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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. By Gary Laderman (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. xlii plus 245pp. $35.00).

In 1996, Gary Laderman published The Sacred Remains: American Attitudes Toward Death, 1799-1883, describing how attitudes towards the body and its place in the funeral had changed in the first half of the nineteenth century. With the de-Christianization of death, professional businessmen assumed control over the body and the rituals surrounding its disposal, in the process transforming it into a commodity of interest to a burgeoning industry.

Laderman begins Rest in Peace with the observation that although he had "vowed never to write on the subject again," the story of the emergence of the modern American funeral was both incomplete and "too compelling to ignore." (p. ix) This book has three main arguments. (1) The author takes pains to show how funeral directors constructed a unique American funeral tradition in the first part of the twentieth century, and then refined and defended that construction in response to a variety of critiques. (2) Central to his interpretation is the powerful effect of Jessica Mitford's 1963 attack on the funeral industry, The American Way of Death, in shaping both public opinion and professional responses. (3) Laderman concludes that Mitford's "analysis was simply, finally, dead wrong," because funeral directors were not greedy exploiters of grief since "most Americans wanted the services they offered." (pp. xli, 64)

Laderman begins the book with two prefatory sections. In the Prologue, he establishes a brief anthropological context for understanding the role of funeral directors, pointing out both the universal need to dispose of bodies and the often marginal place of corpse handlers in any society. His description of the twentieth century as the "embalming century" is central to how funeral directors acquired "the necessary authority, purpose, and values to promote their services." (p. xix) In the Introduction, Laderman focuses on 1963, first discussing Mitford's book and its immediate impact, and then on John F. Kennedy's funeral and how it was shaped by Mitford's critique. Chapter 1 traces the emergence and evolution of a new funeral "tradition" from 1900 to 1940, designed in part to domesticate death and remove fears of decay. Critical to this process was the industry's creation of a new myth of origins via professional publications, referring to Egyptian customs to help justify embalming, which in turn was essential to emphasizing the visible body as central to the funeral. Chapter 2 covers to the years 1918 to 1963, tracing pre-Mitford critics of the funeral industry, both journalistic and clerical, and professional responses to those complaints.

Chapter 3 demonstrates how Mitford drew on pre-existing stereotypes of undertakers, and the immediate industry response. Laderman's approach to the English author, here as elsewhere, is ambiguous. On the one hand he recognizes The American Way of Death as a "bona fide cultural sensation," but later refers to her "incredulous ravings." (p. 83-84) Laderman is more sympathetic with the industry's efforts to claim "total control over the experience of death" via the "production of a memorable corpse," to provide a "comforting last look," all justified by funeral directors recasting themselves as "grief therapists." (pp. 100-118) Although Laderman replicates, in this chapter and throughout the book, at least part of Mitford's method by offering extensive quotes from industry publications, and clearly shows recurring and quite conscious efforts by funeral directors to reform their practices to protect their businesses, he ultimately finds their perspective more congenial than Mitford's.

The final two chapters bring the story to the start of the twenty-first century, and are in may ways the most innovative, engaging, imaginative, and wide-ranging parts of the book. Chapter 4 examines forces of change from about 1960 to 1980, including the death awareness movement, Federal Trade Commission efforts to regulate industry abuses, the counter culture of the 1960s, AIDS, and increasing cultural diversity. All combined to force funeral directors to be flexible in accepting the demands of customers regarding rituals surrounding bodies. Chapter 5 ranges over such recent phenomenon as the use of the grim reaper image in popular culture, how baby boomers have expressed their preferences, the rise of funeral chains and multinational corporations in the industry, and the recent trend to cremation. Laderman concludes that, despite our preference for an antiseptic body visible during the funeral, American behavior is "more like a cult of the dead than a symptom of a culture in denial." (p. 206) A brief Epilogue recognizes, but does not say much about 9/11.

One of the strengths and weaknesses of this book is its extensive use of interviews with funeral professionals. Laderman represents their point of view clearly and fairly, though perhaps a bit uncritically. Given his appointment in a department of religion, it is somewhat surprising that he made no effort to interview clergy, whose role in shaping the rituals of death was significantly reduced by the success of the undertakers. He remarks on how embalming "gave" funeral directors authority over bodies and how they willingly "assumed" that position; yet much of the professional literature he cites suggested "seized" would be an equally appropriate word to describe what happened. Laderman's contention that funeral directors gave Americans only services they "wanted" seems obvious with regard to the actual handling of the corpse, but is less convincing regarding the "need" to display that body in an expensive casket, in a setting rented from a businessman. Surely "last looks" and "memory pictures," if in fact they are as important as Laderman and the industry claim, could be accomplished in a private setting with a less expensive frame. It is somewhat surprising that photography is mentioned nowhere in this book, as it was commonplace in the twentieth century, presumably available as an alternative for remembering the deceased. Likewise, in discussing a century when "wants" have been so successfully manufactured and manipulated by advertisers and businessmen, Laderman might have been more sensitive to his own evidence regarding how Americans were persuaded to "want" all the services offered the funeral industry.

Robert V. Wells

Union College
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Author:Wells, Robert V.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 2004
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