Theses Doctoral

The Living and the Dead: Funeral Work in New York City

Murphy, Kristin Leavelle

Status and stigma are fundamental to understanding the organization of social groups, including the forces that create and perpetuate inequality along multiple axes - race, ethnicity, and class, among others. One of the challenges in the discipline of sociology is that these deeply enmeshed processes are studied separately, rather than in relation to each other. This dissertation bridges the study of status and stigma through ethnographic examination of the affective, situational, and contextual interplay of status and stigma processes in urban spaces that are both exceptional and ubiquitous: the neighborhood funeral home. To study these processes, I observed and participated in the day-to-day activities of three New York City funeral homes over four years.
The project contributes to three areas: ethnographic design, the literature on status and stigma processes, and to urban and cultural sociology. Whereas most ethnographic projects focus on a single subject – a community, a workplace, a profession - in isolation or a multi-sited framework, this project has different approach. The three focal funeral homes were selected based on a process rather than a population – all are located in neighborhoods in the midst of dramatic demographic transitions. To better understand and contextualize these micro interactions, I collected data and participated in activities at other levels of the funeral industry: national, state, and local. I attended funeral directors trainings and conventions, including with the largest national association, the historically black funeral directors association, and New York State’s convention. For other perspectives on New York City, I interviewed over forty funeral directors and allied professionals throughout the five boroughs.
This project strives to avoid static and categorical explanations for status and stigma processes, the binaries of black and white, elite and poor, and explores life both in the middle and at the intersection. Using this multi-site design, it contributes to the research on neighborhood change and demographic transition as I distinguish between experiences common to the general process of neighborhood change while isolating those that emerge from the variation in changes specific to particular processes. This project is not only one of the most in-depth studies of the funeral industry, it also more broadly contributes to our understanding of the dynamic relationship of status and stigma, and the process and business of the monetization of cultural practices.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Bearman, Peter Shawn
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
May 15, 2018