Most people turn to funeral homes to handle end-of-life arrangements when a loved one passes away. Funeral providers are there to help with planning and provide guidance to grieving families. But how did the funeral home role come to be, and how has it changed throughout the years? This article looks at the definition of the term, the responsibilities of a funeral home and how its purpose has evolved.
A funeral home is a business that provides funeral services for a deceased person and their families. The establishment traditionally handles the preparation of a deceased person’s body for final disposition and memorial services such as a viewing, visitation, wake, etc.
However, the common definition has started to change over the years. A funeral home was once a physical location where a body would be prepared for burial or cremation, however with the emergence of lower-cost direct disposition service business, what is referred to as a funeral home can look a lot different these days than a business staffed by an undertaker who works in a grand old building adorned with gothic revival style elements from the Victorian era.
These days a contemporary funeral home business, such as Eirene Cremations, can be operated as a direct cremation business using the same third-party crematorium facilities that traditional funeral homes also use. To keep overhead low and pricing for its customers affordable, Eirene doesn’t own or operate a “funeral home” premises.
Yet the company’s aftercare staff are still licensed funeral directors, and the company still provides end-of-life arrangements providing direct cremation services.
A funeral company may be referred to as any one of the following terms, depending on what end-of-life arrangements it offers and where it is located:
Funeral rites and traditions as we know them today in Western societies have their roots in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Before the 19th century, funeral services were handled primarily by the deceased person’s family. However, responsibilities shifted with the introduction of the role of undertaker, which is essentially an early version of a funeral director. The term was used to describe an individual that took on funeral responsibilities not handled by the deceased person’s family.
Families continued to take on the brunt of funeral arrangements, with undertakers handling transportation and coffin building. The undertaker would also check on the body leading up to funeral services and place flowers to mask unpleasant odours. However, when embalming became more common, families saw the value of having embalming and funeral services handled by someone else. This allowed undertaking to evolve into a profession towards the end of the 19th century.
Initially, undertakers would embalm bodies at their homes and return the deceased person’s body to their loved ones for formal services. However, as communities and demand grew, services conducted at funeral homes became a preference over holding funeral rites at a family's home.
As more funeral homes emerged, so did other businesses to serve the funeral industry (e.g., casket manufacturers, cemeteries, florists, etc.) and the demand for custom-tailored services (e.g., funeral homes offering non-western religious traditions). Funeral homes also began offering cremation services on-site or through partnerships with crematoriums.
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Early funeral homes were small, family-owned businesses. These establishments are still common, but there has been a growing trend toward franchising.
Many funeral homes have also diversified their services to help differentiate them from other establishments. For example, some businesses have simplified their services to offer a lower-cost alternative. Other funeral homes focused on less traditional final arrangements or sustainable funeral alternatives such as aquamation (alkaline hydrolysis) or green burials.
Funeral homes have also become more specialized and regulated. Funeral homes must adhere to specific laws and standards designed to protect families and ensure their loved ones are treated respectfully. Funeral staff must also be properly licensed, educated, and trained to uphold these standards. Regulations are typically created and enforced by the local government (in Canada, funerals are regulated by the provincial government in each province) and monitored by funeral regulatory boards to protect consumer rights.
The role of the funeral director has also shifted slightly. In early funeral homes, the undertaker handled most of the funeral arrangements and responsibilities on their own. Today, funeral directors have many responsibilities and oversee several aspects of funeral services. Funeral directors are supported by a diverse staff, from customer service professionals to licensed embalmers.
Many funeral homes have also become more personalized. In addition to handling the logistics for the funeral, staff offer support and guidance to families to make a difficult time a little easier.
The definition of a funeral home can change based on how a provincial government (in Canada) and its regulators define it in legislation. That changes province by province.
For example, in Nova Scotia, a business like Eirene, which offers direct cremations but not burial services, can be referred to as a funeral home. The same goes for Eirene's operations in Saskatchewan.
In Ontario, there are four classes of funeral business licenses. Because Eirene does not offer full funeral or memorial services or embalming, Eirene is not licensed or referred to as a funeral home or funeral establishment operator. Instead, the company is licensed as a Class 1 Transfer Service Operator, which allows it to transfer a human body from the place of death to a holding room, visitation, ceremony or cremation and then to a cemetery or crematorium, for what is referred to as a "direct disposition".
Eirene generically is referred to in Ontario as a cremation services provider, even though in other provinces, it can be called a funeral home company. It's a matter of regulatory semantics.
Generically, Eirene is a funeral home company that makes cremation funerals as straightforward as possible while still providing the support and guidance needed to make informed decisions and peace of mind that their loved ones are in good hands. Below are some of the ways Eirene makes funeral planning easier.