Handling the Stigma of Handling the Dead

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  • Topic: Death, Sociology, Embalming
  • Pages : 11 (4227 words )
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  • Published : April 9, 2007
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How do morticians and funeral directors handle the stigma associated with their work? Hanslin states the focus of Thompson's article as: Who are these "death specialists" who handle dead bodies, and how do they handle the stigma that comes from handling the dead?


A.Symbolic Interactionism is found in the article on pg 225 when the author discusses that people that work in funeral homes use various symbolic measures to rename or change the outward image of the work they do. On pg 231, one funeral director tells Thompson, "My hands tend to be so cold and clammy. It's just a physical trait of mine, but there's no way that I'm going to shake someone's had and let them walk away thinking how cold it was". Cold hands are a symbol for death. On pg 230, there are various spoof ads tucked away in the desk drawer of one funeral director, meant for inside humor for those in the business. These jokes, while humorous to insiders, are actually truthful, and say something about the lack of reality-conscious discussion that goes on when dealing with their customers. They must use "politically correct" words and concepts so as not to upset the public. Life is a symbol of impending death, yet no one wants to accept it. However, the funeral home workers must do so on a daily basis. On pg 237, a funeral director discusses his many perks, non-necessities of life that his wealth has allowed him to enjoy, thus gaining more respect and prestige through the public eye. Lavish lifestyle is a symbol for hard work and/or intelligence, which both are symbols for respectability. A few of the funeral workers told of their emotional detachment while working on a corpse. A body for them becomes a symbol for emotions to end and work to begin. By naming themselves "professionals", funeral directors are requiring respect for their positions within the occupational realm. Pg 234 states that "Profession is a symbol by occupations seeking to improve or enhance the lay public's conception of that occupation.

B.Phenomenology is used by the author. He discusses generalizations by the public in relation to the personality or demeanor of funeral home workers, such as "cold", "unusual, if not downright weird", "detached" and "death-tainted" (pg 226). One funeral director refused to call himself an undertaker, because he thought it sounded so morbid. Thompson shows a redefinition of aspects of their work such as "passing on" in place of "death" and "the deceased" instead of "corpse". On pg 232 Thompson discusses how many of the funeral directors he interviewed made sure to ask him "I'm not what you expected, am I?" proving their preoccupation with their image in others' perceptions. Another aspect of the funeral home is sales. Selling caskets is the most profitable part of their businesses. However, the words "sell" or "purchase" are replaced with "service selection" and phrases like "What is peace of mind worth?" Are they saying that those who truly care would buy quality caskets?

C.Realism is found in this article in many places. The idea behind realism is that there is an institution responsible for behavior. I found many examples of such institutions in the article. Work: the funeral directors are being stigmatized for what they do for a living. After all, somebody has to do it. Professionalism: funeral workers, embalmers all turn off emotions and behave like professionals when dealing with the customers or the deceased. Gender: women in the study were less concerned than men about the stereotype, but Thompson says this is because being female set them aside from the stereotype to begin with. Geography: all the funeral homes studied in this article were in the mid-south region of the country, the Bible-belt, might that have an impact? Included in that then, would be Religion. Family: many of the funeral homes are family-owned and operated businesses, these people...
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