"In this world, nothing is certain but death and taxes." 1
Death is the natural, inevitable end of life. As with most of life's inevitable natural functions, death can be messy and complicated. Historically, when someone died, their family took responsibility for their burial. This could range anywhere from an elaborate funeral ceremony, and a burial officiated by a member of the clergy, to simply burying the deceased directly in the ground.2 As laws have changed over time, the funeral process has correspondingly become more complex. There are now regulations regarding what type of coffin or vault someone may be buried in, where they may be buried, where ashes of a cremated person may be scattered, etc. The purpose of a funeral home3 is to take care of these details for the bereaved.
The key to remember here is "licensing". All licensing and regulation is handled by the state in which the funeral home resides. A funeral home (also sometimes called a funeral parlor) must be licensed as such, and must be managed by a licensed funeral director. There are strict requirements for the care and sanitation of the vehicles which are used to transport the deceased, as well as the embalming and cremation facilities, and all areas of the funeral home itself. There are also regulations stating proper attire for personnel involved in embalming and preparing the deceased for burial, and regulations to promote respectful treatment of the body. A facility must be specifically licensed as a crematory, or for embalming. Although the specifics vary depending on the state, there are strict regulations as to how a body is to be cremated or embalmed, and how the body and ashes are to be handled and transported.
The process (loosely) works like this:
- Someone dies.
- Their next of kin calls a funeral home.
- The funeral home sends someone in a special vehicle to pick up the body and bring it back to the funeral home facilities.
- Depending on what the wishes of the deceased and the next of kin are, the body is cremated, embalmed, or left alone. (If the funeral home does not have a licensed embalmer or a licensed crematory on site, they will make the necessary arrangments with a local provider.)
- After the body is embalmed or cremated, the funeral home arranges for a casket or urn, and a time for viewing, according to the wishes of the deceased and next of kin.
- The funeral home may also act as intermediary in arranging the burial plot, and church/temple/etc. funeral services if the next of kin has not already taken care of these items.
Ideally, once the bereaved has contacted the funeral home and made known their wishes and the wishes of the deceased, their involvement in the details of the burial process should be minimal.
1 - Benjamin Franklin, in a letter to M. Leroy 1789
2 - I know this doesn't even touch on the vast array of funerary customs, even just those in the United States, but that is not within the scope of this writeup.
3 - This material is in reference to funeral homes in the United States only.