Shifting attitudes are revealed
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.
by presidents' deaths
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
"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."