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What is the origin of the term funeral parlor?

Until the middle of the nineteenth century, funerals in the United States mostly took place in a family home, with family members performing all aspects of after-death preparation of the body, to present the deceased to visiting friends and family in the home. This was followed by the deceased being buried in a small cemetery typically on family property.

These home funerals generally took place in a room called the parlor, a location not regularly used by the family, but reserved for special occasions, including weddings and funerals. This was not a sitting room or living room space used for regular social gatherings.

The term funeral parlor (or parlour) was often used in the name of funeral businesses, as it was already associated with end-of-life events. The first funeral parlor or funeral home, Kirk & Nice Funeral Home, actually opened in Philadelphia, Penn., in 1777, and is still in operation today.

The end of the Civil War brought familiarity of the concept of a funeral home as opposed to one at home. One of the reasons for this includes the bodies of the soldiers that died being in such poor shape by the time they arrived back home that the family could not properly prepare them for a proper viewing. In fact, in order to preserve the body for travel, some bodies of soldiers were embalmed on the battlefield where they died.

With the large number of soldier casualties, larger, public cemeteries sprouted as well as the U.S. government creating military cemeteries for fallen soldiers.

It was also during this time that hospitals and medical procedures advanced, making way for funeral home operators to attempt bringing more professionalism to the death industry. The National Funeral Directors Association was formed in 1882. One goal of the organization was to legitimize funeral directors as protectors of public health.

The latter part of the nineteenth and early portion of the twentieth centuries saw a boom in the funeral industry, with home funerals becoming far less common. The home’s parlor shifted into a more-traditional living space, where families would gather for social events, large and small.

The twentieth century has seen the percentage of cremations grow exponentially, as well as an effort to make funerals more environmentally-friendly.

Those efforts have seen home funerals begin to trend again. The mission of non-profit organization the Home Funeral Alliance is a return to heritage, with families preparing loved ones’ bodies for a funeral taking place that is not only familiar to the deceased but to friends and family saying their final goodbyes. The group offers resources on its website for those looking to plan a home funeral.

Funerals in the home are seeing living rooms transformed back into parlors, as loved ones gather once again to a familiar, comfortable space to say goodbye.

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