REST IN PEACE: A Cultural History of Death and the Funeral Business in Twentieth-Century America

Gary Laderman, Author . Oxford Univ. $27.50 (296p) ISBN 978-0-19-513608-1

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.(Mar.)

Reviewed on: 02/03/2003
Release date: 05/01/2003
Genre: Nonfiction
Digital Format - 978-0-19-985019-8
Paperback - 296 pages - 978-0-19-518355-9
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