What's the History of Funerals in the United States?

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For as long as there have been humans, there have been funerals. Every society, religion, and culture has its own funeral rites, and the United States is no different. 

Historically, funerals in the United States almost always followed religious tradition or had religious elements. Over time, as various religions and cultures made their way to the US, American funerals became more personalized and individual. 

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If you’re curious about what funerals in the United States looked like in the early days of the nation, or if you want to compare those historic funerals to American funerals today, continue on. 

What Were the First Funerals Like in the US?

To understand the history of American funerals, it’s important to go all the way back to the beginning. So what were funerals like for the earliest Americans? 

Native American funerals 

Before it was the United States, the land we occupy today belonged to thousands of indigenous tribes. Each tribe had its own identity, its own way of life, and its own philosophy about death. It would be impossible to summarize what Native American funerals were like prior to the 1500s.

But as an example of some of the very first funerals that took place in what is now the US, we can look at two Native American populations: one of the largest indigenous nations in early America, Sioux Nation, and a prehistoric population known as the “mound-builders.” 

Historic Sioux funerals

Family members and friends took part in a four-day viewing, which was thought to help the deceased person’s spirit travel to its final resting place.

The tribe would place the body on a burial scaffold for one year prior to burial. They would wrap the body in blankets and cloth and surround it with personal belongings.  

Mound-builder funerals

The mound-builders were a large population of indigenous Americans who built earthen mounds. The mounds date back to around 1000 BCE, and they’re found in eastern North America. 

It’s thought that some of these mounds were built as effigies (in the shape of a giant serpent, for example). Other mounds were used as platforms and likely served as places of religious worship. 

But many of the mounds are the final resting place for ancient human remains. Gifts and possessions have been found inside the mounds, which could indicate how populations like the Sioux Nation developed their funeral rites. 

American funerals before the 1800s 

By 1650, the English had a permanent presence on the eastern coast of the New World. The United States would gain its independence in 1776. And throughout that time, funerals in the American settlements didn’t change much. Here’s what they looked like. 

Most families cared for their own dead

There typically wasn’t a professional mortician around to clean and dress the deceased. Instead, families took on the task themselves and took care of the dead at home. They would wash the body, dress the body, and place it in a casket, which the family made or purchased from a general store or carpenter. 

Women tended to the body

Each community in the New World had a group of women who came to help with “laying out the dead.” That is, dressing and displaying the deceased body. 

Funerals happened at home

Similarly, home funerals were the standard practice in early America. After preparing and dressing the body, a family would display their loved one at home and allow visitors to view the body. 

Some families had a specific room for funerals

The earliest American homes were too small to have formal parlors. But as the houses grew, proper families made sure they had a presentable front room for guests. They would keep the room clean and fill it with family heirlooms, collectibles, and other decorations. Since the parlor was hardly ever used, it was also the perfect place to hold the wake when a family member died. 

Some even had a special door for the dead

Some wealthy families in the 19th century had a “death door” leading from the formal parlor to the outdoors. Removing a dead body through the same door that the living used to enter the house was considered improper. 

A service took place at a church

If there was a church nearby, the family would bring the casket there for a formal religious service. Then, they would take the casket to a nearby cemetery--usually adjacent to the church--or to the family’s property for burial. 

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What Were the First Funeral Homes Like?

As the population of the United States grew and became centered around major cities, there became a need for professional funeral services and a location dedicated to mourning. 

Too many people might attend a wake for the service to take place in a family’s own home. So each city needed at least one funeral home to house these viewings. 

And many more people were requesting highly specialized services, like embalming, which became popular following the Civil War. So a professional funeral director, known back then as an undertaker, was needed to perform those tasks. The first undertakers in America were cabinet-makers and carpenters who had experience building caskets.

The first funeral homes, or “funeral parlors,” had living quarters for the funeral director and a dedicated space for public viewings. Because many of the first undertakers were cabinet-makers, they often had their shops in the same or nearby buildings. 

On one side, an undertaker might house his wares (including caskets), while in the room adjacent, he would “lay out the dead” and hold viewings. 

How Have Funerals and Funeral Homes Changed in the US?

In many ways, funerals in the United States are the same today as they were hundreds of years ago.

A traditional funeral today still includes a “wake” or viewing at a funeral home. The funeral service itself still usually takes place at the funeral home or a place of worship. And most funerals are still followed up by a traditional burial in a casket, too. 

But since their origins, American funerals have also changed in multiple ways. 

Funeral directors are professionals 

When undertakers started helping families with their dead, they considered themselves “tradesmen” rather than professionals. Many of them were only moonlighting as undertakers, with their primary job being cabinet-making. 

But over time, communities started valuing the work of the undertaker more, making it a viable career on its own. Professional undertakers became known as morticians or funeral directors. 

And in the early 1900s, the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA) started pushing funeral directors to consider themselves “professionals” rather than tradesmen. 

Embalming became more popular 

Embalming first came to the United States during the Civil War, when soldiers’ bodies needed to be preserved for their long journeys home. 

The NFDA encouraged funeral directors to use embalming. This helped create the perception that funeral directors were public health professionals. 

Alternatives to burial became commonplace

Early in American history, burial was the norm. The first crematorium opened in the late 1800s in Pennsylvania, but it was met with intense hostility. 

Today, many people choose cremation over burial without judgment from the funeral home or community. You can opt for direct cremation, which doesn’t include a funeral beforehand, or traditional cremation, which does. 

Many people skip the funeral

Funeral homes today aren’t only responsible for helping families hold funerals. They also help with direct cremation, mentioned above, as well as direct burial. With direct cremation and direct burial, a funeral home still helps prepare the body and facilitate the burial or cremation process. 

Funerals are more personal

Early American funerals followed the traditions set by the Catholic and Protestant Churches. Today, traditional American funerals follow many of the same rites laid out by those religions. But a funeral can also be highly personal and individual. 

Many families choose to celebrate a person’s life rather than exclusively mourning their death. Many hold funerals outdoors or in community buildings rather than in a church or funeral home. Today, your funeral can look however you’d like it to, and it isn’t as limited as it would have been in early America. 

Why We Have Funerals

Mourning rituals aren’t just an invention of human society. Researchers believe many species in the animal kingdom practice mourning rites, too.  

In 2003, researchers watched as a parade of African elephants visited the body of a deceased matriarch. In all, five separate groups of elephants came to visit the body. The elephants stayed within close range, and many of them periodically touched the matriarch’s remains with their feet and trunks. 

Similar animal “funeral” rituals can be seen amongst dolphins, various primates, giraffes, and even scrub jays. 

So even though human funerals are unique (and probably the most elaborate of the whole animal kingdom), our reasons for holding funerals are much the same. 

Just like elephants and dolphins, we have an instinctual need to mourn the dead, say goodbye, and honor our departed loved ones. Even as funerals evolve and change, that underlying purpose stays the same. 


Sources:

  1. “History and customs.” National Funeral Directors Association. https://nfda.org/consumer-resources/why-a-funeral/history-and-customs
  2. “North American funerals: History of U.S. traditions.” https://thefuneralsource.org/hi0301.html
  3. Koskan, Danie. “Native American funerals have changed but retain unique qualities.” Rapid City Journal. 15 November 2014. https://rapidcityjournal.com/lifestyles/faith-and-values/native-american-funerals-have-changed-but-retain-unique-qualities/article_1a401652-917b-5368-807e-b24c47b665ff.html
  4. Douglas-Hamilton, Iain et al. “Behavioural reactions of elephants towards a dying and deceased matriarch.” Applied Animal Behaviour Science. Volume 100, Issues 1–2, October 2006, Pages 87-102. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2006.04.014
  5. Funeral homes and funeral practices.” Case Western Reserve University - Encyclopedia of Cleveland History. https://case.edu/ech/articles/f/funeral-homes-and-funeral-practices

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