The History of Home Funerals
“Home funerals” have been the norm throughout human history. In the United States, home funerals were widely practiced until the beginning of the twentieth century. When a loved one died, families washed and dressed them, combed their hair, laid them out, and lamented. While neighbors built the coffin or wound the shroud, others dug the grave, made a meal, or sat with the body to say their goodbyes.
Family and friends cared for the body and kept it laid out at home for as many days as it took to build, dig, and in some cases, wait for signs of decomposition to ensure the person was not being buried alive (a popular fear for many years). Economic resources, immigrant status, and religion all influenced what people did during the viewing, but holding a vigil was common. Death care was a personal, handcrafted endeavor, and involvement in the process was a demonstration of compassion and emotional investment in town, village or prairie life.
During the Civil War, soldiers died on battlefields far from home, and families wanted their dead children returned to them. The bodies shipped by train, and the long, slow, journeys, especially in the summer, were sometimes gruesome affairs of decaying bodies and unpleasant scenes. The desire to slow decomposition in an era before refrigeration promoted the development of embalming.
Soldiers were sometimes embalmed right on the battlefields, shipped via train, then brought to their mother’s door by the local livery driver. Furniture builders and cabinetmakers started making coffins. The first mass-marketed coffins were produced to meet the demand created by the war, and the trade of Undertaking slowly came into being. The embalmed body of assassinated President Lincoln was put on display before thousands of Americans, giving embalming its first major marketing moment.
By the end of the 19th Century, the job of Undertaker was a trade which was regularly seen on census records, even in rural areas. By 1955, the US had more than 700 casket makers, and embalming, caskets and grave liners were aggressively marketed as preventing decomposition (a false claim). Undertakers had successfully transformed their public image from tradesmen to moral arbiters of death practices and necessary experts in the mysterious world of death care. A perception grew that there was a legal requirement to hire professionals after a death, contributing to the false narrative that it is illegal to touch a dead body, that it must be embalmed, and that families no longer had the right to care for their own dead.
In the early 1990s, home funeral educators began teaching old skills and promoting family-conceived and family-led home-based care to inform the public and to empower families to take back the responsibility and privilege of bathing, dressing, and mourning loved ones in the privacy of their own homes. Home funerals are often associated with green burials.
More individuals, families, and care communities are rising up in the face of exorbitant professional costs, spiritually disaffected procedures, and environmental concerns in search of affordable, meaningful and authentic funerals. The National Home Funeral Alliance was founded in 2010 to further support families in keeping this deeply human and truly traditional practice available and accessible to all.
[Much of the above is derived from an article by Terry Skrovronek which can be found here: https://www.homefuneralalliance.org/home-funeral-history.html]