Great Nonfiction: The Sacred Remains, by Gary Laderman

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

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Each October, I’m asked to give tours at several historic cemeteries here in CT. The Sacred Remains is the book I use most for fact checking and for answers to questions that visitors sometimes ask that I can’t answer. Meticulously researched and documented, the book opens with an account of the many funerals of George Washington (GW’s “invisible corpse”), with emphasis on how the extravagant, nationwide expressions of mourning affected Protestant American burial traditions and attitudes toward death itself, especially with respect to the physical remains. Adopting a cultural, sociological perspective, Dr. Laderman examines the spiritual, emotional, and psychological factors that influenced how families dealt with the preparation of the body of the deceased in the decades preceding the Civil War, when the vast majority of Americans died at home and were “laid out” by relatives and friends, and buried, necessarily, within a day or two. When the war began to produce an avalanche of disfigured corpses that died far from home, it became necessary to develop procedures for embalming those that would be transported from battlefield to their northern homes, introducing professional undertakers into what had been an intensely private process. Ending with the ” birth of the “business of death” that occurred toward the end of the nineteenth century, with “corpse as commodity”, the author illustrates how the mortuary industry ensured that the body would be “ushered out in a comforting manner for the living.”

“The dead do not simply vanish when life is extinguished….The dead must also be accounted for in the imagination.” The Sacred Remains is a compelling study of the ways in which Americans have accomplished this task.

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