Article By: Halley Burns and Linnea Crowther

Funerals have undergone a dramatic change in the last century. Once formulaic affairs, today’s ceremonies are often just as unique as the people they memorialize. And funeral directors have kept pace, mastering new skills to help families honor loved ones in new ways.

Recent trends such as space burials and creative coffins make it clear that the industry has transformed since the days of cut-and-dried services and burials. However, those trends are far from the first instances of funeral directors accommodating societal shifts. Below, we explore four examples of how funeral directors have evolved their services to serve families better.

1. Specializing in Caskets

In the pre-Civil War era, caskets were sometimes used in funerals but families often buried loved ones in simple shrouds. As droves of young men died in the war, though, caskets became a necessity to transport them home. At first, families had to visit regular furniture shops to request coffins, but funeral professionals saw the growing need and began opening specialty casket rooms. Earl Wendt, the funeral director behind Wendt Funeral Home, noted that this was the genesis of his own family’s business.

“A lot of funeral homes had furniture stores in them, in the very beginning,” Wendt said. “They were combination furniture stores and funeral homes. Ours was A.H. Wendt Furniture and Coffin Room.”

A photo of A.H. Wendt Furniture and Coffin Room.

A.H. Wendt Furniture and Coffin Room (courtesy Wendt Funeral Home)

2. Learning the Art of Embalming

Embalming wasn’t always so commonplace in the United States. As with casket burials, the practice was popularized by wartime, when fallen soldiers’ families wanted to see their loved ones buried nearby rather than on a faraway battlefield. Decomposition made that difficult, however. A surgeon named Dr. Thomas Holmes addressed the problem by introducing embalming, a practice he’d previously experimented with to preserve cadavers for anatomical studies.

Demand rose, even among civilians. Funeral professionals quickly began adapting, attending special embalming schools to perfect their technique. Aside from technical skill, a comforting manner was necessary to soothe families embalming loved ones for the first time. Clients began putting deeper trust in funeral professionals not only for embalming, but also for other tasks such as hosting the ceremony, transporting the body and procuring flowers.

3. Expanding Prayer and Spirituality

For decades, funerals rarely deviated from a strict formula: two days of visitation followed by a religious service and burial. Today, however, there is no set formula, and funeral directors accommodate people of a wide breadth of faiths – and no faith at all.

“Our culture is constantly redefining what the norm is. … In the 21st century, the number of people connected to organized religion is down,” said David Andrew Clayton, executive vice president of Wilson St. Pierre. “People still want ceremonies with spirituality, a connection to something beyond them … just not what mom, dad, grandma or grandpa had.”

Shari Wolf, the founder of Natural Grace Funerals, says that every family is different when it comes to adding an element of spirituality into the natural burials she facilitates.

“We work with families that have very traditional religious services, to very simple get-togethers and celebrations of life,” Wolf said. “It may be even as simple as helping to fill back in the grave.”

Funeral service for a natural burial.

Funeral service for a natural burial. (courtesy The Meadow Natural Burial Ground)

4. Personalizing the Service

In the mid-1980s, baby boomers were beginning to bury their parents. Members of the independent-minded generation wanted to honor loved ones in their own unique way, and funeral directors began offering services to accommodate those preferences.

“(Boomers) didn’t like the same old cookie-cutter funeral,” said Mark Krause of Krause Funeral Home. “So we started introducing things to help people personalize, starting with collage boards. Things that we call memory tables, where we bring out items that represent the person’s life – hobbies, interests, maybe awards or diplomas.”

Today, forward-thinking funeral directors will incorporate nearly any element one can imagine, from bringing in therapy dogs to comfort mourners to hosting a witness cremation, which allows families to be present at the crematory and have a last visit with their loved one’s body. And as society becomes ever more connected digitally, some professionals are offering funeral webcasting and other ways for families to tell their loved ones’ life stories online. Jeff Jorgensen of Elemental Cremation and Burial predicts that families will continue wanting to be more deeply engaged in – and in control of – the funeral process.

“I think (funeral directors) are going to have to expand our offerings to be more a planner, like a wedding planner,” he said. “Wedding planners are event coordinators, and that’s what we are going to need to become. Instead of someone who provides all the materials, we need to create value.”

Find out more about funeral customs and memorialization in US history at