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

Paperback | February 24, 2005

byGary 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, andother 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 servicesreflect 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 andfamily 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--andthe real cultural value--of the American funeral.

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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 lev...

Gary Laderman is Associate Professor of American Religious History and Culture at Emory University and the author of The Sacred Remains: American Attitudes Toward Death, 1799-1883. He lives in Atlanta, Georgia.

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Format:PaperbackDimensions:296 pages, 5.71 × 8.9 × 0.79 inPublished:February 24, 2005Publisher:Oxford University PressLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:019518355X

ISBN - 13:9780195183559

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"A riveting account of death in twentieth-century America, Rest in Peace buries decades of stereotypes about Americans as death deniers and funeral directors as con men. Instead of skewering the 'Dismal Traders,' Laderman brings them to life, focusing on their postmortem work as an importantform of culture charged with spiritual import and mythic significance. The book ranges widely, from the funeral of President Kennedy to the AIDS epidemic, from Disney's Fantasia to the World Wrestling Federation phenom The Undertaker. This is a superb cultural history filled with insights intoAmerica's many ways of death."--Stephen R. Prothero, author of Purified by Fire: A History of Cremation in America