Mortality and matters mortuary

Pat Lynch is a second-generation funeral director and president-elect of the Michigan Funeral Directors Assn. and chairman of its consumer protection committee.

A cherry-finished Carolina poplar casket is topped with a spray of white gladioluses, gardenias and greens and laid out on the lawn of what must be a graveyard. It looks like a still from “Six Feet Under,” the hit show about David and Nate Fisher, who run their dead father’s funeral home, Fisher & Sons, someplace near Hollywood. The casket would retail for maybe $2,000, the floral spray for $200, give or take, and the book, which features this image on its cover, $35, a bargain on a number of counts.

Boxes and bodies, bottom lines and basic principles, custom and convenience, pricey and priceless things -- funerals are full of retail and existential moments. The mortuary marketplace is rife with the ridiculous and sublime. There’s the one who calls in the middle of your dinner trying to sell you a “commemorative estate” and the one you call in the middle of the night for help, when someone you love has died.

Like the Fisher brothers, my brothers and I do our father’s work. But while the Fisher brothers are on one night a week for an hour, ours is a round-the-clock and calendar trade -- at once predictable and utterly unpredictable. We traffic in the compelling and repellent, in what folks fear and are fascinated by. Which makes a book such as Gary Laderman’s “Rest in Peace” all the more essential. Where Jessica Mitford’s “The American Way of Death” gave us mostly the math of caskets, “Rest in Peace” examines the deeper meanings and purposes of funerals and their place in the culture at large.


In “Rest in Peace,” Laderman, a professor of religious history at Emory University, records and reflects upon the further evolution of the American funeral and funeral directors: the shift from family parlors to funeral parlors, the influences of pop psyche and pop culture, regulation and consolidation. Like the cover photograph, it deals with the accessories to and the essentials of the way Americans deal with their dead, and it is in many ways a sequel to “The Sacred Remains,” his 1997 study of 19th century attitudes toward death, in which he traced the occupational roots of the funeral business to the Civil War and the funeral of Abraham Lincoln. Like the soldiers who fought for him, Lincoln died suddenly, far from his Illinois home. His body was prepared, placed in a casket, viewed by thousands and eventually shipped by railway to its tomb in Springfield -- the slow going made possible by the new science of arterial embalming, which keeps decomposition temporarily at bay.

“Regardless of cultural setting, the dead body poses a significant and complex problem that requires careful ritual actions by the survivors, who simply cannot live with bodies hanging around. While 20th century anthropologists have considered the place of the dead and the role of funeral ritual specialists in a variety of global settings, very little attention has been given to these issues in America. Reviled by some, caricatured in the media and popular culture, and greatly appreciated by many who desire their mediation, funeral directors came of age in the 20th century.”

It is the place of the dead human body in these “ritual actions” that is at the center of much of “Rest in Peace.” Down the centuries, humans have dealt with intimations of mortality by dealing with the remnants of mortality: the “remains.” Whether the dead are burned or buried, the essential elements of a funeral are unchanged -- a dead body, a local or larger community to whom the death mattered and a religious context and ritual that “processed” the dead and the living to new and separate places in the community. The dead bodies were left in the grave or fire, their souls consigned to eternities defined by belief or disbelief, the living returned to their casseroles and grief.

Laderman argues that all this changed in 1963 when Simon and Schuster published Mitford’s “The American Way of Death.” It “became a phenomenal success and marked a turning point in American attitudes toward the disposal of the dead. Funeral directing in particular would never be the same again. In brief, Mitford presents a scathing indictment of the funeral industry, drawing attention to the commercialism and exploitation she saw driving the enterprise.” Laderman gives a balanced, carefully researched analysis of Mitford’s effect on the mortuary marketplace and on cultural attitudes about death and funerals. The effect of Mitford’s reporting cannot be underestimated. Religious leaders, who were always put out by the materialism of funerals, began advocating for simpler, less expensive rituals. The Federal Trade Commission, largely on the strength of Mitford’s book, promulgated a funeral rule that required funeral directors to itemize their prices for merchandise and services and to get authorization for embalming. The memorial service -- an event to which everyone but the deceased is invited -- was promoted as an alternative to the traditional funeral. During these services, the dead body is quickly disposed of, more often by cremation, unattended by family or clergy. The eventual service is uplifting, convenient and cost effective but, like a wedding without the bride, it leaves many grieving families wondering if something is missing. The National Funeral Directors countered with the mounting scholarly evidence that the funeral with the body of the dead present was better psychologically for the bereaved.

Laderman gives both arguments their due. The funeral, he observes, still has profound meaning and value for most Americans. But consumers are properly wary of a marketplace that all too predictably seeks to turn a death in the family into a sales op. Where consumers want more choices and alternatives in funeral arrangements, they are not looking for more caskets with tackle boxes or footballs on the corners. Where consumers may want to pre-plan for funerals, they don’t want junk mail and telemarketers peddling mortuary wares. And though Mitford argued for a hurried and private riddance from the corpse, Laderman observes that most Americans still prefer to take leave of their dead with witness, ceremony, the company of friends and the assistance of a funeral director.

And while Laderman, like Mitford, reads widely in the trade press -- quoting from such publications as the American Funeral Director, and Mitford’s favorite, Mortuary Management -- he also examines Mark Twain, Thomas Wolfe, William Faulkner and J.D. Salinger, the poet Mark Doty, and my brother, Thomas Lynch, whose book “The Undertaking” “offers a portrait of his world, the world of the dead -- and of the living with the dead -- that complicates the stereotypical representations of undertakers historically so dominant in the popular imagination.”

On cremation, Laderman looks past the “easier, faster, cheaper” arguments of the immediate disposition crowd to the work of Stephen Prothero, whose book “Purified by Fire: A History of Cremation in America” sets cremation in its religious, historical and psycho-social contexts as well as its economic one. “This desire is as much about ‘style,’ to use Prothero’s key analytical frame, as it is about ‘substance.’ The body matters to Americans, even if the body is reduced to ashes, and rituals must be employed when disposing of bodily matter.”

Where Mitford relied on muckrake and polemic, driven by opinion and a hunger for social change, Laderman is driven by a free-ranging intellectual curiosity and relies on the professorial tools of research and interview, review and analysis. History and philosophy, radio and TV, the daily papers and current cinema, Hollywood, holy writ, wrestling, Web sites and rock ‘n’ roll all have something to tell him about the way we look at mortality and matters mortuary. If Mitford’s book was a best seller, Laderman’s gives us a better record: comprehensive, intelligent and deeply insightful.

“Rest in Peace” concludes with an epilogue written after Sept. 11, 2001, which highlights the complications that arise when loved ones not only die but disappear, their bodies lost in the violence of murder. “Without identifiable bodies to ground our responses, and absent funeral rituals that can provide an orderly manner to dispose of them individually, close family members and all Americans were left with literally nothing to focus their hearts and minds on .... In ordinary circumstances, the dead body cries out for ritual, and whether it is ultimately cremated and dispersed to the wind, embalmed and put on display, or cared for by community members and placed in the ground, Americans rely on its temporary presence to properly and meaningfully say good-bye.”

As terrorism, wars and rumors of wars become more and more part of the new century’s history, Laderman’s examination of death, grief and funerals in the former century seems all the more instructive and prescient.

“In most cases, rather than trivializing the horror, or exploiting those most affected by it, popular culture will serve as a significant arena to remember the dead and grapple with the psychic, imaginative and symbolic aftereffects of all this carnage. Disconnected from normal rituals of disposal, and from individual gravesites, these dead will not go away. They will stay with us, and will be part of the American cultural landscape for many, many years to come.”

We humans, it seems, best deal with death by dealing with our dead. Funerals have less to do with how much we spend or how much we save than with what we do in the face of death. In correspondence with my brother Tom, Alan Ball, the creator of “Six Feet Under,” once wrote, “I get now what you undertakers always understood -- once you put a dead body in the room, you can talk about anything.” It is clear from “Rest in Peace” that Gary Laderman gets it too.