Our Mortuary Conventions

Seattle_-_Butterworth_funeral_home_chapel_-_1900

Seattle funeral home, 1900

Jill Lepore writes about them in the October issue of The New York.  As the subtitle of her piece notes, “Our mortuary conventions reveal a lot about our relation to the past.”

Here is a taste:

There are only so many ways to deal with the dead: remember or forget, put up statues or pull them down, bury or burn. Heth is an edge case, like a head on a pike, or a mass grave, or a man hanging from a gallows, a display of decay, a spectacular atrocity. But the edge is not so far from the viscera. Frederick Douglass called slavery a tomb. The way Americans still bury their dead is a consequence of the war that was fought to end it.

“We cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow, this ground,” Lincoln said at Gettysburg. But bodies could be embalmed and brought home, to be seen, one last time, beloved and mourned. A business grew. Before the war, families washed and shrouded and carried their own dead, burying them in boxes built of softwoods like pine and cedar. During the war, families hired undertakers to preserve their sons long enough to bring them home from distant battlefields on railway cars. “Night and day journeys a coffin,” Walt Whitman wrote. Gravestones filled the fields like poppies. There were fields of black and fields of white. 

Read the entire piece here.

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