Rest in Peace: A Cultural History of Death and the Funeral Home in Twentieth-Century America

Rest in Peace: A Cultural History of Death and the Funeral Home in Twentieth-Century America

Rest in Peace: A Cultural History of Death and the Funeral Home in Twentieth-Century America

Rest in Peace: A Cultural History of Death and the Funeral Home in Twentieth-Century America

Synopsis

Though it has often been passionately criticized--as fraudulent, exploitative, even pagan--the American funeral home has become nearly as inevitable as death itself, an institution firmly embedded in our culture. But how did the funeral home come to hold such a position? What is its history? And is it guilty of the charges sometimes leveled against it?
InRest in Peace, Gary Laderman traces the origins of American funeral rituals, from the evolution of embalming techniques during and after the Civil War and the shift from home funerals to funeral homes at the turn of the century, to the increasing subordination of priests, ministers, and other religious figures to the funeral director throughout the twentieth century. In doing so he shows that far from manipulating vulnerable mourners, as Jessica Mitford claimed in her best-sellingThe American Way of Death(1963), funeral directors are highly respected figures whose services reflect the community's deepest needs and wishes. Indeed, Laderman shows that funeral directors generally give the people what they want when it is time to bury our dead. He reveals, for example, that the open casket, often criticized as barbaric, provides a deeply meaningful moment for friends and family who must say goodbye to their loved one. But he also shows how the dead often come back to life in the popular imagination to disturb the peace of the living.
Drawing upon interviews with funeral directors, major historical events like the funerals of John F. Kennedy and Rudolf Valentino, films, television, newspaper reports, proposals for funeral reform, and other primary sources,Rest in Peacecuts through the rhetoric to show us the reality--and the real cultural value--of the American funeral.

Excerpt

The chaos of death disturbs the peace of living. Nothing represents this chaos more forcefully to human senses and the imagination than the biological process of bodily disintegration. This unsettling fact of life has proven to be a rich source of inspiration for human efforts to find order in disorder, meaning in suffering, eternity in finitude. Religion, culture, social structures, the vitality of these rudimentary elements of communal life depends upon ritually putting the dead body in its place, managing the relations between the living and the dead, and providing explanations for the existence of death. Throughout human history the problem of bodily decay has had to be solved in a meaningful way—the social body cannot function without agreed upon principles to respond to the universal presence of dead bodies.

After death, the body once so critical to identity is fated to decompose, raising difficult questions about the very nature of individual and social identity. A body without life is immediately recognizable, usually because the face, the primary marker of identity, begins to change. Sherwin Nuland, noted surgeon and historian of medicine, writes: “The appearance of a newly lifeless face cannot be mistaken for unconsciousness. Within a minute after the heart stops beating, the face begins to take on the unmistakable gray-white pallor of death; in an uncanny way, the features very soon appear corpse-like, even to those who have never before seen a dead body.” Critical to the appearance of the lifeless face is the eyes, which become dull, vacant, empty. The body follows the face, emitting transparent visual and olfactory cues that, indeed, life is no more and . . .

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