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Rest in Peace: A Cultural History of Death and the Funeral Home in Twentieth-Century America 1st Edition

3.8 out of 5 stars 6 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0195136081
ISBN-10: 019513608X
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

In 1963, Jessica Mitford's The American Way of Death shocked the nation and provoked scandal throughout the funeral industry. Mitford portrayed undertakers as exploitative businessmen eager to turn a profit off of a poor man's grief. Her book climbed the bestseller list and put the growing and profitable funeral industry on the defensive. Forty years later, Laderman comes to the industry's defense with this thoughtful book. His case is cautious and honest. He presents the industry's history from its inception during the Civil War period up to the present. The author explores American attitudes toward death through various lenses, including cultural, religious and psychological history, which demonstrate a pervasive fascination with death and a desire to share an intimate moment with the dead as a part of the grieving process. Cultural examples of this include the wave of public grief at the sudden death of movie icon Rudolph Valentino and Thornton Wilder's Pulitzer-winning play Our Town. In the last chapter, Laderman discusses current and future challenges facing the industry-such as a desire for cremation and "the rise of death-care giants"-and the industry's successful attempt to deal with them. Laderman, a professor of American religious history and culture at Emory University, provides convincing evidence that the industry is a necessary and compassionate force in American life. While critics like Mitford paint a picture of greed, this account offers a more nuanced image: an industry that provides a "meaningful and material order out of the chaos of death." Illus. not seen by PW.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Booklist

In this sequel to his 1996 study of nineteenth-century attitudes toward death (Sacred Remains), Laderman sharply disputes the thesis of Jessica Mitford's influential 1963 expose, The American Way of Death. The funeral directors that Mitford depicted as unscrupulous profiteers are portrayed by Laderman as conscientious professionals. The funeral embalming that Mitford deplored as a costly scam, Laderman represents as crucial to making possible the ceremonial viewing of the deceased that many Americans regard as deeply meaningful. Along the way, he provides fascinating details about how modern morticians have handled deaths in the limelight (JFK) and about how funeral directors have changed their methods in response to muckraking accusations (including Mitford's) and to shifting cultural attitudes toward death. He also traces some especially pronounced changes in the cultural context for the newly restyled death-care industry in the last couple of decades: more demand for cremation rather than burial (reflecting both an influx of Asian immigrants and a decline of traditional orthodoxies), and more privately scripted memorial services. Laderman piquantly illustrates these recent trends by recounting the highly unconventional funeral of--it had to be--Jessica Mitford. Bryce Christensen
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 296 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press; 1st edition (March 6, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 019513608X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0195136081
  • Product Dimensions: 9.4 x 1.1 x 6.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,051,920 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Paul Tognetti TOP 500 REVIEWER on September 12, 2003
Format: Hardcover
A few 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 spotted "Rest In Peace: A Cultural History of Death and the Funeral Home in Twentieth-Century America" 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. aderman 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.

The author 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.
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By A Customer on January 27, 2003
Format: Hardcover
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this thought-provoking book concerning the management of human dead bodies in America. Though it is a scholarly work, it is filled with interesting anecdotes. Especially intriguing are accounts of the Kennedy family's private moments beside the dead President's open casket, the riots at the public viewing of Rudolph Valentino's body in New York, and the various ways in which death has been portrayed in the media. As a cultural history of the American funeral industry, it reveals morticians to be something other than stereotypical manipulative businessmen. Rather, many are "artists" who perform a significant service. Their skill at embalming and artistry in cosmetic preparation of dead bodies produces an all-important final "memory image" of the lost loved one for surviving family members and friends. This book provides an insightful perspective on a dark, but essential, subject.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Had to read it for school, but it was an easy read and very informative.
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