much we know: the end is the same for each of us.
the talk of death being a taboo is just symptomatic of how obsessed
we are with it, says Associate Professor of American Religious
History and Culture Gary Laderman, All human cultures
are preoccupied with death.
helped to organize Aprils conference on health, healing,
and spiritualitywas glad to have a respite from his primary
area of expertise: the rituals of death and dying.
certainly permeates American popular culture, through movies
like M. Night Shyamalans The Sixth Sense, hit shows
such as the HBO series Six Feet Under, nihilistic heavy
metal music, and Alice Sebolds best-selling novel The
Lovely Bones, written from the perspective of a murdered
mortal beings aware of the temporal nature of our lives, we
keep death close, says Laderman, who wears a skull ring as a
just-released book, Rest in Peace, gives a cultural history
of death and the funeral home in twentieth-century America.
From the evolution of embalming (a practice that took off after
President Lincolns assassination) to the increasing popularity
of customized memorial services, Laderman tracks the manner
in which we care for and dispose of our dead.
the end, the dead come back to life in American society. Indeed,
American society comes to life thanks to the luminous presence
of the dead in the imaginative and physical landscapes of its
citizens. . . . It is more like a cult of the dead than a symptom
of a culture in denial.
Professor Gary Laderman in Rest in Peace.
boomers have embraced efficiency and economy: more funerals
are pre-planned to cut down on expenses and there has been a
sharp increase in cremation over the past two decades. Forty
years ago, fewer than 4 percent of Americans chose cremation;
in 1995, 21 percent did; and by 2010, it is projected that 40
may be incorporated into a commemorative fireworks display,
launched into space (á la Gene Roddenberry and
Timothy Leary), or simply placed in an urn.
with a new spectrum of computer-assisted optionsvirtual
funerals via Web-casting, e-testimonials about the departed,
and internet viewing of cremationstechnology is taking
memorial services full force into the future. Cyberspace
offers another arena in which to enact rituals . . . with a
click of a button, he says.
is also an increasing desire to craft the details of the funeral
to reflect the personality of the deceased, and a corresponding
willingness on the part of the funeral industry to be open to
the 1960s, the rigidity of funeral traditions has been breaking
down, Laderman says. Baby Boomers are facing the
final frontier and they are insisting upon individual choices
and religious freedom.
Reports of the demise of large ceremonies at funeral homes,
open caskets, or chemical embalming, however, may prove premature.
Family and friends, says Laderman, do want the chance to say
directors are very clear about the value and popularity of a
last look at the deceased . . .this crucial, short-lived window
of opportunity for the living to be with their dead, he
writes. A brief, intimate momentlooking at their
face, touching the casket, being in the presence of the corpse
for a short timeis an ingrained ritual gesture that brings
meaningful, and material, order out of the chaos of death.M.J.L.