Death in a Pandemic: Funeral Practices and Industry Disruption


The COVID-19 death toll is staggering and has impacted the funeral industry more than any other event in recent memory. Funeral service providers have been on the frontlines of this pandemic doing the work of the dead—transporting, storing, and disposing our dead. They have performed a critical service during uncertain times. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the funeral industry was beginning to adapt to the changing personal preferences about death care and increasing concerns about sustainability, technology, and cost. The COVID-19 pandemic has drawn attention to the changing norms and practices in American funerals and succession law and accelerated a shift toward digital funeral practices and digital testamentary instruments to meet the demands of a quarantined public.

This Article is the first to provide a comprehensive analysis of the impact of COVID-19 on funeral practices and the funeral industry. It explores how funeral practices have shifted and adapted to pressing events in the past, tracing how the system we know today is an outgrowth of practices developed during the Civil War and the twentieth-century transition from home care to hospitalized care. This Article argues that COVID-19 gives us an opportunity to reevaluate our practices, laws, and regulations concerning the work of the dead. It explores how death practices have evolved with the desires of each generation. Our current funeral and cemetery laws and regulations are built on outdated assumptions that most Americans want to be embalmed and buried. Many Americans today, however, want a more environmentally friendly and less expensive disposition and are using technology in unprecedented ways to dispose and memorialize loved ones. This Article proposes that the industry disruption caused by COVID-19 provides an opportunity for state and federal lawmakers to promote more sustainable burial practices while still maintaining individual choice in bodily disposition.