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Lunch » Tags » Books » Reviews » Rest in Peace: A Cultural History of Death and the Funeral Home in Twentieth-Century America » User review

Not a very pleasant topic but one that all of us are going to have to deal with at some point.

  • Jan 28, 2010
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Several years ago I read Jessica Mitford's "American Way of Death Revisited" a 1998 update of her classic book about the funeral industry.  I came away with an extremely unfavorable opinion of the funeral industry as a whole.  So when I came across "Rest In Peace: A Cultural History of Death and the Funeral Home in Twentieth-CenturyAmerica" I thought that it might be a good idea to give consideration to the opposing viewpoint.  Gary Laderman's sympathetic portrait of the funeral business makes some very valid points.  He traces the origins of the industry from Civil War times and the gradual transition from funerals conducted at the home to the modern concept of the funeral home.  Today's funeral director has assumed a myriad of responsibilities formerly left to the family.  Laderman points out that conscientious funeral directors are on call 24 hours a day/7 days a week and make great sacrifices in their personal lives to take care of grief stricken families in their time of need.  And the influx of immigrants from Spanish speaking countries, Asia and the Middle East has certainly complicated the task as funeral directors scramble to meet the particular needs of those indivduals. 

In "Rest In Peace" Gary Laderman does devote several pages to what most people consider to be the real problem in the funeral business today.  Two or three major corporations are beginning to dominate the industry.  Led by Houston based SCI Corp. these companies have been buying up local funeral homes at an alarming rate.  What is most deceptive about this practice is that they usually keep the same name, giving customers the impression that the business is still locally owned and operated.  Furthermore, these giant corporations are vertically integrating, meaning that they now also own all or a piece of casket manufacturers, florists etc.  Inevitably, this kind of control results in price fixing and higher costs for consumers.  These giant corporations have read the demographics and have determined that as the "baby boom" generation ages death will be a most profitable business in the coming decades.  These corporations now control nearly a quarter of all of the funeral homes in this country.  The author quotes a funeral director who makes the point: "There's a big difference between corporations and family run funeral homes.  Corporations are an assembly line.  When you've got them in your office sell them everything you can.  The interest of the sole proprietor is providing good service, helping a family through trying times."  The author also discusses cremation and some of the alternative funeral services that are now emerging.  All in all, I found "Rest in Peace: A Cultural History of Death and the Funeral Home in Twentieth-Century America" to be a very worthwhile read, though a bit long winded at times.  I think it is very important that people become conversant in these issues before they are in the position of having to plan a funeral themselves.  I would strongly recommend reading both Laderman's work as well as Jessica Mitford's offering to get a balanced view of the issues involved.    Highly recommended!
Not a very pleasant topic but one that we are all going to have to deal with at some point. Not a very pleasant topic but one that we are all going to have to deal with at some point. Not a very pleasant topic but one that we are all going to have to deal with at some point. Not a very pleasant topic but one that we are all going to have to deal with at some point.

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Paul Tognetti ()
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I guess I would qualify as a frustrated writer. My work requires very little writing and so since 1999 I have been writing reviews on non-fiction books and anthology CD's on amazon.com. I never could … more
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Rest in Peace
A Cultural History of Death and the Funeral Home in Twentieth-Century America
Gary Laderman

DescriptionThough 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...
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Details

ISBN-10: 019518355X
ISBN-13: 978-0195183559
Author: Gary Laderman
Genre: Natural Resources, Service, Social Services & Welfare, Customs & Traditions, Folklore & Mythology, Death, Environmental Science, Ritual
Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
Date Published: February 24, 2005
Format: Hardcover
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