The Final Frontier

This much we know: the end is the same for each of us.


“All 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.”

Laderman–who helped to organize April’s conference on health, healing, and spirituality–was glad to have a respite from his primary area of expertise: the rituals of death and dying.

Death certainly permeates American popular culture, through movies like M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense, hit shows such as the HBO series Six Feet Under, nihilistic heavy metal music, and Alice Sebold’s best-selling novel The Lovely Bones, written from the perspective of a murdered girl.

As mortal beings aware of the temporal nature of our lives, we keep death close, says Laderman, who wears a skull ring as a personal reminder.

His 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 Lincoln’s assassination) to the increasing popularity of customized memorial services, Laderman tracks the manner in which we care for and dispose of our dead.

“In 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.”

–Associate Professor Gary Laderman in Rest in Peace.

Baby 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 percent will.

Cremains may be incorporated into a commemorative fireworks display, launched into space (á la Gene Roddenberry and Timothy Leary), or simply placed in an urn.

And with a new spectrum of computer-assisted options–virtual funerals via Web-casting, e-testimonials about the departed, and internet viewing of cremations–technology 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.

There 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 new requests.

“Since 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 goodbye.

“Funeral 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 moment–looking at their face, touching the casket, being in the presence of the corpse for a short time–is an ingrained ritual gesture that brings meaningful, and material, order out of the chaos of death.“–M.J.L.




© 2003 Emory University