The twentieth century has seen some changes with the way we deal with funerals and how we grieve, why is this so?
The fundamental shift in mourning and funeral customs during the twentieth century was influenced by a combination of factors. These included:-
It seems appropriate at this point to define some common terms:-
|Mourning||The accepted manner of feeling and expressing grief; and|
|Funeral Customs||The accepted method of treatment of the dead and the rites, rituals and ceremonies practised during disposal of the dead body.|
Death during the nineteenth century was a common and familiar experience. Compared to the second half of the twentieth century, mortality rates in the second half of the nineteenth century were high.
The Crude Death Rate in 1860 was 17.9 deaths per thousand compared to 6.7 deaths per thousand in 2000.
Life expectancy in 1870 was 46.5 for males and 49.6 for females compared to 77.4 for males and 82.7 for females in 2001. Infants and young children were particularly susceptible to early death due to the prevalence of and inability to resist disease in the colonies. Many young women did not survive childbirth. Concern for this high rate of infant and maternal mortality continued into the first few decades of the twentieth century.
Continuing from the nineteenth into the early years of the twentieth century the dying were generally attended to at home by female family members who acted as both nursemaids and comforters as outlined by Roderick Faulkner.
Mourning the death of a loved one was often hidden behind a stoic façade with the commonly held belief in a need to appear strong in face of the harsh realities of daily existence. However, there may also have been a fair degree of consolation in Christian beliefs for followers at the time.
Funeral customs were usually based at home and at the local church with ceremonies performed predominantly within a Christian (Anglo-Celtic) context. The dead were buried in local cemeteries and depending on the status and class the ceremony may have been an elaborate or simple affair.
Elaborate funerals tended to follow customs similar to those in Victorian England and may have involved the establishment of graveside memorials and photographs of the deceased.
This extract from the obituary of Alfred Eustace at Chiltern, Victoria in 1907 depicts a fairly typical simple end of life at that time in the Australian bush:
‘Mr Eustace had not been in the best of health for several years but it was only six weeks ago that he took to his bed. He was fully aware of his impending dissolution and readily resigned himself to it. He leaves two sons…, 27 grandchildren and 7 great grandchildren to mourn their loss. His remains were interred in the Chiltern New Cemetery yesterday, the service at the graveside being read by Rev Jos Roff, Presbyterian. Mr AH Smith conducted the mortuary arrangements.’
As the twentieth century unfolded, significant changes began to make an impact on the experience of and processes surrounding death and dying.
Australia was becoming a progressively more industrialised nation with science and technology recreating life in the country and urban centres.
Advances in medical science in the Twentieth Century
Advances in medical science and hygiene enabled many of the previous causes of early death, particularly infectious death, to be more effectively treated and prevented.
According to Pat Jalland the medicalisation of dying in Australia began with doctors attending and supplying pain relief during the deaths of members of middle and upper-class families in the early days of the century.
As medical knowledge and skill increased over time, death, while not seen as avoidable was soon regarded as at least deferrable by medical intervention.
But for those living longer and by that time more likely to die from a chronic or degenerative disease, spending their last days in hospital rather than at home, death was more of a medical event than a family or community experience.
Along with advances in medical science during the twentieth century, came the development of psychology.
The evolution of the study of psychology for grief and funeral customs
During the first half of the twentieth century, there were signs that mourning customs in Australia were changing.
Although Beverly Raphael describes the ‘model for grief’ at this time being that of ‘stoicism, privacy and survival’, it could also be argued that both WWI and the major influenza epidemic in the early decades and again with WWII, one new form of formalised public bereavement was now evident. This is seen particularly with the establishment and annual observance of Anzac Day, a much revered public holiday that continues to attract respect and outpourings of grief, nearly one hundred years on.
However, it was during the decades following WWII that investigations into grief and loss, as part of the development of new theories of the psychology of the individual, took a giant leap forward. Theories on attachment and loss developed by psychologist Bowlby and writings by Dr Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, between the 1970s and 1990s began to promote widely regarded theories of grief as an important life process and the need to recognise and support individuals and families in mourning.
By the last few decades of the twentieth century the widely accepted stoic attitude towards death earlier in the century had begun to shift to a deeper understanding of the need for individuals and families to move through a recognisable mourning period and that, in many cases, grief over a major loss in the family might continue for a lifetime.
As a result of this new thinking, the community responded by the establishment of accessible grief counselling, support services and self-help groups that have continued and expanded to this day.
By this time the media had also established a major role in bringing death, often in violent circumstances or the devastating plight of those dying of HIV Aids in third world countries, into homes on a daily basis. However this vicarious experience of death, while heightening an emotional response to the idea of death, was normally not part of the personal experience of death in a family.
Although accidental, unexpected and sometimes tragic death did occur, the most common death was that of elderly family members. Deaths that were both inevitable and expected.
The development of the funeral industry as a commercial enterprise
The development of the funeral industry was another major factor influencing the changing nature of mourning and funeral practises during the twentieth century.
Although undertakers were an integral part of the community during earlier years, providing a role in assisting with funeral arrangements for families, perhaps in arranging embalming or transport as was necessary, it was not until the 1960s that what we now regard as the funeral industry really came into being.
This has been attributed partly to the influence of American funeral business practises at the time. Some of the innovations have had an ongoing effect on the industry.
Changes have also been the result of the increasing hospitalisation of death and the gradual move away from the family and the church’s involvement in the dying process.
A more detached, clinical approach to death had started to become the norm by the latter decades of the century.
The type of funerals being conducted in both cities and country areas had also begun to change. Whereas burial was the most accepted form of funeral at the turn of the twentieth century, by the last few decades, cremation was becoming the more popular choice in the general population.
The shortage of suitable land for cemeteries has also been a factor in this shift. Now cremation accounts for over half of funerals and this percentage has been reported as steadily rising.
The developing funeral industry of the last few decades in Australia and abroad has not been without its critics, particularly with regard to the escalating costs of funerals, marketing and monopolistic business practises.
While the funeral industry has had some government intervention to control extreme cases of business malpractice, it has continued to grow and essentially changed the nature of funerals today. As Robert Larkins puts it:
‘…control of the funeral process has shifted from the traditional community base to an industry monopoly, and the role of the bereaved has been reduced to that of a consumer.’
The diversity and secular nature of Australian society and funerals
According to Glennys Howath ‘Australian funerals are among the most diverse in the world.’ This is generally attributed to the rapid and expansive change in the cultural diversity of Australia since WWII and the increasingly secular nature of society.
The influx of migrants from all corners of the globe into the country since WWII and the increased recognition (if a little slow) of aboriginal heritage as an integral part of the Australian community has lead to what is now regarded as a truly multicultural nation.
Cultural diversity has lead to the introduction of new varieties of food, clothing, religions and educational programmes to sit side by side in communities. Along with many other traditional customs, this has included an assortment of ways of dealing with death and the dying including beliefs about the family or church’s involvement in the dying process, aspects of pain management, euthanasia and suicide, as well acceptable forms of treatment and disposal of the body.
Mourning and funeral customs, depending on the cultural background of the religious or ethnic group, now vary widely. Australian policy respects this diversity and enables funeral customs to be observed with sensitivity within the law.
As culturally and religiously diverse as it has become recently, Australia is still more secular in character than it was one hundred years ago.
The secularisation of contemporary society has come about partly due to the growth and acceptance of scientific ideas pitting itself against traditional religious doctrines and the development of humanist philosophy that explains the human experience as more of a pragmatic and materialist than a spiritual journey.
Families have now developed more individual, personal and sometimes unusual ways of celebrating life events including the death of valued members within their circle. Even customs observed by much of the general population, such as the wearing of black at funerals have now fallen away.
Twenty-first-century funerals, whether secular or religious, are aligned, if in different ways than a century earlier, with the family once again.
Robert Larkins paints a picture of a present-day secular funeral:
‘Now, family members and friends deliver the eulogy, children might read poetry and the deceased favourite songs are played. Families are taking ashes out through the gates of the crematorium and scattering them at a place that has personal significance. Attitudes are changing.’
Even more novel practises than these, enabled by recent developments in technology, are offered by the funeral industry today, including the opportunity of having a loved one’s ashes transformed into a diamond or having a star named after them.
The fundamental shift in mourning and funeral customs during the twentieth century was the result of a combination of interlocking demographic, medical, commercial and cultural factors.
Advancements in medical science changed both the cause and age of most deaths and gradually altered the nature of death from a family experience to a medical event.
The evolution of the study of psychology, particularly concerning human emotions, developed new ideas about grief and loss that lead to a wider acceptance of mourning as an important expressive personal, family and community experience.
The development of the funeral industry into a vast commercial venture as the century unfolded gradually moved the role of arranging funerals away from the family and church.
While the cultural make-up of Australia changed dramatically during the second half of the twentieth century, leading to a more diverse range of mourning and funeral customs in the community, the general character of the society over time became more secular creating, for many non-religious families quite a different type of funeral than had been generally accepted a century before.
By the turn of the twenty-first century, this shift had essentially realigned itself from the family arena to a business transaction while remaining sensitive to and providing for the specific mourning and funeral customs practised by the various cultures and religions in the community: and to the needs of a wider variety of families than ever before.
Australian Bureau of Statistics, Media Release 2001 – We’re living longer than before say the statistics.
New South Wales Parliament, Legislative Council, Standing Committee on Social Issues, Report on the Inquiry into the Funeral Industry. Sydney, NSW. December 2005.
State Government of Victoria, Department of Human Services, Government Health Information, Life Expectancy at Birth: 1997- 2001.
The Child Study Association of Australia, How to Save Maternal and Infant Mortality, The Worker Trustees, Sydney, 1928.
The Federal Standard, Friday, May 31st 1907.
Secondary Sources Faulkner, Roderick, ‘Death and the Australian Colonial Family’, Lilith, no.1,Winter 1984, pp.12-22.
Howarth Glennys, ‘Australian funerals’, in Kellehear, Allan (ed.) Death and Dying in Australia, Oxford University Press, South Melbourne, 2000.
Hugo, Graeme, ‘The Changing Way of Death in Australia’, in Australia’s Changing Population: Trends and Implications, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1986, pp.18-41.
Jalland, Pat, Australian Ways of Death: A Social and Cultural History, Oxford University Press, South Melbourne, 2002.
Jalland, Pat, Changing Ways of Death in Twentieth Century Australia: War, Medicine and the Funeral Business, UNSW Press, Sydney, 2006.
Kellehear, Allan (ed.) Death and Dying in Australia, Oxford University Press, South Melbourne, 2000.
Larkins, Robert, Funeral Rights: What the Australian Death Care Industry Doesn’t Want You to Know, Viking, 2007.
Lee, Sun Hee and Smith, Len, ‘Mortality Patterns in Australia 1921-1985, Australian Population Association 3rd National Conference Proceedings, Vol.1, 1985, pp.10-14.
Raphael, Beverley, ‘Grief and loss in Australian society’ in Kellehear, Allan (ed.) Death and Dying in Australia, Oxford University Press, South Melbourne, 2000.
Jenny England is a writer and illustrator living in Kiama, Australia. Over the years she has worked as a journalist and has had numerous non-fiction articles published in a wide variety of magazines. Now retired from the hustle and bustle of daily life she is writing about serious aged care and end of life matters. She also writes speculative fiction when she isn’t busy with her other hobbies: knitting, astrology and mail art.