March 31, 2003

Rest in Peace: Examining America's 'dismal trade'

By Michael Terrazas

Each time Gary Laderman teaches his undergraduate course, “On Death and Dying,” he informs his students there will be a “music day” late in the semester on which they are asked to bring in songs about death. And each time their reaction is the same.

“They think I’m crazy,” said Laderman, associate professor of American religious history and culture. “They’re like, ‘This guy is some morbid freak who’s obsessed with death.’”

But, by the time music day rolls around, the students always get the point: Death, probably the most unpleasant topic imaginable, is nonetheless ubiquitous in American culture. It is also a subject that has occupied Laderman’s professional attention since he was a graduate student at the University of California-Santa Barbara.

Laderman’s new book, Rest in Peace: A Cultural History of Death and the Funeral Home in 20th Century America, tackles the end of life from the uniquely American perspective of the undertaker and the funeral home. Billed by many reviewers as a response to Jessica Mitford’s classic 1963 exposé, The American Way of Death, Laderman’s book was not intended to take up the morticians’ flag, but its author admitted it treats the “death industry” more favorably than did Mitford.

“I do think the funeral industry gets a bad rap, but I came to realize that so much of the public discourse on this subject was based on that one book,” said Laderman of The American Way of Death, which blasted the funeral industry for allegedly exploiting its customers’ grief for profit in all manner of ways. “How could the funeral industry have been so successful over the course of the 20th century if [Witford] was right?”

Laderman said he “loves” Mitford’s book but also feels it is incomplete. In Rest in Peace, he traces the emergence of the undertaker and the funeral home from their cultural beginnings in the period roughly following the Civil War right up to contemporary society.

Over many decades, the book describes, the industry first helped develop and then fiercely defended the “traditional American funeral,” which consisted of viewing the embalmed corpse, holding a memorial service (usually in the funeral home) and then ceremonious disposition of the body in a cemetery. But after the publication of Mitford’s book in 1963 and in recognition of a rapidly changing and diversifying culture, American morticians realized they needed to adapt to the times and offer consumers the choices they wanted, such as cremation and nontraditional services.

Laderman details not only the cultural evolution of the American funeral, but also the professional evolution of the institution’s specialists, from the beginnings of the first undertakers’ associations in the late 19th century to the rise of a corporate death industry a hundred years later. Along the way, he provides examples throughout the generations of America’s continuing fascination with death, from the 1926 public display of film star Rudolph Valentino’s body (which sparked a near riot in New York) to the incorporation of death as a theme in Walt Disney’s early animated features, to the recent popularity of HBO’s “Six Feet Under” series.

In reading Rest In Peace, it’s hard to gauge Laderman’s own views on the death industry—which historically has been prone to think and write about its work in almost mythical fashion, with undertakers often viewing themselves as quasi-religious figures charged with a solemn, even holy, duty—and the author said he prefers it that way.

“I’m just a historian, and I simply want to describe the past,” Laderman said. “[In relaying the undertakers’ mythology] I’m describing it as a way to get inside the heads of funeral directors and see how they view the world.”

They are, Laderman admitted, likely to love Rest in Peace, which portrays “the dismal trade” in a usually favorable light. As for the author, after two books on the subject (Laderman’s first book was 1998’s The Sacred Remains: American Attitudes Toward Death, 1799–1883), he is ready to take his leave of the Grim Reaper for a while. Asked whether researching death was more psychologically taxing than other subjects, Laderman replied, “After 10 years, it sure is.”

“But,” he added, “it’s a fascinating topic.”