The Changing Death Industry: Reconnecting with Tradition

Mortuary science graduates report that building a career as a funeral director has become difficult these days, unless you inherit the role, know someone, or have incredibly good fortune.   Perhaps frustrating, but too, perhaps this heralds a sign for the future of the death industry.  When one path closes to many, others open.  Let’s explore

What we think of as traditional funeral practices, actually aren’t.   The current practice of embalming, in fact much of how we handle our dead from the moment they die forward, actually reeks of modernity, not tradition.   Tradition would be sitting with the dying where possible; bathing and dressing them yourself, and holding a viewing in your home. Not calling in experts to take the whole process off your hands.

War changed tradition in many areas of life, including funeral practices.   During the Civil War, in order to preserve bodies of lost soldiers so they could arrive home in reasonable condition, the new science of embalming was incorporated.   The practice caught on, and soon enough we stopped caring for our own dead, turning the body over to others, saving us the realities of death.   They would kindly pump the body up so it looks fuller, add cosmetics, and next thing you know we say goodbye to someone who looks a closer approximation (arguably) to their living self, instead of facing the jarring reality of mortality.

Telling ourselves this is tradition, however, is an exercise in lying.   It is modernity – and yet, that modernity is one being chipped away at by the growing popularity of such practices as home funeral, and green and natural burial – this even newer modernity an almost return to old traditions, with a few spins.

Recognizing a number of realities has contributed to this shift back to more time-honored genuine traditions:  understanding the environmental impact of embalming chemicals leached into our ecosystem, and on the workers who handle them; the environmental impact of funeral practices in terms of trees, concrete, and steel; high cost; and a realization that a disconnect with death may impact our healing process, and how we handle our own views on mortality.   Increasingly, people are looking to explore other options.  In fact, one could even argue that a growing number of people are aching to feel a deeper connection, a greater authenticity, in how we connect with others, including in death.

This new trend of seeking to deliver time-honored traditions into the modern world in a way that reflects the times brings with it pathways to new careers.  In addition to the founding of natural cemeteries, there are other options popping up, such as the End-of-life, death, and mourning doulas, and death midwives we train and certify at Momdoulary, LLC’s Momdoulary Method Passages Division.

Certified in the use of our method six different areas, our graduates create diverse careers for themselves.  Their training also prepares them as professional organizers and life coaches – this means they can support individuals through the process of navigating options for end-of-life care and support, through the final hours of life, and then in turn supporting the family as they navigate either ”traditional” funeral set-up or serve as death midwives, helping prepare the body (where legal – at the time of this writing home funeral is still not allowable in a small number of US states), and even assisting at times as ceremonialist – then, after the dust has settled, they can provide support as one manages the material artifacts of the lost loved one, while providing coaching as one looks to the future.

Graduates are finding those who seek to work with them are looking to feel more involved in all aspects of dealing with death.   They report, as well, the connection they feel with the families they work with, and that while the work carries emotional weight, it also carries with it deep reward, knowing they helped provide a more fully informed, involved send-off, that honored the departed while supporting those left to feel the loss.

They report that many are opting to decline embalming, opting for refrigeration; are choosing more easily biodegradable caskets (when not opting for a simple shroud where natural/green burials are allowed), and opting to create more personalized memorial services.  Too, they report that their clients generally find they spend more meaningful time with their dead (yes, even those not practicing home funeral), allowing them to experience a healing, and more meaningful send-off.

While a number of our graduates also work with people who plan ‘modern traditional ‘ funerals – the kind that include embalming and all the bells and whistles incorporated in recent decades – they find that even in such instances, families feel supported working with a mourning doula in such instances, knowing their mourning doula will provide physical, emotional, and navigational support through all the little details following a loss.  Their mourning doula will be there as they plan the funeral, providing them with tips and tricks for both creating a meaningful send-off, while also demonstrating cost-cutting options, and more importantly, helping ensure their grief isn’t hijacked by a sales pitch.

Of course, this is only a small part of what their mourning doula will provide.   Their mourning doula will also manage a lot of little administrative details, serve as their assistant.  Do they need phone calls made, clothing run to a funeral home?  Their mourning doula can manage those things, and all the other little details.   Their doula is also there to ensure they are eating and resting where they can, providing as much physical, emotional, informational, and administrative assistance as possible as they move through this difficult time.

However, it isn’t only in the aftermath of deaths where no pre-planning was involved that we see new career paths opening.    When a terminally ill patient has no family, or family is at a distance, we often see a death doula called in, someone to stay with them, especially when they want to die-at-home.  Too, sometimes we even see death doulas in a hospice or hospital setting, when extra assurances of support are to be there.  The non-clinical role of the death doula is a uniquely supportive one.   Granted, they can cross over with hospice work, but too their focus is single-minded, and they are there to provide as significant continuous support as possible.   Again, we see the death doula particularly shine when working with the patient opting to die at home.

Where home funeral is allowed, the death midwife is growing in demand.