How were the foundations laid for the commercialization of today's funeral industry? In this historical review (Parts 1-3), three developmental steps become visible. Firstly, the transition from church to state regulation with the influence of the association system, which still steers the funeral market today. Secondly, the change from a communal and family-based, to a professionalized care of the dead. The last development is the transition from the craft trade to a technical-business economic system.
During the Second World War, the privately run funeral homes were nationalized as part of the National Socialist restructuring. It was not until after the Second World War that new professional organizations for the funeral trade were founded on the West German side. In 1957, the central Federal Association of German Undertakers (BDB) was formed.
"In addition to this central federal association, which represents the majority of funeral directors, umbrella associations for the casket, gravestone, and funeral goods industries, horticulture, and other sub-aspects of funeral service formed beginning in the 1950s"1describes researcher Dr. Akyel.
The new federal states followed suit after reunification. To date, the interests of the respective professional groups relating to bereavement have been combined in 16 professional associations. By merging into associations, the commercial and political interests of the profession can be safeguarded against national and international competition. Also a repeated expropriation by the government is to be prevented thereby. At the same time, the commercialization and professionalization of the funeral profession can be advanced. It creates professional standards.
In the course of the emerging economization process, not only governmental and corporate actions are influenced, but also the moral, cultural and economic demand in society. As a result of the dissolution of traditional consumerism, funeral ceremonies are undergoing a change in values. "Elaborate funerals and ceremonies that had been the exclusive preserve of the upper classes in the estates-based society now established themselves in the middle and lower classes as well," explains Dr. Akyel further2. This also changed the profession of funeral director.
Whereas in the past, craftsmanship, such as building a coffin, was the main part of the profession, today funeral directors have very personal and individual relationships with the bereaved. They are companions through a difficult and emotional time. There is no automation in the traditional funeral home. This is also expected by the relatives. The value of a funeral home consists of close customer contact, the high level of expertise and application knowledge of the funeral professional and the trust that goes with it. The relationship is based on human interaction on the ground. This is a deep and intimate relationship. The funeral home relies on the trust of its customers.
This trust is strengthened by the associations, for example through test seals. They also strengthen the German funeral market against competition from abroad and thus protect small family-run businesses. On the other hand, it paralyzes innovation in funeral culture. While new types of burial are already being established in the U.S., the associations in Germany are sticking to mandatory cemetery burial and merely listing new options for burying ashes (see our article A Changing Mourning Culture
But we are in the midst of a generational change and that holds great opportunities. Old-established family businesses are being carried on by a younger generation. New forms of saying goodbye are being allowed and digital concepts of saying goodbye are emerging. We would like to play an active role in shaping the latter in particular. With our work on a virtual farewell room, we want to develop a new business model for morticians and funeral orators who dare a lateral entry into digitization. Through our software, we enable a location-independent farewell and thus expand the product portfolio of funeral directors and funeral orators. The use of virtual space should be seen as a supplement to the physical funeral ceremony in the close circle of relatives and can be used precisely where analog and location-dependent circumstances reach their limits. (Continue reading Part 1 and Part 2)
Cover Image Credits:
- With the kind permission of the Funeral Museum Vienna
- Akyel, Dominic (2013): Die Ökonomisierung der Pietät. Der Wandel des Bestattungsmarkts in Deutschland, in: Schriften aus dem Max-Planck-Institut für Gesellschaftsforschung Köln (Hrsg.): Bd. 76, Frankfurt am Main: Campus-Verlag.
- Akyel, Dominic; Beckert, Jens (2014): Pietät und Profit. Kultureller Wandel und Marktentstehung am Beispiel des Bestattungsmarktes, in: KZfSS Kölner Zeitschrift für Soziologie und Sozialpsychologie, 66. Jg., Heft 3/2014.