Does the American Funeral Exist?

    Does the American funeral actually exist?  In short "no",  and yet at the same time it does.  The American funeral is an interesting thing which says a lot about the Australian funeral industry, and Australian society on a broader level.  In this post I continue my theme of 'American funeral' and look at if it really exists.

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    Many see the Australian funeral industry as 'better' than the American industry, and founded on noble UK origines.  In a Hegelian argument we are ourselves because we are not others; basically the Australian funeral industry is Australian because it is not American; the Australian industry is in a direct opposition to the American funeral.

    The American funeral does not (nor could it) actually exist within Australia.  The American funeral itself could never take hold in Australia simply as current society is not orientated that way.  Relationships between things are rarely simple and never one directional, the funeral industry does not influence society or operate independent of society.  Rather, the funeral industry is a reflection of our society, displaying various attitudes, beliefs, behaviours, etc.  But more on this in another post, for now lets focus on where and how the American funeral exists.

    For the American funeral to ever "take hold" in Australia it would require social acceptance, it would need society to change and create room for it before it could exist.  Society shapes the funeral industry, not the other way, even when the funeral industry 'Americanises' it will always keep in line with Australian social desires and attitudes.

    However one looks at it the definitions of the American funeral are not applicable to Australian social landscape or the funeral industry.  There is an element of individualism to the American funeral, where as in Australia focus is often more on the collective.

    Many would argue as the most likely and hazardous (and negative) aspect of the American funeral is the profit driven nature at the expense of the mourner and deceased.  The American funeral style makes more money, as such it could be tempting or even overpowering for many Australian funeral companies.  Indeed, some incorrectly point to InvoCare as the evidence that the Australian funeral industry is shifting towards the American funeral.

  This is somewhat applicable as the funeral industry is an industry and like any other it needs to make profits.  However, and this is a big however, the way in which profits are sought in Australia is not in keeping with the ideology of the American funeral (yes, even within InvoCare).  Sure, profit might come at others loss, there is merchandising, there is theming, there is up-selling, there is commercialism, and so on.

    But this is a standard part of any industry and has long been part of the Australian industry, it is not new, at best it is simply more contemporary.  At the end of the day we all have bills to pay, and the funeral industry is no more or less profit driven than other areas like education.  It is not a government funded thing (like health care) and as such needs to survive through profits.  So this is not solely part of the American funeral but more a feature of daily life and which we all experience through our paycheques.

    Even so, the Australian industry is not necessarily capricious in how it seeks profits, while a few individual employees might be the industry as a whole is rather caring and understanding.  Even InvoCare the company most pointed to as the profit hungry one is rather sympathetic.  The individuals behind InvoCare might want profits (it is their job) but not at the expense of the people.  A great example is the study on funeral insurance InvoCare commissioned.  I spoke with some InvoCare staff in a meeting about it very briefly, and while the conversation was short there was a notable sense of pride.  The InvoCare staff seemed genuinely proud and referred to it as a helpful and good thing.

    In short, the American funeral does not actually exist within Australia, nor could it, as it is simply impossible for the American funeral to exist within Australia given the current social conditions.  Even in New Zealand it does not exist and the New Zealand industry is just as against it.  Despite the fact that the New Zealand funeral industry could arguably come close to meeting the definition as far as the Australian industry defines the American funeral.

    This is because the American funeral is not actually a real thing, quite simply it is a fictional concept created by the Australian industry.  And here is where it gets interesting, while the American funeral does not exist in a physical sense it is still a very real thing, even somewhat tangible and observable in certain situations.  The American funeral is real as it exists within the Australian funeral industry.  In other words it exists thorough and because of the contemporary Australian industry.

    The American funeral is a creation of the Australian industry, being created both from and by the industry itself.  Just quickly, when I say 'Australian funeral industry' in this context I talk about those employed by various funeral homes, but also those regularly involved with the industry yet not employed by it (such as celebrants).

    So in a sense the American funeral does exist, not physically but mentally, it is a concept and not an actual thing.  The American funeral is a creation of the Australian industry, so on one hand it is a real thing, yet at the same time it is no more than an idea or opinion.

    Recently I spent some time in New Zealand (for a funeral ironically) and was able to have a quick poke around the New Zealand industry.  At the same time I have been reading various journal articles for my honours in anthropology, two of these articles were written about the New Zealand funeral industry by Cyril Schafer.

'Post-mortem personalisation: Pastoral power and the New Zealand funeral director (2007)'

'Corpses, conflict and insignificance? A critican analysis of post-mortem practices (2012)'

    These two articles look at the New Zealand funeral industry from a social sciences perspective and are well worth a read for anyone interested in the industry.  They explore the roles and perspectives surrounding the industry in New Zealand, such as a move towards personalisation.  There are clear similarities between the New Zealand industry as Schafer presents it and the Australian industry as I see it.  Yet, there are many differences between the two as well, key differences in fact.

    Schafer explains that the New Zealand industry noticed a lack of guidance and care in society and as such responded to fill that role, meaning that New Zealand funeral directors not only responded to traditional needs but provided care in increasingly commercial daily life (Schafer 2012 p. 307).

    This is the most salient and significant difference is that New Zealand went towards the desires of the mourners and Australia went towards the needs of the deceased.  As Schafer argues the New Zealand industry focused on the living and grieving while instead Australia focused on honouring the deceased through various means.

    But basically Schafer (and others) have said that the New Zealand industry has focused on responding to a lack of care and guidance within the society.  The New Zealand industry is a caring thing, it looks at grieving in a healthy way, at personal funerals, at expressing oneself.  Yet at the same time the New Zealand industry is almost a perfect example of the American funeral as defined by the Australian industry.  I will go into more detail on this in another post later, but for now I will stick to the point at hand and try to keep it short.

    Despite this, to say the New Zealand industry follows the American style would not be completely accurate as it is not the case.  Plus it would be offensive to many as the American funeral is blindly thought of as negative.  While the New Zealand industry might meet many key definitions of the American funeral as Australia sees it, quite simply it is not following the American funeral.  Rather, it is a good example of how the American funeral does not really exist and is only an idea, a concept created by the Australian industry.

    We can also see this with discussions of various cemetery types within Australia, such as the lawn cemetery.  In Sydney many cemeteries had become dilapidated by the 1920s, Camperdaown is a good example of this.  Camperdown was essentially abandoned and there had been many pushes to turn it into a park, finally when a girl was murdered within it in the 1940s approval was granted to remove Camperdown cemetery.  During this period some were concerned about cemeteries in general; how eventually they ran out of space, which would be a continual issue as Sydney's population grew and land became more scarse in general.

    Adding to this was the question of how to maintain cemeteries, once how the cemetery becomes full it loses the ability to gather revenue for maintenance costs.  Some have also noted that grave become 'abandoned' within three generations.  Essentially the first generation looks after the grave and visits regularly.  The second generation visits occasionally and does look after it to some extent.  But the third generation has little to no involvement with the grave.  Think of how many people maintain their great grandparents, or great great grandparents graves.

    Basically during the 1920s to 1960s questions were being asked about what to do with cemeteries, and new types of cemeteries were being explored.  Here is when the lawn graves arrived to Sydney; these are basic cemeteries, a large lawn with neat rows of basic plaques with few to no raised headstone.  This type of cemetery is designed to be cheaper and easier to maintain, there is less to damage and less to look after.  So, in theory, the cemetery should stay nice and neat throughout time and even after filling up.

    Oddly the lawn cemetery is strongly associated with the American funeral, it is seen as something America imported to Australia.  This is not the case at all, the lawn cemetery originates in the UK and was imported to America and Australia (as well as New Zealand).  So it was not an American thing, but a British idea responding to Australian needs.  Despite this is has become seen as an American system due to other reasons, such as the lack of diversity, the simplified nature, focus on efficiency, and so on.

    The Australian lawn cemetery is a good example of how the American funeral is a theoretical concept; that despite the lawn cemetery having little to nothing to do with America it has been labeled as an aspect of the American funeral.

    It should be noted that to say that the American funeral is only a conceptual thing, that it is not 'real' does not mean it is any less important.  The notion of the American funeral has a huge impact on the Australian funeral industry, and is a large part of the identity for the industry.  Understanding the American funeral is a critical aspect to understanding the Australian industry.

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  1. Anonymous5/6/13 11:58

    My mother passed away a few weeks go, not unexpectedly. I took care of may of the arrangments through a well-known Perth funeral director. In the background of course my wife had to prepare our children (15-y-o girl, 11-y-o boy) for the funeral. In discussing the upcoming event with our son, it transpired his image of a funeral had been formed by American TV shows! My wife had to explain in detail that, for example, we won't be seated around a lawn gravesite with a dome-top coffin suspended above a hole in the ground, but indoors, in a church with the coffin on a trolley at the front, with readings, a eulogy and the like. This is when it dawned on me how for children and young people who have never attended a funeral before, their expectations may be altogether different from reality.

    1. It is funny the difference between TV and reality when it comes to funerals. The whole TV image of a cloudy day, standing around an open grave in black and with a line of black cars in the distance. Then we go to a funeral and find it inside, sunny day, with lots of people not in black and an oddly shaped coffin.

      Actually, it was this difference between TV and reality which lead me to think about the way the Australian funeral industry described the American funeral concept. I realised that the Australian industry was not dissimilar to the TV shows in that it was constructing the American funeral, which didn't really exist. This construction of the American funeral says a lot about the Australian industry, at least for me. What is expected, what desired or idolised, even what is feared or disliked.



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