The term Death Care Industry refers to companies and organizations that provide services related to death: funerals, cremation or burial, and memorials. This includes for example funeral homes, coffins, crematoria, cemeteries, and headstones. The death care industry within the U.S. consists mainly of small, family-owned businesses.
The advent of embalming in the normal course of preparation of corpses for burial led directly to the transition of death care from a job predominately performed by women at home to an industry. During the Civil War, hundreds of soldiers died away from home and the process of embalming aided in preserving the bodies until they could be transported for burial. The process gained popularity after the funeral procession of Abraham Lincoln's embalmed corpse. Early techniques in embalming were primitive: an article in 1898, written in the Journal of Medicine and Science criticized and brought to attention the manner in which the arsenic used to preserve corpses had leeched into the soil and the groundwater near cemeteries. The first embalming school, Cincinnati School of Embalming, was created in 1882. As a means of monitoring and establishing the protocol for handling corpses, the first mortuary schools were established in 1898, along with the National Funeral Directors Association, which is still the leading industry association today.
Prior to the mid-19th century, the dead were prepared, dressed, and displayed by their own family. The body was displayed in a homemade or purchased casket in the family's home. Wealthier families had "proper" rooms that held their finest possessions during viewings, and some family homes had a separate door known as a "coffin door" or "death door" to remove the body as it was custom for the body not to cross a doorway where the living crossed.
Embalming emerged during the Civil War since many soldiers were dying on the battlefield and their families wanted their bodies sent back home for burial. Dr. Auguste Renouard, a pioneer in the field of embalming, published "The Undertakers' Manual" in 1878. The first embalming school, the Cincinnati School of Embalming, was founded in 1882 by Joseph Henry Clarke, and in 1883, Dr. Renouard opened the Rochester School of Embalming. The push for embalming occurred simultaneously with the move away from families caring for the dead and for undertakers to organize themselves as "professionals." The first professional trade association was established in Philadelphia in 1964.
The first national convention for funeral directors was held in Rochester, New York in 1882 after Alan Durfee, a Michigan funeral director planned a successful statewide convention. The first constitution of the National Funeral Directors Association was drafted in 1882.
The industry underwent changes as the public responded to Jessica Mitford's The American Way of Death in 1963. The book was released at a time when consumer consciousness and empowerment altered Americans' buying and spending habits. Due to the response to Mitford's book, the Federal Trade Commission began its own investigation of the death care industry in the 1970s. By 1984, the FTC issued the Federal Trade Rule which included regulations such as requiring funeral directors to provide detailed, itemized price lists to all clients, informing clients that embalming is not required by law, and allowing clients to choose non-traditional alternatives.
Millennials have been raised in and grown up in a time of extreme technology growth. As such, the marketing strategies required to reach them will need to change. Several moves the industry may take include the use of technology, using social media, and offering non-traditional services or venues. Additionally, this generation is not only expected to impact the industry based on their spending but also through their labor. By 2030, millennials will constitute 75% of the workforce for the death care industry.
A number of factors make this business unique from the customer's point of view, according to the Federal Trade Commission. Funerals are among the most expensive purchases many consumers will ever make; most often, a consumer goes through the decision making for this process once, so that there is little experience, and often few sources of information are used; and those making funeral decisions may be under time pressure and significant emotional duress. Funeral homes are regulated under the Funeral Rule.
Beginning in 1972, the FTC began investigating the funeral industry. In August 1975, the FTC released a proposal that suggested the following regulations: prices must be itemized, permission of the next of kin must be obtained before embalming, prices must be quoted over the telephone if requested, and the most inexpensive casket must be displayed with the others. Additionally, the FTC Funeral Rule outlawed false claims and efforts by undertakers to blackball funeral homes that provided cheaper services.
In the United States, there are more than 19,322 funeral homes, approximately 115,000 cemeteries, 1,155 crematories, and an estimated 300 casket sellers. The total revenue produced from the funeral industry in the U.S. alone was $14.2 billion in 2016. Enough embalming fluid is buried every year to fill eight Olympic-size pools; more steel (in caskets alone) than was used to build the Golden Gate Bridge; and enough reinforced concrete to construct a two-lane highway from New York to Detroit.
In the 1960s, a push for large companies acquiring smaller funeral homes and cemeteries occurred. Although there has been a consistent push for consolidation, the majority of the industry still consists of small, family-owned businesses. Experts and analysts of the industry have estimated that the top six funeral operators control 25 to 30% of all funeral services in North America, with the top four owning between 15 and 20% of all funeral homes.
The industry is experiencing a recent trend toward cremation as opposed to the traditional funeral and burial services due to lower costs and increased value. By the year 2020, the rate of cremation is expected to be 56.2% versus 37.8% for burial. Regardless of choice of funerary option, the overall industry is experiencing growth due to the aging baby-boomer generation.
Between the years of 1990 and 2018, the overall average inflation rate was 2.32% per year while the average inflation rate for funeral expenses was 3.71% per year. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, this means that the average cost of a funeral in 2018 is 177.43% more expensive than a funeral in 1990.