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The American Way of Death

by Victoria Thompson

 An American Way of Death


No matter how close to yours another's steps have grown
In the end, there is one dance you'll do alone
—Jackson Browne “For a Dancer”


Browne’s mournful lyric offers a reminder that life is finite, and that we pass through death’s door alone. When the dance is done, the question of how to handle one’s remains and memorialize a loved one arises. It’s a question that has changed exponentially in the last 100 years. 

American Death in Pre-Civil War Years

Our forbearers had few options around memorializing a loved one. Due to the high mortality rate, death frequently visited every family in the new America. Bodies of the beloved were not hidden away, but cared for and kept in the home. The deceased were washed and dressed lovingly by female family members. Visitation was held in the front parlor followed by a procession to either the church or family cemetery.

In 1837 a new technology, called the Daguerreotype, allowed a bereaved family to memorialize their dead in a lasting homage. Though viewed as macabre today, families sometimes elected to have a “death photograph” taken. Because a Daguerreotype was expensive, the family would use the occasion to take a family photograph with the deceased. Special props were used to support the deceased’s body arranged amongst loved ones, or a baby would be cradled in mother’s arms.

The Civil War was another event that changed the American way of death. As soldiers died on the battlefield, a method was needed to preserve the body for the journey home. Embalming became the means by which to send a soldier’s body to his family for burial.

A few years following the end of the Civil War, another important death innovation appeared at the Vienna Exposition in 1873. A cremation oven and remains were displayed, concurrent with Sir Henry Thompson touting cremation as a “sanitary necessity” in his new book. The American press began eagerly covering this developing cremation method.

Cremation in late 19th Century America

During America’s “Gilded Age,” cremationists tried to convince the public that burial presented a danger to public health. Doctors believed that the cause of diseases was “miasma,” or gases resulting from decaying matter. In spite of public health concerns, Christianity argued that an intact body was necessary for a Christian to be resurrected and that cremation was related to Paganism. Judaism argued that it was forbidden by the Torah.

The first recorded cremation performed in an American crematory was in 1876. Baron de Palm offered up his body to the Theosophical Society to be cremated. With the press in attendance, de Palm’s body was cremated in a privately-built crematorium. 

Death and Cremation in the 21st Century

For a rising number of Americans, questions around mortality and death are no longer hidden. Instead they are being pondered over pound cake inside “death cafes.” Strangers gather and talk about topics such as assisted suicide, or songs one would like played at one’s memorial. The Death Café website states its purpose is to “ … drink tea, eat cake and discuss death. Our aim is to increase awareness of death to help people make the most of their (finite) lives.” 

The Order of the Good Death proposes “… making death a part of your life. That means committing to staring down your death fears—whether it be your own death, the death of those you love, the pain of dying, the afterlife (or lack thereof), grief, corpses, bodily decomposition, or all of the above. Accepting that death itself is natural, but [accepting] the death anxiety and terror of modern culture are not.” 

Americans now have choices on how their remains will be handled and memorialized. In July 2017, the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA) announced that cremation was at a record high and surpassed the rate of burial for the second year in a row. In 2005 the cremation rate was 32.3 percent; in 2016 it was 50.2 percent. Statistics show how far our country has come since that first cremation in 1876.  Cost differences between a traditional funeral vs. cremation, the new “green” burial movement that seeks to reduce the footprint burial makes upon the Earth, the easing of religious strictures regarding cremation, and the freedom and flexibility that a cremation allows all contribute to the rise in cremation rates.

Other factors that influence the way we choose to care for our deceased include cultural background, religion, costs, family wishes, and the deceased’s wishes. Circumstances -- such as whether family members have to travel long distances for the memorial service. Did the deceased die in another country? Are there pre-bought grave sites reserved for family members? Such considerations, and more, have their impact on choices.

For example, no one through my Southern lineage has ever been cremated. Instead, there’s a traditional viewing and casket burial. Fast forward to 2017.  As the inheritor of a funeral plot (thanks, Mom) in my distant birthplace, I wonder about the wisdom, as well as the logistics involved, of a traditional burial. It would be difficult for my son to visit my grave. This Southern daughter might choose to consider cremation – a first in my family’s history.

What to do with ashes after cremation?

This question is being answered in new, meaningful ways. As the cremation rate increases for pets and humans, so do the choices of what to do with ashes. Choices include storing ashes at home, burying ashes in eco-friendly urns, scattering ashes on land or at sea, sharing ashes by dividing ashes among keepsake urns. Lesser known options including planting ashes with a tree, burying ashes in a coral reef, and sending them into space. Artisans can incorporate a small amount of ashes into a handmade glass keepsake, jewelry, or even into a tattoo.

Popular among many bereaved is to store a small amount of a loved one’s cremains in cremation jewelry. Pendants and bracelets are crafted in silver, gold, stainless steel, and titanium, and in various styles and themes. Pet owners are also opting for a piece of cremation jewelry to hold a portion of a beloved pet’s ashes.

One also has a choice of exquisitely crafted memorial urns sourced from all parts of the world. In materials such as porcelain, pewter, glass, marble and fine woods, these urns display beautifully in the home or office. Styles and themes range from religious, military and patriotic, to nature and animals.

Just as the American way of death has changed over the centuries for our ancestors, we can be assured it will continue to evolve for us. Body composting, micro-organism infused “death suits,” and chemical decompositions are already on the horizon. Our “last dance” might involve choreography we can’t  imagine today.

Victoria Thompson lives with her geriatric cat in St. Paul, Minnesota. She has a professional background in newspaper and magazine work as a writer and editor. Minneapolis Public Schools enjoy her presence during the school year where she works as a special education teaching assistant and grant writer for her school. She was a caretaker to her mother—who suffered from Alzheimer’s— for 11 years.