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Rest in Peace: A Cultural History of Death…
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Rest in Peace: A Cultural History of Death and the Funeral Home in… (edition 2005)

by Gary Laderman

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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? In Rest 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-selling The 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 Peace cuts through the rhetoric to show us the reality--and the real cultural value--of the American funeral.… (more)
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Title:Rest in Peace: A Cultural History of Death and the Funeral Home in Twentieth-Century America
Authors:Gary Laderman
Info:Oxford University Press, USA (2005), Paperback, 296 pages
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Rest in Peace: A Cultural History of Death and the Funeral Home in Twentieth-Century America by Gary Laderman

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In Rest in Peace: A Cultural History of Death and the Funeral Home in Twentieth-Century America, Gary Laderman builds upon what he began in his previous monograph, The Sacred Remains. He writes, “The final ceremonies that accompany a corpse’s disposal, as well as its preparation for these cermeonies and the manner in which it vanishes from living society, reveal a great deal about the animating cultural values and integrating social principles at work in any particular community” (pg. xvi). Laderman argues, “The twentieth century was indeed the ‘embalming century’” (pg. xix). He continues, “Embalming could not have taking root in American society without implicit and explicit forms of support from across the larger cultural landscape throughout the century. This new, deeply complicated cultural convergence transformed the presence of the dead in both the social and imaginative worlds of modern Americans” (pg. xix).
As an introductory case study, Laderman focuses on Jessica Mitford’s 1963 work, The American Way of Death. Laderman argues the Mitford’s “book, in fact, permanently changed the public face of death in America” (pg. xxiv). He continues, “In twentieth-century America, funeral directors took charge of the body so the bereaved could have what they wanted most – one last private moment with the loved one” (pg. xli). Laderman argues, “Contrary to the accusations leveled by Mitford and others, there is more to the business of death than simply economics – the emotional, psychological, religious, and cultural dimensions of disposal must also be taken into historical account when investigating American ways of death” (pg. xlii).
Laderman writes, “The success of the funeral industry was a product of the radically changing conditions of modern life, and modern dying, in this historical period” (pg. 4). He continues, “As funeral directors found their niche in early twentieth-century American society, the age-old familiarity of the living with the dead was replaced by a new alienation. Combined with the mortality revolution taking place and the growing presence of medical institutions that sequestered the dying from the living, new ritual patterns for disposing of the dead founded on the practice of embalming relieved living relations of traditional duties. Dead bodies, in effect, disappeared from the everyday world of twentieth-century Americans” (pg. 22). In this way, “As a domesticated space of death, the funeral home upset conventional boundaries between the religious and the profane, commerce and spirit, private and public” (pg. 25).
Laderman writes of the period after World War I, “For most inside the industry, the increasing commodification of the American funeral was a perfectly natural development in one of the most powerful capitalistic nations in the world. Indeed, the entrepreneurial spirit animating the network of commercial activity surrounding the funeral was experienced in patriotic terms, and any threats to its standing in the free market denounced as an attack on American democracy” (pg. 46). He continues, “At its core, the message funeral directors wanted to convey was simple: The funeral services they furnish respond to American sensibilities about propriety, respect, and honor in the face of death. In the course of developing this message, the industry invented what came to be known as ‘the American way of death’” (pg. 78).
Turning to portrayals of death in the media, Laderman writes, “Try as they might, undertakers could not control the fate of their public image…His presence on the stage, in novels, over the airwaves, on the silver screen speaks to the complicated set of relations between the living and the dead that were overtaking Americans in the early decades of the twentieth century, as well as to the familiar ambivalence toward corpse handlers found across global cultures” (pg. 84). He continues, “The caricature also served as a vehicle for a thoroughly modern set of criticisms of the American response to death: too materialistic, too secular and too unrealistic. The undertaker embodied all the critique’s of the industry, personifying everything that was wrong with American’s perceptions of death and their choices about corpse disposal” (pg. 92). Expanding beyond perceptions of undertakers to perceptions of the dead in media such as zombie films, Laderman writes, “Never before had Americans been confronted with such accessible, pervasive, and disturbing portraits of death, and never before had Americans disagreed so strongly about the meaning, value, and power of the dead” (pg. 125). He further turns to personifications of Death himself, writing, “One of the most easily recognizable characters in American consciousness – a tribute to his deep-rooted presence in the Chrisitan imagination – is being resurrected not by leaders in the church but by ad agencies on Madison Avenue” (pg. 171). A playful image of Death sells various products while a more traditional image helps warn about mortality, as in the dangers of smoking cigarettes.
Examining changes in funerary practices in the late twentieth century, Laderman writes, “The federal investigation of the industry beginning in the 1970s, coupled with the growing and popularity of the death awareness movement during the same period, actively encouraged patrons to take control of the funeral and create ceremonies that suit their own tastes rather than simply conform to the modern traditions established over the first half of the twentieth century” (pg. 144). He continues, “Although fears of death-care giants monopolizing the funeral business do not currently get as much press as in the early 1990s, their undeniable impact in American society, and the kind of coverage they receive in the media, contributes to a cultural nostalgia for the traditional values now associated with the family-owned funeral home” (pg. 192).
Laderman concludes, “Most Americans do not want the dead body to disappear too quickly. But on the other hand, they do not want it lingering around for too long. A brief, intimate moment with the dead – looking at the face, touching the casket, being in the presence of the corpse for a short time – is an ingrained ritual gesture that brings meaningful, and material, order out of the chaos of death” (pg. 211). ( )
  DarthDeverell | Nov 12, 2017 |
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  Kaethe | May 27, 2008 |
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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? In Rest 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-selling The 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 Peace cuts through the rhetoric to show us the reality--and the real cultural value--of the American funeral.

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