Against a background of attitudes and practices from Western tradition and English Puritanism, the editor of the scholarly,...

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THE PURITAN WAY OF DEATH: A Study in Religion, Culture, and Social Change

Against a background of attitudes and practices from Western tradition and English Puritanism, the editor of the scholarly, historical compendium, Death in America (1975), now builds upon the peculiar graveyard anxieties of the early American Puritans. To the Puritan child, death is a fearfully likely possibility; to the predestined adult, denied assurance of traditional self-help redemption by good works or faith, death remains ""the King of Terrors."" But mankind's ""style of unease"" with death, Stannard notes, varies widely from culture to culture, from one era to the next. Thus, as the growing, blending, colonial-then-national society overwhelms an anachronistic Puritan world-view, fear of death is supplanted by sentimental longing for the ""sweet grave,"" and Emerson's aunt, ever ready, rides about in her shroud. Drawing upon schoolbooks, popular verse, sermons, diaries, funerary practices, and fads in tomb sculpture, Stannard chronicles shifts in American attitudes toward death and dying, sketching in hints of the profound cultural changes they suggest. Fashionable gravestone images (amply illustrated) become emblematic of their time: the Puritan death's-head gives way to 18th-century cherubs and willows, which are replaced in turn by Victorian representations of overstuffed furniture and household pets. Stannard's concluding historical summary and apt comments on contemporary America's tetchy unease with dying--an inconvenience to the larger society, best avoided--reaffirm the notion that an examination of the Way of Death can suggest the essential spirit of a culture. And, although much of the Puritan material here is familiar, Stannard's eclectic approach brings some fresh focuses to that most inescapable subject.

Pub Date: July 1, 1977

ISBN: N/A

Page Count: -

Publisher: Oxford Univ. Press

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 1977