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Title:The Dying of Death: The Meaning and Management of Death in America, 1830-1920
Author(s):Farrell, James Joseph
Department / Program:History
Degree Granting Institution:University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Subject(s):History, United States
Abstract:This dissertation describes and analyzes the development of the American Way of Death. Unlike Jessica Mitford's The American Way of Death, which described this development primarily in terms of the profit motive, this thesis considers the complexity of cultural change. After a review of American approaches to death before 1850, it examines the influence of science, religious liberalism, cemetery reform, and funeral service reform on American beliefs and behavior concerning death. It concludes with a case study, showing how these national trends affected the meaning and management of death in Vermilion County, Illinois.
The most important catalysts of intellectual and institutional change between 1830 and 1920 was scientific naturalism. In this period, naturalists redefined death and reinterpreted the nature of a natural death, the painlessness of death, and the individuality of death. The medical profession influenced the establishment of extramural cemeteries, and the sanitary science movement suggested precedents for aspiring funeral directors. The science of statistics underwrote the new institution of life insurance. More generally, the specialization and prestige of science created a culture of professionalism, which provided models for funeral directors and cemetery superintendents, and which taught the public to defer to the decisions of experts.
Religious liberals tried to reconcile new scientific knowledge with religious interpretations of death. Liberals like Henry Ward Beecher emphasized those aspects of religion which would reduce the fear of death, and they attempted to make immortality understandable to American evolutionists. They also tried to structure funeral services to stress the beauty and beneficence of death, instead of using the funeral sermon as an object lesson for survivors.
Institutionally, the cemetery was the first agent for advance in the management of death. Beginning with Boston's Mount Auburn in 1831, Americans established rural garden cemeteries to alleviate the harshness of urban burial places, and to demonstrate the cultural attainments of American civilization. After 1855, a second type of cemetery organization prevailed. The lawn-park cemetery combined aesthetics and efficiency to create landscapes and to supply services which would comfort the bereaved. The establishment of the Association of American Cemetery Superintendents in 1887 both reflected and affected the success of this organizational ideal.
In the same way, the founding of the National Funeral Directors' Association in 1882 symbolized the self-consciousness of another group of reformers. These people revised funeral service by modifying the care of the body, the container for the body, the place of the funeral, and the service itself. Like scientific naturalists, religious liberals, and cemetery promoters, American funeral directors of this era tried to reduce the sting of death, both in anticipation and in actuality.
Methodologically, this is a contextual study of death based on close textual analysis. It explains the dying of death in a cultural context of urbanization, suburbanization, industrialization, specialization, professionalization, education, secularization, and aesthetic awakening. Using sources such as books, periodical literature, trade journals and convention proceedings of the Association of American Cemetery Superintendents and the National Funeral Directors' Association, newspaper ads and obituaries, city directories, cemetery inscriptions, and death certificates, the dissertation examines language itself as a form of explanation, both containing and conveying meaning. It describes the beliefs that people betray as well as those that they proclaim, and in so doing, it shows how and why Americans between 1830 and 1920 established the American Way of Death.
Issue Date:1980
Description:333 p.
Thesis (Ph.D.)--University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 1980.
Other Identifier(s):(UMI)AAI8017931
Date Available in IDEALS:2014-12-13
Date Deposited:1980

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