Shifts in Ritual Response to Loss Due to Death: An Assessment of Funeral Service Mourning Trends over Time

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Introduction: As the predominant social expression of grief, funerals have been purported to be waning in occurrence and/or transitioning to emergent, less conventional ceremonial forms. In this research, trends regarding the cost, nature (type), and prevalence of funeral services were examined relative to an extant data set from two funeral homes of shared ownership in northeast Tennessee. The purpose was to verify or refute purported change(s) in the frequency and/or ceremonial emphasis of funerals in the study area. Methods: Anonymized, archival data from two funeral homes in northeast Tennessee (N = 2,581), spanning five years (2008-2012), were evaluated for trends over time with respect to two outcome variables: (1) the presence/absence of a funeral, and (2) the degree of ceremonial emphasis. Results: A binary logistic regression model was fit to the data with annualized time bins (2008 -2012) as predictors of the dichotomous outcome variable (presence/absence of a funeral). An omnibus test of the fitted model against that of a constant/intercept-only model was not statistically significant, indicating that time alone (irrespective of covariates) did not reliably predict whether there would be a funeral ceremony or not [chi square (4) = 6.558, p = .161]. Ceremonial emphasis was then regressed on annualized time bins using a multinomial logistic model without covariates. Model fitting information indicated a statistically significant difference between the final model (including the predictors) and the intercept-only model, suggesting that –in the absence of covariates –annualized time bins did reliably predict degree of ceremonial emphasis [chi square (8) = 149.570, p < .001], with an apparent trend toward decreased ceremonial emphasis. With the covariates of geographic location and retail spending included in the model, and using dummy coding to compare the probability of each degree of ceremonial emphasis to all other categories of emphasis combined, subsequent binomial logistic regressions indicated that although some modest degree of incremental change is apparent, weaving together strands of statistical significance does not result in a meaningful overall explanation of how (and/or why) that change may be occurring. Conclusion: These results do not support the proposition that funerals are declining in their frequency of occurrence, but they do indicate some incremental alterations in the ceremonial emphasis of ritual response to death, as influenced by the passage of time (demarcated annually), economic impacts (relative to retail spending), and geographic location. This research highlights the need for additional empirical investigation into factors explaining possible shifts in mourning (e.g., funerals) as well asother aspects of loss response.


Johnson City, TN

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