The Research Page

Researching changes to funeral customs

(July 9, 1998, Gazette)

By Sonia B. Glover

Times they are a-changin'. This saying is particularly true for funeral customs in Newfoundland and Labrador and the professionalization of the funeral industry.

A researcher at Sir Wilfred Grenfell College is studying the changes that have taken place in funeral customs over the years, and the effect these changes may be having on how we dispose of the dead.

Dr. Ivan Emke told the Gazette that it's very common to hear of studies being conducted on funeral rituals of other cultures, but rarely do we study our own.

"We would look at other cultures and be intrigued by them and say, ‘isn't this quaint or unusual, and why do they do this or do that?' Funeral customs are clearly one of the major passageways in our I was interested in looking at our own customs."

Dr. Emke said it used to be tradition to keep the body of a loved one in the home where family and friends would come to say their good-byes before heading to the church for a service and then to the cemetery for burial. Today, however, the common funeral practice is to hold the wake either in a funeral home or church.

"Therefore, this changes the kind of activities that can go on around the body or with the body present and it changes the whole dynamic of what funerals are and how functional they are," he said.

According to Dr. Emke, one of the reasons for this change is the growth of a professional funeral industry.

"Whenever you have a group of people who set aside a part of the world as their own special domain, they are going to have some influence on that activity, just like doctors influence the kind of the things we go to them for, and how dentists influence the way we treat our teeth. Undertakers, I think, influence the way we say good-bye to our loved ones...and not just how we dispose of the remains, but also the whole ceremony after the point of death until the burial."

Dr. Emke said his research shows that changes in the traditional funeral have also come about because society has become less connected with death.

"The whole rise of the medical profession is set up to deny death as long as possible. These days, people are dying in hospitals or on their way to a already an institution has possession of the body and then they hand it over to another profession and therefore it's harder for the body to be brought back to the home to be waked.

"When a person is dying in hospital, the family is often asked to leave the room and we don't actually see what some people would say is a good death; we don't see people expire quietly or peacefully anymore, so we have little connection with the dead," added Dr. Emke.

He said the prime job of funeral professionals years ago was disposing of the remains, whereas today, it is caring for the living.

"Today if you ask anyone why they work in the funeral industry they don't talk about wanting to look after the remains, they focus on wanting to help people who are grieving...they want to help the living and those in need. Times have changed, which reflected a change in titles from mortician to undertaker to funeral director to funeral professional."

This is evident in a survey Dr. Emke conducted as part if his research. The survey focused on the province's 75 funeral homes and results clearly show that funeral directors are very committed to helping those in grief.

"The willingness by the funeral professionals to participate in this survey was surprising. I think part of it is they feel they are not well understood and that the perception of embalmers and funeral directors is still a negative one, so they wanted a chance to tell their story."

Dr. Emke said an obvious shift in funeral customs over the years has been towards the display of the body as being the central feature of the funeral. "Displaying the body has really become a central aspect of the service, so that means funeral directors need to have a lot of training in restorative arts or cosmetology."

Dr. Emke's research also shows that there is continued increase in the number of requests for additional restorative work on bodies.

"The way the body looks has become very important and families want work done to bodies even where it is very difficult," said Dr. Emke. "People who have been ill for a long time means their body changes and the face changes, but there's still a request for the embalmer to do additional work. Some would say we are moving more towards creating an experience where people see dead bodies that don't look dead at all."

The one area where there hasn't been much change is the type of burial or disposing of bodies; the majority opt for an earth burial. Dr. Emke said, however, there are some slow changes in relation to cremation.

"According to estimates, about four per cent of Newfoundland bodies are being cremated, which is low, but one reason for this is we didn't have a crematorium in our province until 1986, so up until then the body was shipped to Halifax for cremation."

Dr. Emke added, "Nationally, close to 30 per cent of bodies are being cremated and over half are being cremated in British Columbia...although there is a bit of bias against cremation in this province because of religious traditions, most people recognize that cremation is becoming more popular in Newfoundland."

While some may find studying death or how we dispose of the dead a bit macabre, Dr. Emke told the Gazette that issues surrounding how we say good-bye to a loved one are crucial in terms of whether we grieve successfully.

"I think it would be good for people to think more about death-related issues before they have to think about them."

According to Dr. Emke, some grief counsellors say one reason why many people never fully complete the grieving stage is because they are divorced from the body and the funeral process.

"We have very little contact with the body because the funeral profession has taken over that. Some would say it is the washing of the body, the dressing of the body and sitting with the body where the important grief work begins, but in many cases we are not able to do that."

So what about caskets? Has there been any major changes in the type of casket people are buying?

"Yes, indeed," said Dr. Emke, who is also intrigued by the change from wood coffins to metal ones. "I'm interested in the move towards metal coffins and the whole idea of the protection of the body and knowing that your loved on will be protected for a longer period."

Dr. Emke said he will focus on that aspect of his research on funeral customs over the next few months.