Defining the American Funeral

    The 'American funeral' is a very important concept for the Australian funeral industry, it is talked about and referred to heavily (both directly and indirectly) by those within the industry.  Without doubt it is very important to discourse within the industry, and yet it is poorly explored or even defined, which only leads to an unhealthy discussion.

    As such I will spend some time digging deeply into this important yet overlooked topic, finally exploring it and giving it the time it deserves.

    First things first, to define and establish the terminology and ideas, by that I mean to state my working definition of the 'American funeral' and finally qualify this term.  I find many forget the importance of qualifying language, but to leave terms hanging is to leave them without substance.  Terms without definitions can become obscure and distant from their original intent and meaning, which is often the case with the American funeral.  Many have now taken it to mean something physical and a very specific process or action.  When in reality it is an abstract idea, a social perception, which I will prove over the next few posts.

    My definition of the 'American funeral' is based on the following five key aspects (it should be noted, this is not a 'comprehensive' list or definition.  It is simply MY working definition and understanding):
  1. Profit focus: more thought about costing and making money rather than providing a quality/personal funeral service.
  2. Impersonal: a corporate and faceless system which cannot (and doesn't even try) to personalise or individualise a funeral service.
  3. Inauthentic (fake): a lack of authenticity in various aspects to the funeral, from preservation of a pointless or false idea to superficial funeral services.
  4. Uniformity: as in less diversity to the funeral industry itself, such as less companies and less variety to those companies.
  5. Simple funerals: such as No Service No Attendance at crematoriums, plain lawn cemeteries, etc.
    These are the big five points to defining the 'American funeral' as far as the Australian industry sees it.  Below I will discuss each point in more detail, then bring it together briefly for a final consolidated definition.

Profit focus
    This is the most important point in many regards, and is essential to the definition as it also leads to the other points.  Essentially this point refers to how the American funeral is more interested in the financial side of funerals and not concerned with quality or the mourners/deceased.  Everything in the American funeral is geared for maximum profits, two good examples of this are embalming and coffins.

    Embalming is often seen as almost the height of the American funeral as it is a rather American invention in a number of ways.  It is a very old idea but was refined and spread most noticeably during the American Civil war.  It is a modern thing, in that it involves heavy use of chemicals, and requires tools and techniques where are only possible through mass production and modernisation in the late 1800s to early 1900s.  Furthermore America has a strong emphasis on embalming to the extent where it is almost a necessity; the only times one non-embalmed bodies are talked about on American TV is as a deliberate thing.  Such as with Dexter in season 7 where the wife poisoned her husband then made sure his body was not embalmed so nobody could prove it in the future if they suspected her and exhumed the body.

In essence modern embalming is seen as a rather American thing, in ideology and execution.  But it is also a physical example of the profit focused nature of the American funeral; that profits are being sought at any and every step possible.  In this case that bodies will be embalmed blindly to make an extra bit of money.  Many such as Larkins (2007 pp. 83-87) or Midford (1998 pp. 54-69) talk of how embalming has many negative side effects (such as environmental) and is unnecessary for most cases but is pushed by the funeral industry for greater profits.  In other words the primary objective of embalming is as an 'add on', an unnecessary cost intended to gain a little more money for the funeral company.

Whether or not this is actually the case is not the point nor my interest, however the idea behind it is vital and says a lot.  That in the American funeral extra things are tacked on unnecessarily to increase profit margins, despite their negative consequences.  Furthermore, this push for profit does not take into account actual desires and needs of the deceased or mourners; it is pushed on them by the funeral home who does not really care about them.

    Another key element of the American funeral is the impersonal nature, how it does not connect directly with the deceased or mourner, nor does it even try to.  Instead the American funeral is a cold mechanical system which does not individualise funeral services (this links to uniformity and inauthentic but more on that later).

    With the American funeral there is little to no personal touch or elements of individuality.  It is a system of efficient mass production; bodies go in one end and funerals come out the other.

    The lack of authenticity to the American funeral is a common comment, so common and important that it becomes a key aspect of the American funeral.  It basically refers to the 'false' nature, how things are just superficial and deliberate constructs which lack substance or depth.

    Most often this would be seen in the funeral service, how the service might present itself as an event to honour the deceased and to mourn.  But really it is a superficial presentation more concerned with how things look rather than their meaning.  Essentially the funeral service is an artificial creation which focuses on appearances and ignored deeper importances.

    But the best examples (as they are most understandable and relatable) of this come not from funerals but from tourism.  Many have argued that guided tours and resorts are constructed and false tourist experiences, that these tourists are not getting the 'real' experience of the place.

    This is all a complex question of legitimacy and perspective, questioning the very notion of perspective and values.  For example; if they want a specific experience which focuses on the surface appearance, is this not an authentic experience for them?  This is a whole other debate and not important here.  Whether or not it is a legitimate concern it is an important aspect in defining the American funeral, as the American funeral is categorically seen as false and superficial.

   Uniformity refers to the de-diversifying of the funeral industry and funeral service, thing start to become similar and lose their individuality, their variety.  This is more pointed at the funeral industry than the funeral service, although it does address both.

    Many see the American funeral as removing diversity from the funeral industry, which is a bad thing.  InvoCare is often an example of this, how it owns a majority of the industry and condenses and simplifies its brands which has resulted in less variety of funeral homes.  It should be quickly noted that this theory about InvoCare is not completely accurate in a number of ways, too many to go into and that is not the point for this post.  I will quickly say InvoCare might have a good portion (bigger than any other single company) but not a majority, and if anything InvoCare has created more diversity in the industry, but more on that later.

    To continue; the theory supposes that big funeral conglomerates will buy up the little companies and distill them into just a handful of big brands.  Thus there will be less diversity (and less competition) overall within the funeral industry.  This loss of diversity is seen as a loss of competition and will result in higher funeral costs and less authentic and less personal funeral services.

Simple funerals
    This is possibly the least concerning of the points (at least to most) but is such a good representation of the American funeral in action.  The simplifying of cemeteries, crematoriums, and funeral services is a culmination of all of the previous four aspects in one.  The simplification improves profits, requires a removal of the individual and the personal, is deliberately created for a specific image based on appearance, and is focusing on uniforming and streamlining.

    Think of the lawn cemetery as the perfect example, all graves are the same; grass and a simple bronze plaque set at regular intervals in a long concrete beam.  One cannot spot much if any difference between graves from a distance, save perhaps some flowers (which are also at regular formulated spaces).  The lawn grave system is designed to present a clean and simpler look, and be easy and cheap to maintain.  Many incorrectly believe the lawn cemetery comes from America, although it was originally conceived of in England.  The reason they think it comes from America is not due to historical thoughts, there is never any mention of it being created in America.  Rather, the reason is because the lawn cemetery is so simple in such a uniform way that it is a perfect and visible example of everything American funeral.

    I have found those in the Australian industry point to the lawn grave as an American thing solely on the ideology behind it.  They call it American, then talk about the lack of variety, about the improved profit focus, about the lack of authenticity, and so on.  The lawn grave might have come from England to reduce poorly maintained cemeteries (Jalland, 2006), but it has transformed into a perfect example of the American funeral ideology in action.

    These are the five main points used to define the American funeral by those within or close to the Australian funeral industry.  This view of the American funeral will inform and influence the rest of the discussion about it.

    One very important distinction to keep in mind is that this definition is not directly dependent on anything 'America'.  It is labeled American solely due to conceptual reasons, in that the definition of the American funeral is related in name only to anything actually American.  It is called American in idea rather than action, this point will become clear over the course of a few posts, but simply keep it in mind as you read along.


1 comment:

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