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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.

296 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 2003

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About the author

Gary Laderman

14 books15 followers
Gary Laderman is the Professor of American Religious History and Cultures at Emory University. He received his B.A. in psychology from California State University, Northridge, and his M.A. and Ph. D. from the Religious Studies Department, University of California, Santa Barbara. He also spent a year in Paris, France, as a graduate student, studying at the Center for Critical Studies and the Sorbonne. Laderman’s courses and seminars include U.S. Religious History; Mind, Medicine, and Healing; Death and Dying; Theory and Method; Introduction to Religion; Native American Religions; Health and Healing; and American Religious Cultures. Gary Laderman is the author of Sacred Matters: Celebrity Worship, Sexual Ecstasies, the Living Dead, and Other Signs of Religious Life in the United States. He is also the author of two books on death in America: The Sacred Remains: American Attitudes Toward Death, 1799-1883 and Rest in Peace: A Cultural History of Death and the Funeral Home in Twentieth-Century America. He also has co-edited two encyclopedias, Religion and American Cultures: An Encyclopedia of Traditions, Diversity, and Popular Expressions, and Science, Religion, Societies: Histories, Cultures, Controversies.

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5 stars
22 (20%)
4 stars
38 (35%)
3 stars
33 (31%)
2 stars
8 (7%)
1 star
5 (4%)
Displaying 1 - 11 of 11 reviews
20 reviews
April 5, 2020
Stupidly verbose. Lack of a cohesive argument. If Laderman just cut out, like, 75% of the excess quotations and evidence, he would have a significantly more convincing pamphlet of about 30 pages. He argues that the use of embalming and open-casket funerals is essential to grief management and that the average American appreciates the use of embalming and viewings of the body. However, Laderman never provides any evidence from the people to support his argument. All of his quotations and evidence are from two extremes - those who are funeral directors and support the industry, and those who absolutely abhor it.

However, I do appreciate the use of relevant media to display the common American view on death and of the undertaking industry. I enjoyed reading about zombies, in particular.
Profile Image for Rachel.
141 reviews55 followers
May 17, 2008
Much of this book is about the funeral industry, but there's some good, weird pop culture stuff as well. I particularly like the part about Walt Disney and Snow White.

The evil queen is convinced that after Snow White eats from the poisoned apple, she will be "buried alive" and no longer a threat to her own status as the "fairest in the land." ...

The dwarfs foil the queen's plans by not burying the young woman. Like many Americans at the time, the dwarfs were fixated on being close and seeing the beautiful body in repose, too entranced by it to say good-bye forever, but unencumbered by professional managers whose job is to ensure the final, unbridgeable separation between the living and the dead.

Although the dwarfs eventually have to say good-bye to the revitalized Snow White after the reanimating kiss from the handsome prince, the vision of their ascent to a castle above the clouds conveys a central message in Disney films: The happy ending comes after death has been overcome, or vanquished, by virtuous actions that reconstitute the integrity of an eternally-loving, transcendent family unit.... Early Walt Disney films, like many early Hollywood productions in general, exhibited an enduring fascination with bringing the dead back to life, an imaginary exercise that resonated with modern Americans transfixed by the reality of death.
Profile Image for Yael Horowitz.
13 reviews
March 3, 2022
The history itself was so fascinating but the analysis felt a little repetitive. The last chapter was by far the best one!
April 19, 2022
This book addresses ethics and the history of how some funeral directors took care of the dead. A good read for mortuary enthuses.
Profile Image for Geof Sage.
190 reviews1 follower
May 10, 2021
Borrowed 23-slash-53. (STILL NO NEW KEYBOARD). This was recommended in something else I read recently, probably Technologies of the Human Corpse.

Normally, I really enjoy books about the culture of death (because ON BRAND), but this one was very shallow to me. I wanted to know more but this seemed like a rushed monograph that didn't say enough about the importance of the changing role of the undertaker, but just instead a description thereof.
Profile Image for Tracey.
2,031 reviews50 followers
Want to read
May 22, 2008
393 Laderman 2003 -- Referenced in Remember Me (Lisa Takeuchi Cullen)> Ginnie gave 4 stars & Rachel Stults gave 5 stars
Displaying 1 - 11 of 11 reviews

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