The American way of death, revisited and re-examined

March 09, 2003|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,Sun Staff

Rest In Peace: A Cultural History of Death and the Funeral Business in Twentieth-Century America, by Gary Laderman, Oxford University Press Inc. 288 pages. $35.

Eat drink and be merry,

For tomorrow we die.

It's been 40 years since Jessica Mitford's The American Way of Death exploded onto the American scene with its powerful expose of the funeral industry, which she claimed preyed upon grieving families whom they successfully manipulated for profit while disposing of their dead.

"Without question," writes Gary Laderman, associate professor of American Religious History and Culture at Emory University, "Mitford, more than any other critic before or since, shaped the terms of the public debate over funerals in American society and the kind of coverage funeral directors receive in popular media."

While Laderman concedes that Mitford's muckraking journalistic style "permanently changed the public face of death in America," its many rituals and services provided by the funeral industry remain alive and well, intact and in demand.

"The American way of death is motivated not by fears or disavowals, but by attachments and fixations; it is more like a cult of the dead than a symptom of a culture in denial," he writes.

"The national ritual calendar of holidays and commemorations is dominated by civic obligations to remember the American dead; pilgrimage spots marked by death and memories of the dead draw American tourists from across the country; widely dispersed but tightly focused communities devoted to dead military, entertainment, and political heroes provide a source of meaningful, although often hidden, identity to members; popular culture thrives on the inspirational compelling appearance of the dead in a wide range of the media," Laderman writes.

"And the individual ceremonies to let go of the dead often depend on their temporary close proximity to the mourners, who desire to see the body, touch the casket, or walk away with the cremated remains."

As a funeral historian, Laderman provides fascinating insight into the embalming of the dead, which at the turn of the century was carried out in the home of the deceased by an undertaker who arrived carrying a bag of specialized instruments and chemicals needed to do his work.

Changing tastes and specialized embalming technology combined with the disappearance of the family "parlour," where the deceased would be waked, led to the creation of the modern funeral home.

His account of the preparation of John F. Kennedy's body after his assassination in Dallas and the open-casket debate is fascinating.

Kennedy's body was prepared by Joseph Gawler's Sons, a prominent Washington funeral establishment, whose embalmers were directed to make sure that the slain president's face be "just right in case the coffin was opened a thousand years hence."

In the end, Jacqueline Kennedy made the decision to have the casket closed, believing the practice of an open casket was pagan rather than Christian.

There were others, however, including Robert F. Kennedy, Arthur Schlesinger and Nancy Tuckerman, who had gazed upon JFK's visage that was later described as being that of a "wax dummy."

As corporatization of death continues with neighborhood funeral establishments being swallowed by large corporations, the outlook for the industry and its stockholders remains rosy.

There are, after all, millions of baby boomers waiting in the wings for their appointment with the Grim Reaper.

Frederick N. Rasmussen has, for the last eight years, been The Sun's chief obituary writer. Before that, he spent almost a generation on the newspaper's library research staff.

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