Grief Mythology Triumphs

MorsSimply “exposing” something as mythology may not be the death of it, even in the funeral industry.

In 1963, Jessica Mitford, in The American Way of Death, challenged the logic that, among other things, made a religious figure of a funeral director, saying this was the logic of profit-seekers. The point of this logic, or “new mythology,” Mitford maintained, was to protect the centrality of embalming in American death rituals; it was invented by crooks in the industry.

Mitford was reacting to the kind of thinking that is present in Anne Franz’s Funeral Direction and Management (1947). The funeral director had a sacred obligation to the family members who turned their loved one over to him; the body had the highest possible value to those family members, and the selection of the funeral director was a great act of confidence on the part of the living. All of this was related to the “psychology of grief” that would have currency in the funeral business in the 50’s; Mitford pointed out, for example, the assertion of the need for “grief therapy.”

Mitford felt that this thinking mingled religious sentiment with the science of psychology. She said the therapeutic value of viewing the body was a “myth,” which along with the great depth of religious feeling funeral directors pretended to be awash with, was more of a public relations strategy than anything based on scientific evidence. She did, however, acknowledge that this mythology resonated with the American public, and that it had not been contradicted, at the time of her investigation, by any authority. Still, she was of the opinion that since none of this thinking about grief therapy could be traced to any specific and concrete scientific study, it was all hogwash — mythology, serving the greedy purposes of the industry.

Myths are effective, however, according to historians of religion — not because they are either true or false, but because they are great tools to explain and put things in sacred context. The grief mythology had a huge value for funeral directors who wanted their work to be seen in a larger human context that affirmed them as having a “sacred calling.” Did embalming begin with the Egyptians? The truth of this was less important than the suggestive power to legitimize the work of undertakers.

Even though Mitford tried to debunk the mythology, saying it existed in the service of undertakers trying to legitimize themselves as professionals, the mythology gained popularity even after the publication of her book, and played an ever greater role in how Americans coped with their grief. “Mitford may not have bought into it, but the mythology worked in American lives,” says Gary Laderman, in Rest in Peace: A Cultural History of Death and the Funeral Home in Twentieth Century America. Though it may not have been scientifically proven it could work, morticians and many outside the business argued that the American funeral had strong psychological value for dealing with grief and facing the reality of death.

Image: Mors is the personification of death and equivalent to the Greek Thánatos.

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