Rest in Peace
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Rest in Peace : A Cultural History of Death and the Funeral Home in Twentieth-Century America

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Though it has often been passionately criticized-as fraudulent, exploitative, even pagan-the American funeral home has become nearly as inevitable as death itself, an institution firmly embedded in our culture. But how did the funeral home come to hold such a position? What is its history? And is it guilty of the charges sometimes leveled against it? In Rest in Peace, Gary Laderman traces the origins of American funeral rituals, from the evolution of embalming techniques during and after the Civil War and the shift from home funerals to funeral homes at the turn of the century, to the increasing subordination of priests, ministers, and other religious figures to the funeral director throughout the twentieth century. In doing so he shows that far from manipulating vulnerable mourners, as Jessica Mitford claimed in her best-selling The American Way of Death (1963), funeral directors are highly respected figures whose services reflect the community's deepest needs and wishes. Indeed, Laderman shows that funeral directors generally give the people what they want when it is time to bury our dead. He reveals, for example, that the open casket, often criticized as barbaric, provides a deeply meaningful moment for friends and family who must say goodbye to their loved one. But he also shows how the dead often come back to life in the popular imagination to disturb the peace of the living. Drawing upon interviews with funeral directors, major historical events like the funerals of John F. Kennedy and Rudolf Valentino, films, television, newspaper reports, proposals for funeral reform, and other primary sources, Rest in Peace cuts through the rhetoric to show us the reality-and the real cultural value-of the American funeral.show more

Product details

  • Paperback | 296 pages
  • 144.8 x 223.5 x 20.3mm | 385.56g
  • Oxford University Press Inc
  • New York, United States
  • English
  • 019518355X
  • 9780195183559
  • 1,311,849

Review quote

"A riveting account of death in twentieth-century America, Rest in Peace buries decades of stereotypes about Americans as death deniers and funeral directors as con men. Instead of skewering the 'Dismal Traders,' Laderman brings them to life, focusing on their postmortem work as an important form of culture charged with spiritual import and mythic significance. The book ranges widely, from the funeral of President Kennedy to the AIDS epidemic, from Disney's Fantasia to the World Wrestling Federation phenom The Undertaker. This is a superb cultural history filled with insights into America's many ways of death."-Stephen R. Prothero, author of Purified by Fire: A History of Cremation in America "In 1963, Jessica Mitford's The American Way of Death shocked the nation and provoked scandal throughout the funeral industry.... Forty years later, Laderman comes to the industry's defense with this thoughtful book. His case is cautious and honest. He presents the industry's history from its inception during the Civil War period up to the present.... [Laderman] provides convincing evidence that the industry is a necessary and compassionate force in American life. While critics like Mitford paint a picture of greed, this accounts offers a more nuanced image: an industry that provides a 'meaningful and material order out of the chaos of death."-Publishers Weekly "To a subject accustomed to the cheap shot and sucker-punch, Laderman has brought a robust and welcome scholarship. Part cultural and professional history, part market study, part meditation on mortality, this necessary and eminently readable text examines the borders between the living and the dead in the tradition of Habenstein & Lamers. Required reading for the professional and for the permanently curious."-Thomas Lynch, author of The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade "A largely favorable portrait of a much-maligned industry sure to please most funeral directors, especially those running small-town, family-owned businesses."-Kirkus Reviews "Laderman's respect, even affection, for the [funeral-industry] profession is clearly evident, but he maintains objectivity throughout. Especially impressive is his treatment of Mitford, whose accusations he challenges politely but thoroughly."-Library Journal "Laderman sharply disputes the thesis of Jessica Mitford's influential 1963 expose, The American Way of Death.... Along the way, he provides fascinating details about how modern morticians have handled deaths in the limelight (JFK) and about how funeral directors have changed their methods in response to muckraking accusations (including Mitford's) and to shifting cultural attitudes toward death.... Laderman piquantly illustrates these recent trends by recounting the highly unconventional funeral of-it had to be-Jessica Mitford."-Booklist "Mitford's book was invaluable, if for no other reason than putting a touchy topic right there in everybody's front parlor and daring them to ignore it. But Laderman's book is a far more nuanced view of 'the dismal trade.' Whereas Mitford focused on the arithmetic of the funeral business-what is the proper profit margin for ushering someone to their eternal rest?-Laderman ranges all over the place, shedding light on the stages of body decomposition in one chapter and on the cultural significance of George Romero's 'Night of the Living Dead' in another."-Teresa K. Weaver, Atlanta Journal Constitution "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."-Los Angeles Times Book Review "A thoughtful consideration of an industry that is as misunderstood as it is necessary."-Boston Globeshow more

About Gary Laderman

Gary Laderman is Associate Professor of American Religious History and Culture at Emory University and the author of The Sacred Remains: American Attitudes Toward Death, 1799-1883. He lives in Atlanta, Georgia.show more

Rating details

73 ratings
3.57 out of 5 stars
5 18% (13)
4 37% (27)
3 34% (25)
2 7% (5)
1 4% (3)
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