The Cleveland Memorial Society was organized in 1948 by members of the Board of the First Unitarian Church of Cleveland. The original motion by the Board was adopted to appoint a committee “to investigate and study plans for the organization of a society for the furtherance of simplicity in funeral rites.” Articles of Incorporation as a non-profit corporation were drawn up.
Funeral reform was a movement that gathered momentum during the 1940s and ’50s. In 1949, our pamphlet was sent to the Reader’s Digest, and recognition was given to our society in the April issue in an article entitled “Death on Parade.” A flood of letters to us from all parts of the country made our Board aware that many people objected to the high cost of dying and were ready to organize similar societies.
In 1956 connections were made with the Department of Anatomy of Western Reserve University to coordinate body donation and the establishment of an eye bank. In that same year a California man named Martin Grenny contacted us, wishing to promote the formation of other societies such as ours, and to finance such promotion with a bequest to our society for that purpose. We had already been hearing from many groups asking for assistance.
Our task was to send letters to Unitarian and Universalist ministers in this country and Canada. About 1,200 letters were sent that included the Reader’s Digest article. Queries arrived, and our brochures and the “Organization Manual for Memorial Societies (prepared by Dr. Robert Killam and Dr. Guy Lerch of the Cleveland Board) were sent in return. The next step was to include more denominations, starting with the Congregational churches. By early 1957 the idea was widespread and many cities were attempting to form societies modeled on ours.
In 1959 the Memorial Society of British Columbia corresponded with the Cleveland Society and suggested that a central office for all the Memorial Societies on the continent be set up. Many societies were already discussing reciprocity among all societies, should someone move or die away from home.
By 1962, there was a meeting in Chicago for the purpose of organizing memorial societies on a national basis. Two of the Cleveland board members were in attendance. At the annual meeting of the Cleveland Memorial Society in 1963, Dr. Guy Lerch told of the formation of the Continental Association of Funeral and Memorial Societies (CAFMS) which had its headquarters in Chicago, and would coordinate the activities of the various memorial societies in the country. This national group of which we are a dues-paying affiliate still exists today, renamed the Funeral Consumers’ Alliance (FCA). Much more information on this organization is available at funerals.org.
Though the memorial society movement began in Unitarian churches throughout the country, it has always been a non-sectarian organization, and by 1962 there were members of every religious denomination, and African American funeral directors and those of the Jewish faith were being sought.
Today, while we continue to have a contract with participating funeral directors for a low-cost cremation or direct burial, and we still promote a philosophy of dignity and simplicity, we are broadening our mission to become more focused on advocacy and education. We strive to provide information to the public on price comparisons of funeral homes, to encourage and promote pre-planning in terms of advance directives, and to lobby for improved legislation regarding funerals and enforcement of laws.
Our Society office remains housed within the First Unitarian Church of Cleveland. We have one part-time employee. Our current membership is about 6,000, which makes us one of the largest FCA affiliates. We are a non-profit corporation, controlled democratically by our members. Our work is conducted under the supervision of a board of trustees who serve for a term of three years. Officers and Board members are elected by the membership at our annual meeting in the fall. The officers and trustees serve without salaries. Our current Code of Regulations is available here.