Howard C. Raether, a leading spokesman for the American funeral industry and authority on bereavement rituals, who vigorously defended the undertaking trade against stinging criticism in the wake of journalist Jessica Mitford’s muckraking investigation in 1963, has died.
Raether was 83 and died Wednesday at a Milwaukee hospital, according to a statement by the National Funeral Directors Assn.
Raether was executive director of the association, the world’s oldest and largest funeral trade organization, from 1948 to 1983. After his retirement, Raether was a consultant to the Wisconsin-based group, which represents 14,000 funeral directors nationwide.
He helped set industry standards for dealing with death and bereavement and wrote or edited several books dealing with nearly every aspect of the modern funeral.
Raether “may be the father of modern funeral service,” said Robert Harden, the current director of the National Funeral Directors Assn.
He also led the funeral industry through some of its most difficult times.
He and his group figured prominently in Mitford’s best-selling expose, “The American Way of Death,” which subjected the funeral industry to withering scrutiny. Among the aspects of the funeral trade it dissected were sales strategies, claims about the necessity of embalming, and practices of the cemetery industry (tackled in a hilariously titled chapter, “God’s Little Million-Dollar Acre”).
Raether debated Mitford on television and radio shows, never backing down from his firm belief in the importance of a traditional funeral, with its often expensive trappings.
“We never had a session where we agreed,” Raether recalled in an interview last year.
But he did credit Mitford with sparking “a greater interest in dying, death and bereavement than ever before.”
Mitford, who died in 1996, was not as charitable. In her book, she depicted Raether as an effective spokesman for a powerful and exploitative industry. She often attempted to skewer him with his own words, such as in an excerpt of a speech Raether gave to a funeral directors convention in which he criticized the trend toward offering cheaper, prearranged funerals. “If funeral directors insist on soliciting pre-need funerals,” Raether was quoted as saying, “they are in fact prearranging the funeral of their profession.”
In another section, Mitford undermined his claim that a famous medical clinic supported his contention that unembalmed bodies posed a public health hazard. Mitford contacted the clinic, which told her that “Mr. Raether has been misinformed” about the clinic’s policy. Mitford viewed embalming as an unnecessary service that undertakers foisted on grieving families to make money.
Her book provoked hearings in the 1970s by the Federal Trade Commission, which was proposing federal regulations to eliminate alleged abuses in the funeral industry.
Raether helped lead the charge against the proposed rules, contending that they would lead to delays in moving bodies to mortuaries and create a mountain of paperwork for consumers of funeral services.
“Regulation of funeral practices would create more problems than it would solve,” he wrote in a newspaper commentary in 1976. “It would replace a personal decision-making process and a meaningful ceremony with a commercial transaction whose aim is merely to dispose of a dead body.”
The hearings eventually led to a set of federal regulations that came to be known as “The Funeral Rule.” Adopted in 1984, the regulations required funeral directors to offer a price list of goods and services and prohibited them from charging for casket-handling and performing unauthorized embalming.
Raether, born in Milwaukee in 1916, became interested in the funeral business as a young lawyer when he handled a case for the Wisconsin Funeral Directors and Embalmers Assn. He worked for the state trade group for five years before moving to the national association in 1948.
In retirement, he remained active as an industry leader, writing a widely used protocol called “The Funeral Directors Practice Management Handbook.” He also was frequently quoted as an expert, commenting on funeral trends such as the increasing participation of teenagers in burial services.
He also promoted the introduction of courses on death, dying and bereavement in elementary and high schools and colleges.
The National Funeral Directors Assn. named the library at its Brookfield, Wis., headquarters after Raether, describing it as one of the country’s most extensive collections of funeral books and documents, with some texts dating to the 1400s.
Raether is survived by his wife, Sylvia, a daughter, a sister and two grandsons.