The business of saying goodbye

Today's funeral directors still face stigma

Date published: 2008-02-25 1:37:30 PM

Prehistoric burial sites show that the desire to ensure a suitable send-off is nothing new. But over the last 150 years, an entire industry has grown up to organize the rituals we use to mark the passing of our loved ones.

Dr. Ivan Emke, a professor of social and cultural studies at Memorial University of Newfoundland, explains that while most people understand funeral directors perform essential work, they can’t imagine choosing to be one.

Even with the popularity of such shows as Six Feet Under, “people really aren’t exactly sure what they do,” says Emke. “Are they technicians who take care of things like embalming and look after the presentation of the body? Are they caregivers for the living like clergy or social workers? Or are they entrepreneurs because they sell products and run businesses?”

Emke has spent the last few years researching the role of funeral directors and their impact on our rituals around death and dying.

He’s particularly interested in the training funeral services students receive—typically one year of study in a community college program, followed by an apprenticeship in a funeral home—and how this prepares them to enter an occupation so fraught with stigma and suspicion.

“Funeral directors are trying to deflect some of the stigma attached to their occupation and enhance its status by emphasizing the professional and therapeutic nature of what they do.”

These professional services range from dealing with legal matters, such as the paperwork necessary to obtain a death certificate, to providing what is known as ‘aftercare,’ or helping people to grieve their loss.

“With the decline in the importance of religion, funeral directors have also become the protectors of funeral rituals,” he says. “Their central product is really a ritual, so to some extent they create their own demand, but no more than dentists who promote regular checkups or lawyers who remind us of our legal options.”

And Emke suggests that funeral directors’ motives are, typically, quite noble. In his interviews with funeral directors, he was struck by the number of students and young funeral directors who described their work as not just another job, but as a calling.

“Although they know the work is hard and doesn’t pay very well, at least at first, these people really want to help families through a very difficult time.”

Ivan Emke's latest SSHRC research looks at how rural areas survive in the new economy.