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

By Gary Laderman | Go to book overview

4
KEEPING THE DEAD IN PLACE:
OLD AND NEW PATTERNS OF CONSUMPTION

Darkness falls across the land,
The midnight hour is close at hand
Creatures crawl in search of blood
To terrorize y'awls neighborhood
And whosoever shall be found
Without the soul for getting down
Must stand and face the hounds of hell
And rot inside a corpse's shell.

“Thriller,” Rap by Vincent Price, Michael Jackson, 1984


The Trouble with Corpses

National funeral organizations and state associations worked hard to counter the negative press stemming from The American Way of Death and win the trust of the American people. In curricula reform and public relation campaigns the industry emphasized the therapeutic value of tra- ditional funerals, and began to rely on grief relief as a crucial factor in legitimating the value of modern funerary customs. At the same time, basic structural elements of the rituals upholding American traditions were dramatically altered as a result of growing governmental concern about the vulnerability of consumers in this market. In addition, self- imposed changes in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s responded to an increas- ingly diverse clientele whose tastes simultaneously sustained and trans- formed these traditions. Without question, Mitford's book was a turning point in the history of American funerals, leading to heightened public awareness about the costs of disposal, the need for consumer protection, and the availability of alternatives to the traditional funeral.

In the face of this heightened awareness, and in the aftermath of dramatic changes in the way they interacted with clients, funeral directors strove to continue to provide the same basic ritual services they had before the publication of Mitford's book: removal of the body from home or hos- pital, embalming and preparing it in the funeral home, displaying the deceased in the casket before and/or during services in the chapel, and

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