slow but notable move to home funeral services, to do it yourself style funerals.

    There are a few key points to this, many think the funeral industry directs grieving and the funeral service, yet as we now see this is not the case.  Even the giant InvoCare is following what people desire, not telling them what they want.  Society directly controls the funeral industry, not the other way around.

    The other thing is what we call a 'traditional funeral', the simple funeral downplaying grief and focusing on the deceased, where others such as undertakers or religious leaders run it, is actually more modern than what we are moving to now.  We are talking about our move to a more "modern funeral" when really we are going back to an old style of funeral from before WWI.  Perhaps 'modern' is not really anything to do with technology, or history, or progress, but what we can currently remember.

    Something you might notice is a worrying lack of history about the hearse, so far my research has only found short side mentions of the hearse scattered about.  Which is a real concern as the hearse is such a significant part of the industry.  For oen the motorised hearse would have completely changed the funeral, allowing it to travel further in less time.  The designs could also demonstrate how tastes and attitudes changed over time simply.  And the hearse is a huge part of the funeral industry identity, being a symbolic badge of pride for many companies and funeral staff.

    This lack of history on the hearse is a serious issue, and demonstrates nicely how the history of the industry has been written by people who do not work within the funeral industry for the most part.  A topic I will be giving its own post when I get time!


Cahill, S., (1995). Some Rhetorical Directions of Funeral Direction: Historical entanglements and contemporary dilemmas. Work and Occupations. 22 (2). p.115-136.

Jalland, P., (2006). Changing Ways of Death in Twentieth-Century Australia: War, medicine and the funeral business. UNSW Press, Sydney. p.406.

Larkins, R., (2007). Funeral Rights. Penguin Group Australia, Melbourn. p.256.



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