A Loss of Intimacy for Death and Dying, Part II

DeathRead Part I

Because mortality was decreasing and longevity increasing while the hospital system was growing rapidly, the funeral industry was able to take root and thrive in early twentieth century America, according to Gary Laderman in Rest in Peace: A Cultural History of Death and the Funeral Home in Twentieth Century America. The growth in the number of funeral homes around the country was rapid in the wake of these significant social changes, and it transformed the relationship between the living and the dead.

In these times of social changes, the funeral director emerged as primary manager of the body and the ceremony surrounding its disposal. The funeral directors removed the corpse from the hands of the living and performed the tasks related to death, which had become increasingly complicated.

At the end of the 1900’s, there were undertakers in most communities who came to homes where a death had taken place and assumed responsibilities, including finding a casket, informing friends and relatives, setting up the funeral, contacting the appropriate religious leader and the graveyard for burial, and preparing the corpse. During this period, undertakers had professional aspirations, and began to work on establishing their credibility as knowledgeable experts, through professional associations, the publication of journals, and the founding of schools. They began to see themselves and be seen as “funeral directors” who were experts on death, and had cultural authority in a stressful area of life, so that, like doctors and lawyers, they could charge for their services. Early business practices would eventually come under fire, but at the time, Americans welcomed funeral directors into their homes; they did not want to deal with the corpse by themselves.

For a variety of reasons, this changed; as the number of funeral homes increased, the dead were gradually removed from the home. This had to do also with a change in American homes; because of changing tastes and urbanization, no longer did most middle and upper class homes have a parlor to serve social functions including the display of the recently deceased. But another factor in the corpse’s removal from its traditional familial place was the standardization of embalming. This preparation for disposal, as customers and funeral directors came to rely on it more and more, transformed funeral rituals as well as the architectural space of death and the feel, sight, and smell of the corpse.

There was resistance to embalming at the turn of the century. It had been employed in the mid-1800’s mainly behind closed doors in medical schools, to preserve cadavers, then in the Civil War the bodies of northern soldiers were embalmed for the journey home, and Lincoln’s body was famously embalmed and transported from Washington D.C. to Springfield by train. But some connected embalming with surgeries and mutilation.

Before embalming came on the scene, there was already an expectation in America that survivors would get to take one last look at the deceased at the time of the funeral, so embalming, which addressed sanitation concerns, made it possible for family to come from a distance to a funeral, and which produced a body that was pleasant to look at, made more and more sense.

As time went on, the course of study for would-be embalmers became more and more complex, so while students could enter the embalming schools without finishing high school, their training — up to nine months by 1934 —  gave them a degree of respectability. By this time, such schools were known as colleges of mortuary science, and the training included anatomy and chemistry. State boards had begun to examine and license prospective embalmers. Indeed, the practice had become central to the universe of the funeral and it would only become more so.

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