The American Way of Death

FuneralparlorBess Lovejoy at Lapham's Quarterly:

When The American Way of Death was published in 1963, a typical funeral in the United States involved thorough embalming, a spackling of cosmetics, and hundreds of dollars of flowers heaped upon an open casket. The whole affair was likely to cost over a thousand dollars, at a time when the median annual income in the country was just $5,600. A funeral was often one of the largest single expenditures a family made, after a house and car, yet morticians justified the hefty price tag by claiming the ceremony offered almost magical curative powers. They placed particularly great stock in providing the bereaved with a reassuring last image of the deceased, known in the industry as a “memory picture.” In the trade literature of the time, this image was seen as a balm to grief, a means of facing up to the finality of death without countenancing the disquieting signs of decomposition. The cost—Americans spent $1.6 billion on funerals in 1960—was also said to be a natural result of consumer desires, particularly the much trumpeted postwar American desire to have the best of everything.

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