The history of the funeral industry is fascinating. It tells the story of how each society over the centuries has dealt with the inescapable reality of death. From Antiquity to the present day, death-related professions have evolved, adapting to beliefs, traditions and scientific advances. From thanatopraxy to university research, the body of the deceased is always at the center of preoccupations. Let’s take you on a journey through time!
From ancestral funeral practices to medieval rites
In ancient times, funeral rites were of great importance. They provided a link between the world of the living and that of the dead. The body of the deceased was treated with respect, and the care it received was an expression of its place in society. During the Middle Ages, funeral rites evolved, notably under the influence of the Christian religion.
The rise of the funeral profession in modern times
From the modern era onwards, funeral professions took on a new dimension. They became more professionalized and regulated. New professions emerged, such as embalmers and gravediggers. Funeral law also developed, providing an increasingly strict framework for death-related practices.
The emergence of thanatopraxy
The 19th century saw the emergence of thanatopraxy. This profession, which involves preparing the body of the deceased for eternal rest, flourished, particularly in France, where it was first practiced in the medical faculties of Paris. Now truly recognized as funeral professionals, thanatopractors provide post-mortem care that respects the dignity of the deceased.
The role of the university in funerary research
During the 20th century, universities played a major role in funeral research. It helped advance knowledge of death, the body and funeral practices. Studies in thanatology, for example, are developing and contributing to a better understanding of death and its issues.
Death-related professions today
Today, death-related professions are diverse and varied. They range from funeral advisors, who help families organize the funeral, to thanatopractor, who cares for the body of the deceased, to master of ceremonies, who officiates at the funeral ceremony. These professions, though difficult, are essential to support families in their bereavement.
The history of death-related professions is therefore a history of the evolution of societies and their relationship with death. From respect for ancestral rites to the development of modern, supervised practices, these professions have adapted and renewed themselves to meet the needs of the living in the face of death.
The changing relationship with death in medieval times
The relationship with death has always reflected societal trends. In the Middle Ages, this relationship underwent profound changes. Driven by the Christian religion, these changes influenced funeral professions.
The progressive Christianization of the West from the 11th century onwards led to the introduction of new funeral practices. It was at this time that the cult of relics developed, marking a break with the Roman world where bodies were generally cremated. According to Paul Veyne, professor of Roman history, death in the Middle Ages was a veritable “staged event”, with the body of the deceased displayed for all to see. Funeral rites became more complex, incorporating undertakers, processions and homilies.
It was also during this period that the Cathar heresy, which rejected the idea of the resurrection of the body, led the Church to emphasize the importance of preserving the body to preserve its sanctity while awaiting the resurrection. This new, more spiritual approach to death contributed to the evolution of funeral professions. The role of the gravedigger, the master of ceremonies and the sculptor of funerary monuments became increasingly important in medieval society.
Scientific advances and their impact on the funeral professions
In the 19th century, science brought a new dimension to the funeral profession. Developments in medical knowledge, thanks in particular to the Faculty of Medicine, led to improved care for the body after death. It was at this time that the profession of thanatopractor emerged, popularized by Nicolas Gannal, a French pharmacist.
This profession, focused on the preservation of the deceased body, was revolutionary at the time. It introduced a series of techniques, from the injection of preservative fluids to the provision of hygiene care and body presentation. These scientific advances helped to push back the limits of what was possible in terms of body preservation, enabling families to say farewell in more dignified conditions.
In the twentieth century, the human sciences, particularly sociology and anthropology, became increasingly interested in death and the rituals surrounding it. Researchers, such as university professors and lecturers, began to study funeral practices and their societal significance in detail. This academic research has made it easier to understand funeral rituals, and to take better account of the emotional and psychological dimensions of bereavement in the services offered by funeral directors.