Once in a while a great idea comes along and changes life — and death — as we know it.
Innovation and change have always been a part of funerals, just as much as tradition and ritual have. Let’s take a look at some of the big ideas that have brought big changes.
~ 12,000 BC — “First” Funeral
Let’s start at the beginning. While there are probably other instances of human burial rituals, the best evidence we have for a full burial — complete with funeral flowers — took place about 14,000 to 15,000 years ago. The site, which was found in modern-day Israel, also appears to be the first cemetery. The burial site marked a change in how humans viewed the dead.
1839 AD — Photography
In the 1830s, photography was introduced to the public. Before that, jewelry or painted portraits were among the popular memorialization methods. As photography advanced, it became less expensive and quicker than getting a portrait painted. Photos of both the living and the dead became the new way to remember a loved one. Today memorial photos are ubiquitous at funeral services.
1867 — Finding Formaldehyde
The German chemist August Wilhelm von Hofmann discovered formaldehyde in 1867. It eventually became the standard in modern embalming. The practice of embalming had been picking up steam, especially in the United States during the Civil War. But it was still common practice to preserve a body on ice. Formaldehyde helped change the game for embalming and preservation.
1873 — First Official Crematorium
Cremation had been around long before, but in 1873 an Italian professor presented his perfected cremation chamber at the Vienna Exposition. His invention would spread across Europe and America — where the first crematory was built in 1876 in Pennsylvania.
1882 — First Mortuary Science School
The school was set up by Joseph Henry Clarke, a casket salesman that later became known as the “father of embalming schools.” The school was the first of its kind in America and set the standards for what would be common mortuary and embalming practices.
1886 — Embalming Goes Commercial
German immigrants Max Huncke and C.B. Dolge partnered to create a company that specialized in embalming products. The business went through several name changes and a few locations until it eventually became The Embalmers Supply Company (ESCO), which is still in business today. Since its founding in 1886, the company has pioneered several inventions for embalming.
1909 — First Automobile Hearse
A horse-drawn carriage was the general method of a funeral procession. That is until the new Crane & Breed auto hearse was introduced. It was the first commercially available, gasoline-powered vehicle solely used for a funeral procession. Its production changed the funeral procession forever.
Funerals have seen their share of innovation, but in the past it came slowly. Today that’s not the case. In the past 25 years alone, funerals have seen a lot of change. Here are just a few:
- In 1993, the first green cemetery opened in the U.K.
- In 1997, the first ever space “burial” took place when an American rocket launched the cremated remains of 24 people into orbit.
- In the early 2000s, funeral homes started to webcast services for family members who were unable to attend.
- In 2009, Facebook took its first steps towards memorializing profiles of the deceased, ushering in a change in how we view death in the digital age.
These are just a few of the many innovations and inventions seen throughout the funeral profession. Feel like we missed some? Let us know your favorite funeral innovation in the comments below!
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