27 January 2012

Modern America Funeral Customs

The American Way of Death Revisited by Jessica Mitford, 1996, Excerpts

If the undertaker is the stage manager of the fabulous production that is the modern American funeral, the stellar role is reserved for the occupant of the open casket. The decor, the stagehands, the supporting cast are all arranged for the most advantageous display of the deceased, without which the rest of the paraphernalia would lose its fantastic array of costly merchandise and services is pyramided to dazzle the mourners and facilitate the plunder of the next of kin.

The uninitiated, entering a casket-selection room for the first time, may think he is looking at a random grouping of variously priced merchandise. Actually, endless thought and care are lavished on the development of new and better selection-room arrangements, for it has been found that the placing of the caskets materially affects the amount of the sale. The decor and lighting of the selection room and particularly the arrangement of merchandise are matters of greatest importance, for these materially condition and affect the conduct of the transaction itself. As an interior decorator writes, “Being the financial foundation of mortuary income, caution should be exercised in every detail and appointment, employing the finest selling qualities or floor lighting effects, proper placement of caskets and special background features; the psychological effect producing a feeling of security and confidence that results in the sale of higher grade caskets, and the return of families for additional service when needed.” Behind the scenes, waiting for their cue, are the cemeteries, florists, monument makers, vault manufacturers and the casket-making companies.

The funeral home “chapel” has begun to assume more and more importance as the focal point of the establishment. The chapel proper is a simulated place of worship. Because it has to be all things to all people, it is subject to a quick change by wheeling into place a “devotional chapel set” appropriate to the religion being catered to at the moment – a Star of David, a cross, a statue of the Virgin, and so on.

Inevitably, some thirtieth-century archaeologists will labor to reconstruct our present-day level of civilization from a study of our burial practices. They might rashly conclude that twentieth-century America was a nation of abjectly imitative conformists, devoted to machine-made gadgetry and mass-produced art of debased quality; that its dominant theology was a weird mixture of primitive superstitions and superficial attitudes towards death, overlaid with a distinct tendency towards necrophilism.

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