Wake Forest University Hosted a Death Care Reform Symposium

Thursday, March 29, 2018

At the CANA Conference in NYC last year, I had the chance to sit in on a talk by Tanya Marsh, a professor at Wake Forest University who focuses on funeral and cemetery law. In February, Marsh organized the "Disrupting the Death Care Paradigm: Challenges to the Regulation of the Funeral Industry and the American Way of Death" Symposium, which coincided with the release of a special issue of the Wake Forest Journal of Law and Policy dedicated to challenges facing the death care industry. The symposium featured professors and activists, with topics covering the economic impact of funeral regulations to alkaline hydrolysis to funeral services as social justice. 

In her foreword to the journal issue - which you can read in full here - Marsh writes that "American cultural practices surrounding the memorialization and disposition of our dead are changing at an astonishing rate. As a result, the funeral services industry and the system of laws that govern it are being challenged." I think we are seeing this play out particularly in states that have more active cemetery and funeral home regulations, in areas like flameless cremations and pet dispositions. Though Marsh adopts a critical stance towards the funeral industry, regulations, licensing, and the general structure, she is not, as she makes quite clear in her article "Why Jessica Mitford was Wrong", a critic of funeral services. In fact, taking issue with Mitford's 1963 landmark expose of sorts, The American Way of Death, Marsh believes that Mitford failed in demonizing death care, "and discounted the fact that many consumers wanted that model of death care." She sees this knot beginning with the rise of embalming, and continue to this day as many regulations are still "predicated on the assumption that all human remains will be embalmed," which is in fact becoming less and less common.

I was surprised to learn that the modern funeral industry was established alongside embalming, which became increasingly popular in the years after the Civil War. Prior to that, funeral services were largely non-commercial. As embalming became more desirable, self-identified funeral directors began to advocate for licensing and regulation, which established the profession in a similar vein of law and medicine - it became a specialized practice with standards for licensing. Those requirements can be time-consuming and costly, especially when overwhelmingly focused on the practice of embalming which is not as common as it once was. Marsh sees the "occupational licensing regime" as a significant barrier to innovation, economic growth, and industry expansion and change. Funeral preferences are shifting, with less than one third of consumers preferring a full-service funeral today, and all funeral homes, but especially privately-owned ones, are trying to keep up. 

All of the articles in the journal were extremely interesting reads. There's a lot of information and content there, so I am planning on taking a closer look at a few next month. Until then, I can't recommend enough taking a look at them. I have a tendency to approach content and writing about the death care industry with a little bit of skepticism, because it is often so critical, but it was some closing thoughts from Marsh that I found optimistic and reassuring: "The best funeral is the funeral that is meaningful to you, your family, your friends and your community...So, as a society, let's figure out what that is. Let's talk about death, let's get better informed about our options, let's talk about what we want from death care, and then, if necessary, let's take our passion and conviction to the state legislatures to get real change in the law."