Genealogists spend hours reading death records and walking in cemeteries. Yet we typically ignore the events of the three or four days prior to burial. To really appreciate your ancestors' lives, you also need to understand their deaths, funerals, and burials, as well as the roles of family members in the process.
Unlike today, most people 100 or more years ago died at home. Those who were ill typically did not go to a hospital for treatment and care by skilled doctors and nurses. In fact, most stayed at home and were cared for by family members. Upon death, the body was prepared for burial by the family members. Wakes were held at home, after which the body was typically moved to a church for the funeral service, then taken directly to the cemetery for burial. (In northern climates, burial often had to wait until the ground thawed in the spring. Bodies were stored in tombs until then.)
Colonial burial grounds were distinctly unpleasant places--overcrowded, filled with weeds, and marked by the odor of decay. So bad were conditions in New York that residents blamed a yellow fever epidemic in l822, which killed 22,000 residents, on the unsanitary conditions in the city's cemeteries.
Undertakers are a relatively new profession, in historical terms. Professional undertakers were almost unknown in America until the mid to late 1800s. From the dawn of civilization through much of the nineteenth century, the family handled everything. In fact, this practice continued well into the twentieth century in farming areas and amongst the poor. On many farms, the dead were even buried in the back yard or in a nearby field.
As the U.S. developed and cemeteries were built, death became more professionalized. Undertakers and mortuaries sprang up and started handling the details.
For more information about dying, mourning, and funerals in the United States, look at "Responses to Death in Nineteenth Century America" on the University of Houston's web site at http://www.hfac.uh.edu/gl/usdeath1.htm
Now there is a twenty-first century movement to go back in time. Hospice care now suggests returning a person to his or her home for their last days, whenever appropriate. In 45 states, it is even legal to bury a loved one at home, according to the Washington Post. There are different rules for each state, whether it be the need for a coroner's report or a permit. But "at home" burials have been legal for some time. In several states, it has always been legal. The five states where it's illegal today are Connecticut, Delaware, Indiana, Nebraska, and New York.
There is even a federation of nonprofit consumer information societies that focuses on dying, funerals, and cemeteries. The Funeral Consumers Alliance is dedicated to protecting a consumer's right to choose a meaningful, dignified, and affordable funeral. While not everyone will go for the burial in the back yard, the Funeral Consumers Alliance does encourage everyone to think about the cost of funerals and to make plans now to do whatever he or she wishes. Some of the common goals of members are to reduce costs, even to dispensing with some of the funeral homes' services that many of us take for granted.
You can read a lot more about the Funeral Consumers Alliance at their web site at http://www.funerals.org.
My thanks to newsletter reader Matt Misbach for telling me about this organization and its web site.