Change and development in the British funeral industry during the 20th century, with special reference to the period 1960-1994
Historical evidence indicates that the role of the undertaker gradually evolved as the collective responsibilities of family and community for dealing with the dead were passed to a full-time specialist known today as the funeral director. Around 1900 the function of the undertaker was chiefly to supply the coffin and the means of transportation to the place of disposal. However, due to urbanization and the transition of the place of death from home to hospital, both of which have occurred this century, the funeral director's role has developed to embrace that of the custodian of the dead. In conjunction with the preference towards cremation, the shift from animate to vehicular power and the adoption of embalming, the funeral director has acquired not only increased responsibilibty but also considerable control over funeral performance. Parallel with these developments ,a shift in ownership of funeral firms has occurred especially during the last three decades as independent organizations have been acquired by large organizations. This latter type of firm has, it is argued, exploited occupational control attributable to the rationalization of the death and disposal environment by managing their funeral operations on a centralized basis, thus achieving cost savings. Commencing with an overview of the organization of death and disposal since the fifteenth century, this thesis identifies and examines societal and technical changes that have resulted in the control of the disposal process by formal organizations. It is argued in this thesis that through the large centralized organization gaining a presence in the funeral industry a number of negative consequences are apparent. Firstly, although operational economies are achieved there is no evidence to suggest that these are passed on to the consumer. Secondly, retention of the original trading name deceives the public. Thirdly, through fieldwork conducted in a small, independent firm and within a large centralized organization it is concluded that a degree of depersonalization exists. It is further argued that the operational rationale of the large funeral organizations is being challenged as the recent increase in consumer awareness has led to the question of exploitation, such as through a monopoly market structure. The position is compounded by the emerging trend of newly-established independent funeral directors offering competitively priced funerals. The final area examined is the issue of professionalization of the funeral director. Reasons why funeral directors embarked upon this quest are examined followed by an analysis of strategies to achieve the objective. The change in the funeral director's role and the issue of stigmatization through bodyhandling are critically assessed in addition to the contribution to the process by the operational policies of the large organization.