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.
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 ChristensenCopyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved