Once an intimate family affair, death and dying are now outsourced in America. Set in different centuries, stories from two of America’s greatest storytellers highlight the manner in which American encounters with death and dying have changed over the last two hundred years.
Culled from Stephen King’s novella The Body (1982), the plot in the 1980s coming-of-age film Stand by Me (1986) revolves around a quest by four adolescents to find a dead body. Set in 1959, the narrator reflects back on the events from the present, highlighting the novelty of the encounter in the film’s opening line: “I was twelve going on thirteen the first time I saw a dead human being.” By the mid-twentieth century, close encounters with death had become exceptional for American adolescents.
By contrast, in his masterpiece, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain incorporates a dead body into the plot as a banal element of the antebellum tale. Although the reader does not expect Huck to hide a bag of money in the coffin containing “the remainders of Peter,” Twain portrays the presence of a coffined body in the downstairs parlor of the Wilks home while the family sleeps upstairs as mundane occurrence. By the twentieth century, such a scene could only fit comfortably as a prelude to some horrific preternatural episode in one of King’s other works.
These disparate works of fiction punctuate the manner in which American attitudes towards death and dying have been transformed from an uncomfortable familiarity to a comfortable unfamiliarity over the last two centuries. In the first half of the nineteenth century, most Americans were intimately familiar with the process of dying. During that time, most Americans died at home, attended to by their relatives. For Christians, a good death meant passing peacefully into the presence of God with family and spiritual counsel close at hand. Singing hymns, reading Scriptures, dispensing wisdom, and praying while a loved one expired punctuated a good Christian life.
From the oldest to the youngest, family members were intimately familiar with dying. Their ministrations to prepare the body for viewing and eventual burial compounded this familiarity, intimately acquainting them with the physical realities of death. Since professional embalming gained respectability only after the Civil War, the family most often prepared the body, subsequently placing it in the parlor or living room for viewing. Over the next several days, friends and relatives came to the home to pay their final respects as the family mourned their loss in the presence of the expired body of their loved one.
Following the funeral, which often took place in the home, the family helped convey the remains to the grave. Throughout, the family of the deceased remained in close physical contact with the dead until the completion of the burial service. At the cemetery, they frequently participated in the physical burial process. Combined with a lower life expectancy, these social aspects of death and dying meant that Americans of yesteryear possessed a familiarity with death that seems, quite frankly, eerie to twenty-first century Americans. For them, it was simply part of life.
After the Civil War, a confluence of factors disrupted the established death rituals of American Christians. The skill of those who prepared Lincoln’s body to lie in state brought esteem to the practice of embalming while savvy entrepreneurs embraced emerging urban market economies to sell more and more elaborate caskets (no longer referred to as coffins) as well as funeral and burial services to mourning urbanites. Secondary markets, such as hearse manufacturing, soon built upon these primary markets.
Political economy also came into play. As urbanization brought more and more people to the cities, local officials possessed of the late Victorian concern for cleanliness and scientific approaches to sanitation led technocrats to press city-dwellers towards these professionals through enforceable public health standards. Without a doubt, such changes helped manage some of the plethora of public health challenges that confronted an urbanizing nation. As Emory Professor Gary Laderman has written, by the end of the nineteenth century, “intimacy with the naked truth of death, as it was embodied by the corpse, was no longer a necessary part of social life (The Sacred Remains, 175).”
This trend accelerated over the last one hundred years. Science and medical technology advanced exponentially throughout the twentieth century, allowing the prolongation of life in previously unimaginable ways, while professionalization, regulation, and economies of scale resulted in the outsourcing of events related to death—even for beloved family members. As a result, most Americans encounter few of the aspects of death that their forebears confronted on a regular basis as medical professionals, nursing home personnel, hospice workers, and funeral directors guide dying people and their families through the stages of death.
Insulated from the “naked truth of death,” dying becomes both unfamiliar and less real for contemporary Americans. Unfortunately, this dilutes the impact of one of the central claims of the gospel: that in his resurrection, Jesus Christ has conquered death—the “last enemy” (1 Corinthians 15). This assertion by the Apostle Paul possessed considerable more poignancy for antebellum Americans than for us because, whereas they lived in death’s presence, we have largely banished it from ours, making the good news seem not quite as good.
Crosspost at the Anxious Bench.