Shifting attitudes are revealed
by presidents' deaths

When George Washington died in 1799, towns throughout the country staged mock funeral processions featuring empty coffins. In contrast, after Abraham Lincoln's death in 1865, his body was transported around the North and displayed for more than two weeks, for by then corpses could be embalmed, preserved for "one last look" by scores of mourners.

In his new book, The Sacred Remains (Yale University Press), Gary Laderman, assistant professor of religion, explores how Washington's and Lincoln's deaths were key events in the development of an "American way of death," in which an emerging funeral industry began mediating between the living and the dead.

Laderman uses medical histories, religious documents, personal diaries and letters, literature, painting and photography to show how changing attitudes toward death and the dead in the 19th century led to present-day perspectives and practices. He also examines the pivotal role of the Civil War, in which an unprecedented number of Americans faced the death of relatives who needed to be recovered and given a "proper burial." While many scholars point to the Civil War as a major cultural turning point on death in America, Laderman's book provides a more detailed analysis of how the change took place.

"Before the Civil War, there was an intimacy between the living and the dead," said Laderman. Since most people died in their homes, death was a family affair and followed a predictable pattern. Relatives (usually women) dressed and "laid out" the body, which remained at home for one to three days, and survivors took turns keeping watch over the dead, a practice called the wake. While funeral services might vary, Laderman said, two other elements in disposing of the dead were common: a funeral procession and burial in a nearby graveyard.

With increasing urbanization, death-like everything else-became more complex, but it wasn't just the shift from rural to urban life that changed American attitudes, said Laderman. "In the early 19th century, ideas about the dead and the meanings of death in public culture were up for grabs," he said. The book outlines a variety of meanings people attached to death, ranging from orthodox interpretations that focused on eventual resurrection, to morbid fascination with the decomposing corpse in sensational literature.

Laderman also examines the rising popularity of natural symbolism found, for example, in the rural cemetery movement and the growing medical appreciation for the dead body. By the mid-19th century, the cadaver had assumed new importance to the scientific community.

"But the Civil War was a transformative moment in the history of American attitudes toward death," said Laderman. "The war accelerated some trends that existed before, altered other trends and created new systems of meanings for death and new practices for disposing of the dead."

As the number of war dead increased, states became progressively less likely to get involved in retrieving corpses, said Laderman. Although the federal government began to address the issue of burial, older models for disposal were no longer viable. "The funeral journey, so ingrained in Protestant culture before the war, was impossible for most soldiers who lost their lives in the conflict," he said. For dead soldiers to be returned to their families, determined friends and relatives had to intervene.

The war also reinforced the already decreasing emphasis on the symbolic value of the corpse in religious life and the increasing weight on the spirit and the afterlife, a trend that started in the antebellum period and flourished after the war, Laderman wrote. "In virtually every facet of Protestant theology, the physical remains of the dead were persona non grata, so to speak. The corpse itself had become useless to religious instruction."

The most obvious new element in the treatment of the dead that emerged in the wake of the Civil War was embalming, a practice that offended and repulsed popular sensibilities earlier in the century, said Laderman. Because corpses of dead soldiers could not be left unattended on or near the zones of combat, their disposal required unconventional practices that were unfamiliar to most citizens. Increasingly, embalming was seen as a pragmatic, hygienic and rational choice, he said.

"In the span of roughly five years, embalming was transformed from a practice almost exclusive to the emerging professional medical field to an accepted, highly visible and desired treatment for the dead," said Laderman. By the time of Lincoln's assassination in 1865, America had a new class of mediators between the living and the dead-the embalmers.

Lincoln's body, which was embalmed after his death and displayed to tens of thousands of mourning Americans, was a major catalyst in the transformation of attitudes and practices surrounding the dead, said Laderman. The procedure of his embalming, described in great detail by journalists of the day, "demonstrated that even in the grips of death, the president's body, like the social body, could overcome the material, physical violence enacted on it."

If death became a less intimate affair with the emergence of the funeral industry, some attitudes remained unchanged. "The desire to gaze at the body before disposal has been a consistent characteristic of death in America," Laderman said. "This is one reason the funeral industry became so successful. It's not as if they created a need. Consumers had the desire to get some sort of emotional, psychological closure and preserve personal memory. In that environment the funeral industry was born and came to prominence in American society."

-Elaine Justice

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