Laderman continues where he left off in The Sacred Remains (not reviewed), extending that study of “American attitudes toward death” into the 20th century.
The author immediately challenges Jessica Mitford’s 1963 indictment of the funeral industry, The American Way of Death, claiming that it overlooks cultural, religious, emotional, and psychological dimensions of disposal of the dead. Funeral directors are well-respected, Laderman (American Religious History and Culture/Emory Univ.) asserts, and their services are highly valued. He selects three cultural phenomena from the first half of the century—Rudolph Valentino’s funeral, Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town, and Walt Disney’s early animated films—to demonstrate what he terms an American fascination with death. (For those fascinated by celebrity funerals or curious about the respective merits of open and closed caskets, he also provides information about the preparation of President Kennedy’s corpse.) By embalming, dressing, and presenting a corpse in a setting away from home, he argues, funeral directors have enabled their clientele to say goodbye to the dead in a sanitary and religiously sanctified way. Quoting liberally from the trade literature of the funeral industry, Laderman chronicles its reaction to Mitford’s book in the 1960s and ’70s, to the FTC’s consumer protection measures of the ’80s, and to the emergence of huge death-care conglomerates in the ’80s and ’90s. He reveals how the AIDS epidemic affected funeral-home procedures and how the industry has responded to the growing death-awareness movement and increased demand for cremation in the US. What hasn’t changed, according to Laderman, is funeral directors’ desire to maintain control of the dead from last breath to final disposition, however that may be carried out.
A largely favorable portrait of a much-maligned industry sure to please most funeral directors, especially those running small-town, family-owned businesses.