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The Sacred Remains

The Sacred Remains: American Attitudes Toward Death, 1799-1883

Copyright Date: 1996
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 238
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  • Book Info
    The Sacred Remains
    Book Description:

    When George Washington died in 1799, towns throughout the country commemorated the event with solemn processions featuring empty coffins. In contrast, after Abraham Lincoln's death in 1865, his body was transported around the North and displayed for more than two weeks, for by then corpses could be autopsied, drained of their blood, and beautified for the benefit of mourners. This absorbing book explores the changing attitudes toward death and the dead in northern Protestant communities during the nineteenth century. Gary Laderman offers insights into the construction of an "American way of death," illuminating the central role of the Civil War and tracing the birth of the funeral industry in the decades following the war.Drawing on medical histories, religious documents, personal diaries and letters, literature, painting, and photography, Laderman examines the cultural transformations that led to nationally organized death specialists, the practice of embalming, and the commodification of the corpse. These cultural changes included the development of liberal theology, which provided more spiritual views of heaven and the afterlife; the concern for health, which turned those who managed death toward more scientific treatment of bodies; and growing sentimentalism, which produced an increased desire to gaze upon the corpse or to take and keep death photographs. In particular Laderman focuses on the transforming effect of the Civil War, which presented so many Americans with dead relatives who needed to be recovered, viewed, and given a "proper burial."

    eISBN: 978-0-300-14369-0
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-12)

    What should be done with the dead body? Who is best qualified to prepare the corpse for its final disposition? Does the decaying, disintegrating individual body have any symbolic value for the collective social body? These are disturbing questions indeed, yet every culture must grapple with them because of one universal, inescapable truth: death. Throughout history, however, living communities have demonstrated a remarkable range of strategies for managing and imagining their dead. While most societies have turned to religious authorities and teachings to make metaphysical sense of death, confronting the reality of the human corpse has been a particularly compelling...

  5. Part I Living with the Dead in the Antebellum North

    • George Washington’s Invisible Corpse and the Beaver Hat
      (pp. 15-21)

      On January 7, 1800, the town of Providence, Rhode Island, engaged in an act of communal solidarity that temporarily transformed and united the people in a collective demonstration of sorrow. George Washington had died and the young republic had lost a revered and respected leader. Normal routines were suspended in Providence so that citizens could participate publicly in one of the most important events of the new nation. This day was to be “set apart for humiliation and mourning,” and citizens were requested to close their shops, refrain from “secular affairs,” and wear a mourning badge on their left arms...

    • 1 Signs of Death
      (pp. 22-26)

      Signs of death were commonplace in towns and villages in the northern states at the beginning of the nineteenth century. For most individuals death was an integrated element of everyday life. The familiarity with death and the intimacy that characterized its status in antebellum society, however, did not ease the pain and suffering endured by the survivors. Losing a child, a sibling, a parent, a friend, or any other close relation often led individuals to seek consolation and succor from a support network accustomed to the emotional rupture caused by death. Still, there was no denying its reality, for not...

    • 2 From the Place of Death to the Space of Burial
      (pp. 27-38)

      The majority of Protestant Americans who died in the North during the antebellum period were treated to funeral services that fell somewhere between the elaborate ceremonies, national honor, and religious deification accorded Washington’s absent body and the lack of ceremony, irreverence, and ultimate obliteration visited on the suicide’s body. Most people considered the corpse to be worthy of respectful and dignified care. After the pronouncement of death and before disposition of the body, the corpse had a sacred quality greatly determined by its liminality: the former living being who had inhabited the body continued to be associated with the remains...

    • 3 Simplicity Lost: The Urban Model of Death
      (pp. 39-50)

      The corpse in the city underwent a journey to the burial ground substantially similar to that of the corpse in the country. The pattern for most Protestants who died in the antebellum urban setting contained the three fundamental elements found in the rural setting: cosmetic preparation at home, transportation to the grave site, and interment or entombment in a designated place. After an individual had died, friends and relatives transported the lifeless body from the place of death to a temporary, intermediate location, and from there they deposited it in a space marked off and reserved for the mortal remains....

    • 4 The Great Escape
      (pp. 51-62)

      Throughout Western history, a prominent strategy for interpreting the meaning of death has been to encourage a division between the body and the soul, thus ensuring the possibility of some form of individual continuity and judgment after death. From this dualistic interpretive framework the physical evidence of bodily decomposition only heightened the belief that something survives outside of the corruptible flesh—in other words, some form of personal identity in the afterlife is distinctlydisembodiedand independent of the material substance of the physical world, even if the separation from the body is conceived as being temporary. In its most...

    • 5 “The Law of Nature”: Revisioning Mortality and the Natural Order
      (pp. 63-72)

      A web of nature symbolism also informed representations of death and the dead in the antebellum North, though many of the interpretations used to make sense of human mortality continued to draw from deeply rooted sensibilities in the predominant Christian mentality. Although a link between nature and death had been firmly established in Western culture by the early Middle Ages, in the post-Enlightenment era, Christianity started to lose its privileged position in deciphering both; viable explanations coming from outside the realm of theology transformed their status and meaning in the collective imagination.¹ In northern communities the dissemination of new ideas...

    • 6 Morbid Obsessions
      (pp. 73-86)

      In addition to attitudes toward death that valorized spiritual continuity and natural symbolism, more diffused, less coherent attitudes existed in mainstream, Protestant culture before the Civil War. On the one hand, the immediate, individualized emotional response to the death and physical remains of a close relation did not always conform to standard, acceptable forms of behavior — the increasingly privatized expressions of grief and sadness allowed individuals an opportunity to improvise, act on spontaneous impulses, and develop unique ways of mourning. On the other hand, traces of sensationalism and imaginative innovation appeared in northern public culture; popular sensibilities that demonstrated resistance...

  6. Part II Death in the Civil War

    • John Brown’s Body and a Soldier’s Experiences of Death on the Battlefield
      (pp. 89-95)

      The beginning of the Civil War is commonly associated with the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861. In one of the many ironies of this war, no deaths occurred during the bombardment. The bloodiest war in the nation’s history began with a battle that yielded no loss of life. But blood had been spilled and individuals had died on account of the polarizing divisions over the slavery question in the years preceding the attack. In November 1837, a mob in Alton, Illinois, dumped the murdered body of Elijah Lovejoy, an abolitionist editor, into the Mississippi River, along...

    • 7 Death During Wartime
      (pp. 96-102)

      The Civil War was the most deadly conflict in the nation’s history, with the North and South losing a total of more than 600,000 individuals. Fatalities during the war astounded contemporaries who lived through the conflict as well as subsequent generations who study and read about it. The number of American soldiers who died during the Civil War greatly exceeds the number of military deaths in any other war—roughly twenty-five times as many as the American Revolution (25,324 deaths), forty-five times as many as the Mexican War (13,271), five times as many as World War I (116,516), and ten...

    • 8 “Let the Dead Bury the Dead”: The Search for Closure
      (pp. 103-116)

      The destruction on Civil War battlefields and the ravages of disease in camps and hospitals forced northern Protestants to reevaluate their priorities and responsibilities when confronted with the dead. Back home corpses were generally handled with reverence and honor, reflecting their liminal status in society, their uncertain placement within the Protestant universe, and the ambivalence many felt toward them. The conditions brought on by the war not only changed the scenery of death, they also challenged the conventional and deeply rooted attitude about communal responsibilities, religious solemnities, and individual respect demanded in the disposal of a corpse. The exigencies of...

    • [Illustrations]
      (pp. None)
    • 9 National Interests
      (pp. 117-122)

      The government never contracted with embalmers for their services, but near the end of the conflict federal regulations were established to scrutinize the work of these new death experts. By the close of the first year of the war, political, military, and religious leaders in the North understood the symbolic value of the dead and claimed to share in the pain of citizens who were losing so many of their close relations. The federal government also came to understand its responsibilities for the physical remains of Union soldiers and began to intervene in their disposal. The North could not simply...

    • 10 “Resurrection Days” and Redemptive Blood
      (pp. 123-135)

      During the Civil War, bodies of dead soldiers could not be integrated into the established rituals normally employed by survivors to remove them from the living community. The funeral journey, so ingrained in Protestant culture before the war, was impossible for most soldiers who lost their lives in the conflict. Expiration in the home, surrounded by family members, friends, and neighbors; the final opportunity to view the remains before burial; the solemn procession from the home to the grave; and the careful, attentive rituals of corpse disposal — all of these traditions were shattered when soldiers fell in battle. In spite...

    • 11 Disenchantment with the Mortal Remains
      (pp. 136-143)

      As William Gable’s letters revealed, encounters with the dead on and off the battlefield did not always lead to an appreciation of the “resurrection days” for the American spirit, nor did they necessarily lead to consoling thoughts of domestic security and Christian triumph. Instead, Gable and many others divested the body of all emotional and symbolic significance; they began to feel increasingly indifferent to the mortal remains and unlikely to draw meaning from them. The condition of Union corpses and the hurried, pragmatic manner in which they were buried forced many northern Protestants to modify traditional categories of understanding death...

    • 12 Looking Death in the Face
      (pp. 144-154)

      If the conditions brought on by the Civil War contributed to the expansion of a heretofore marginal cultural attitude of indifference toward the dead, the conflict also encouraged a contrary but historically familiar tendency: submission of the dead to an enveloping gaze that kept them fixed in the imagination and—at least for a short period after death—close at hand and under the control of the living. For families searching for lost relations, for photographers trying to capture the essence of battle and the audiences who flocked to see their pictures, and for individuals in the federal government and...

  7. Epilogue.: The Birth of the Death Industry

    • Abraham Lincoln’s Hallowed and Hollowed Body
      (pp. 157-163)

      By the time John Wilkes Booth shot Abraham Lincoln in the back of the head in Ford’s Theater on Good Friday, April 14, 1865, the citizens of the divided nation were beginning to establish a new relation with the dead. The treatment of Lincoln’s body and the ceremonies surrounding it signaled some of the changes that would come in northern Protestant culture. Before the Civil War, family relations, close friends, and community members prepared the corpse for its disposal and escorted it from living society; during the war, when young men died far from home, other individuals—often strangers with...

    • 13 The Business of Death in the Late Nineteenth Century
      (pp. 164-176)

      The use of embalming during the war and on the president’s body at its close opened the way for dramatic changes in the image of death in northern Protestant culture. In time, the new image also benefited from the consolidation and professionalization of those involved with the business of death. Social, economic, and religious circumstances conspired to appropriate the corpse and redefine its representational value for the public. The process was incomplete immediately after the war, but by the beginning of the twentieth century a new set of assumptions about the lifeless body, articulated through a new authoritative discourse, determined...

  8. Notes
    (pp. 177-198)
  9. Bibliography
    (pp. 199-218)
  10. Index
    (pp. 219-227)