From Social Taboos to Economic Evaluation: The Construction of Quality in the German Funeral Business

Thursday, July 17, 2014: 3:30 PM
Room: 413
Oral Presentation
Dominic AKYEL , Max Planck Inst Study of Societies, Cologne, Germany
From a sociological perspective, the funeral is a rite of passage in which the deceased individual is symbolically excluded from the world of the living and transferred to the realm of the dead. While the goods necessary to perform this transition were for a long time collectively provided by members of the family and community, funeral goods are nowadays produced by professionals for a profit and are exchanged on markets. But due to the structural and moral specifics of this market, buyers and sellers scope of action is highly constrained. There are strong social taboos against many strategies of profit maximization that are used in other economic fields such as extensive marketing and prize competition. Despite of this, funeral directors must take measures to attract customers and to gain advantages over competitors. In this analysis I look at how morticians in Germany circumvent the moral taboos in the market in order to establish trust and construct and communicate quality. I argue that the structural and moral specifics of this market create opportunities for entrepreneurs to deceive customers in order to pursue profit. This analysis therefore addresses key issues in economic sociology concerning the assessment of quality in markets and the translation of value from one scale of value to another. In doing so the study helps us to better understand the moral preconditions and social constraints to the operation of markets in modern capitalist economies. Data for the analysis stem from participant-observation, expert interviews, and document analysis.