Death as a Business? Commercial Funeral Businesses and Debates over the Morality of Markets in early 20th Germany

Today German funeral companies offer an increasingly broad and individualized set of services, which are frequently met with public skepticism. This paper takes a long historical perspective on the commercialization of funeral markets since early twentieth century in Germany. It argues that the recent liberalization and diversification of German funeral markets has a longer, contested history reaching back to the turn of the century. Based on archival research on funeral companies, their associations and suppliers, I explore the emergence of a surprisingly vibrant and competitive market for funeral goods and services between 1900 and the post-WWII era. While new businesses and marketing forms emerged, however, professional organizations and political actors also sought to limit overly commercial developments for different reasons. Funeral director associations strove for ethical standards and coordinated markets whereas municipalities workers associations sought to offer alternatives to a market, which frequently saw its legitimacy questioned. In the paper, I analyze the advertising and marketing strategies of smaller funeral homes as well as the rise of a few prominent funeral chains such as Grieneisen in Berlin. At the same time, I trace critiques by municipal funeral services and the public debate over the death as a business, offering some comparative observations to other funeral markets in the Atlantic world. The paper thus offers new archival insights into the emergence of a very specific market and connects to debates about the morality of markets, their limitations, and taboos. It also contributes to research regarding the mid-twentieth century regulation and restriction of competitiveness by state, society and corporate actors in Germany.