The American Way of Death
By Jeffery A. Johnson
In a remote farmhouse, six adults and one child are stranded. They reinforce the house with boards, hoping no one will get in. They are terrified beyond imagination. These seven people are surrounded by the dead who have come back to life. Corpses that were once living beings with unique personalities and identities now stiffly and emotionlessly wander towards the house. They are no longer human; they are monsters.
The scene described above is from the 1968 movie “Night of the Living Dead.” The message in this movie is straightforward–the dead are to be feared.
Modern America appears to be preoccupied with the preservation of youth and beauty, with is catered to by the plastic surgeon. Society seems content to cling to the illusion that youth–and life–can last forever.
However, the millions of dollars people spend to stay young will not delay the inevitable. The fact is that life will end, and how Americans choose to cope with this reality gives us an overall picture of our society’s position on death; generally speaking, the American attitude is one of avoidance.
A major factor contributing to the American view of death is the fact that it has been hidden from us. During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the dying remained at their homes and their primary caretakers were family members. Children were present along with everyone else throughout the dying process and the subsequent funeral preparations (O’ Connor 1).
Once death occurred, it was the family who handled the funeral arrangements. Family members washed the body, built the coffin, and prepared the grave site (O’ Connor 3). The visitation or wake was held in the home of the deceased.
“Each person learned about death firsthand. From caring for the dying family member through disposition of the corpse, death was within the realm of the family” (DeSpelder and Strickland 12).
Death moves away from home and family.
The advancement of the health care field altered the way people died, as well as the extent to which families could participate in the dying process. In the late 1800s, the number of people in the United States who died in a hospital was under 20 percent (O’ Connor 2). According to Webb, “By the 1970s, a hospital room was where nearly all Americans died …” (31).
O’ Connor adds, “Our cultural denial of death” began as the medical profession took over what had been the family’s role of caring for the dying. Doctors initially saw death as a “failure” and an “enemy” which had to be fought with technology. “As most people went to hospitals their impending death was greeted with denial … Doctors lied, nurses lied, family members lied …” (3, 4).
As the twentieth century progressed the extended family became more and more a thing of the past. People increasingly had a tendency to move away from home. They may live hundreds or thousands of miles away from their parents, grandparents, siblings and other relatives. Due to this migratory tendency of modern Americans, they may not be able to experience the dying process and death of loved ones. Therefore “a highly mobile life style contributes to making death less immediate, less intimate” (DeSpelder and Strickland 17, 18).
Another contribution to the decreasing visibility of death is the generation rift. Senior citizens, many of whom are in long-term care facilities, are cut off from the rest of society. Their loved ones may be busy with their own lives, families and careers, making contact between the old and the young more rare (Ibid. 19).
Modern employers bear responsibility for taking away people’s much-needed time with dying relatives, as well as interrupting the grieving process after a love one’s death. “In modern corporate settings … employers are typically given just three days leave, even if it’s a spouse or other very close relative who died. Then, employees are expected to go right back to work” (Rodale and Stocker).
One example of the workplace’s indifference towards the bereaved is the case of Jim Stitley. The day before Stitley’s mother died his boss, knowing Stitley’s mother was terminally ill, made him work late. The employee’s mother was unconscious by the time he arrived at her home and soon died. ” … Stitley says his boss still demanded that he finish and fax an assignment from the funeral home” (McGinn and Halpert). Rather than respecting Stitley’s loss, his employer treated him as if nothing had happened and he was denied his right to grieve.
Denying death exists
For many the subject of death is labeled as morbid. People are repelled by death and do not want to be reminded of it. “‘Death is a dark symbol not to be stirred–not even touched–an obscenity to be avoided'” (qtd. in DeSpelder and Strickland 8).
According to O’ Connor, “We live in a death-defying society. We fight and resist death; we hurry through our mourning and rush to get back to ‘normal'” (1). She goes on to assert that mourning is considered “morbid,” and that many are unable to bear the discomfort of being around the bereaved (7). “You may be rejected by friends who don’t know how to help you” (Ibid.).
People seem to believe that the pain left by death will just go away; we are told not to “dwell on it,” and that “life goes on.” Margaret, who found her daughter and three grandchildren dead from asphyxiation due to a gas leak, sought the support of her husband, only to be told that “‘it’s best just to forget it'” (qtd. in Attig 20).
According to O’ Connor, this is the worst thing one could say. Grief must be faced, not ignored, if it is to be conquered. “Avoiding the emotions of grief is a dangerous business that can lead to illness and serious distress” (viii).
Susan Cohen, whose daughter was a victim of an act of terrorism on a Pan Am flight in 1988, had this to say regarding the crash of TWA flight 800 eight years later: “In particular I suffer over what the families are going through … all of which will be made worse by the way America tries to pretend there’s no such thing as tragedy” (Cohen).
She describes her unpleasant experiences with various counselors, one of whom asserted that “… I had good memories to comfort me and could look to the future with hope” (Ibid.). Cohen responds to the emptiness of the counselor’s sentiments: “My grief was the grief of Greek tragedy, his response the verbal junk food of psychobabble” (Ibid.).
The bereaved mother was angered by the attempts of “experts” and authors to label and analyze what she was experiencing. “The very phrase ‘grief process’ tells it all. Bland, neutral words that have nothing to do with my personal hell” (Ibid.).
Cohen was disgusted by the counselor who advised her to adopt a child and with the therapist who indicated that Cohen’s rage was abnormal. “My daughter dies in a mass murder, and I’m not supposed to feel anger?” It became apparent to her that “there were a lot of people making a lot of money promoting denial and passivity” (Cohen).
Five years ago another tragedy shook the nation–the Columbine school shooting. The country and the local community mourned the horrific loss of life; the reality of death confronted Americans through the hour-by-hour television broadcasts. The media captured images of the shrines erected by classmates, Michael W. Smith singing over the white casket of a fallen student, and hundreds of sobbing people.
The outpouring of grief was made visible to all. In fact, a number of journalists thought it was too visible, hinting that the community should keeps its tears to itself (Fast).
Once again Americans were trying to “tip toe” around the reality of death through indifference. In one article Cassie Bernall’s mother states how she felt pressured by some in the community to “mourn quickly”:
Even during the first weeks … there were others who were eager to “get over all the fuss” and move on…. many students were “getting pretty sick of all the memorials and stuff.” “It’s become a drag,” one senior was quoted as saying (qtd. in Fast).
Growth of the funeral industry
The American concept of death and dying was altered through growing medical technology, and the shift from the home to the hospital as the place where death usually occurred. The growth of the funeral industry was another factor in changing the American way of death.
Rather than preparing and burying their own dead, families entrusted this job to professionals. For families in the past it had been “an ordinary aspect of domestic life” (DeSpelder and Strickland 13). Today, it could be said that regarding funeral rites “the family and friends are observers rather than participants” (Ibid.).
According to DeSpelder and Strickland, American funeral traditions “contain a wealth of information” about society’s view of death (199). The modern practice is to have the corpse pumped full of chemicals which, along with the use of make-up, is supposed to make the body more pleasant and “lifelike” to look at (Ibid.).
There are now endless choices of caskets ranging from simple wooden boxes to elaborate copper and bronze models which are supposed to be “airtight.” Once buried the deceased may be further “protected” from the elements by a grave liner that surrounds the casket in the earth.
In previous eras Americans had no anxiety about preserving and painting their dead. The wooden casket was placed right into the ground. No interventions were made to evade the process of decay that awaited in the grave (Davies 60).
Sociologist Christie Davies asserts that the “disguise of embalming” is used to “distance the living from decay, dissolution and indeed death itself” (60). All signs of illness are masked as the person is made to look alive and healthy.
Americans are notorious for their preoccupation with “physical perfection,” which is evidenced by our diets, cosmetic surgical procedures and exercise programs. “Americans more than other peoples seem to live in a world of appearances …” (Davies 64-65). Americans apparently want to look just as good in death. The practice of embalming “preserves, or appears to preserve, the body’s appearance, shape and odourlessness, which Americans have spent their lives cultivating” (Ibid. 65).
Perhaps the greatest example of Americans’ view of death can be seen in how they cope with the passing of major celebrities–people whom they idolize to the point of assigning them a godlike status.
Elvis Presley, the “King of Rock and Roll,” was such a person. Since his arrival on the pop culture scene in the 1950s, he mesmerized not only America, but the world. According to Christine King, Presley “attracts more attention than any other comparable cultural icon, including James Dean and Marilyn Monroe….” (164).
To say that Elvis’s 1977 death affected Americans would be an understatement. “His death was a challenge to American popular culture and to its self-confidence….” (King 166). The shocked reaction to Presley’s demise was not unlike that caused by President Kennedy’s assassination (Ibid.).
Presley’s body was displayed in an open casket at his home, dubbed “Graceland.” Approximately 100,000 mourners gathered for his funeral and the committal service at Forest Hills Cemetery was bombarded with devastated fans. After the burial people continued to disturb the grave site, searching for whatever “relics” they could find. Presley and his mother were later disinterred and reburied at Graceland (King 167).
It was not long before people began questioning whether Elvis had actually died. Fans wanted to know the intimate details of his final days–they also asked “questions … about his post mortem and death certificate” (King 166-167, 170).
Presley’s appearance had changed over the years due to his addiction to prescription drugs–he had gotten chubby. The body in the coffin did not look like the Elvis so many remembered. Speculation ensued that the dead “Elvis” on display had been either another person or a wax dummy (King 169-170). Fans theorized that Elvis had planned to fake his death in order “to escape the pressures of his daily life …” (King 170). People claimed to have had sightings of Elvis, the earlier ones being in Kalamazoo, Michigan (Ibid. 171). According to King, he has also been sighted “kneeling at the grave site of Jackie Kennedy….” It has even been claimed that Presley phoned Bill Clinton, “promising a comeback” (174).
Elvis was not the first star to have been suspected of cheating death. “‘… Glenn Miller, James Dean and Buddy Holly are also said to be lying comatose and horribly disfigured in remote sanatoriums [sic]'” (qtd. in King 170).
This is all a prime example of denial of–and discomfort with–death that people would endeavor to immortalize a celebrity as they did Elvis. As King points out:
If Elvis is dead, then his supporters had themselves to confront the fact of death and to accept the transitoriness of their youth and its hopes and dreams. The denial of the facts of his death might negate the threat of transitoriness … (167).
Singer Mojo Nixon offers a similar insight:
I think people wanna [sic] believe Elvis is alive, because if Elvis, the American Messiah … can die, /then so can they. /Our culture loves to Pretend that death doesn’t happen … (qtd. in King 175).
According to King, the responses to Elvis’s passing “offer prime insights into contemporary American attitudes of death” (174). “The King” has been dead for almost thirty years, yet fans still cling to the hope that a would-be seventy-year-old Elvis is alive and well, although in hiding.
In the span of the last hundred years, death was stripped of its place in everyday life and forced into the realm of terror. As the medical profession advanced and people went to die in hospitals, families were denied the full participation in the care of their loved ones which previous generations had, throughout the dying process and in the funeral rites. As a result, death became “invisible” to the average American (DeSpelder and Strickland 84).
The result of death’s invisibility has been ignorance, fear, and denial. Until we are willing to face this final reality, we will not know who we really are. As Octavo Paz said, “‘A civilization that denies death ends by denying life'” (qtd. in DeSpelder and Strickland 7).
We must embrace the dying the best we can and allow ourselves to feel and express the pain that comes with loss. We must ponder our own deaths that we might be inspired to live what time we have with passion and wholeness.
Attig, Thomas. _How We Grieve: Relearning the World_. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.
Cohen, Susan. “‘Rage Makes Me Strong’: A Mother Who Lost a Daughter at Lockerbie Tells the Truth About Grief.” _Time_ 29 July 1996: 50. _Professional Collection_. InfoTrac. U of Sioux Falls Lib., Sioux Falls, SD. 8 July 2004
Davies, Christie. “Dirt, Death, Decay, and Dissolution: American Denial and British Avoidance.” _Contemporary Issues in the Sociology of Death, Dying, and_ _Disposal_. Ed. Glennys Howarth and Peter C. Jupp. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996. 60-71.
DeSpelder, Lynne Ann, and Albert Lee Strickland. _The Last Dance: Encountering Death_ _and Dying_. 3^rd ed. Mountain View, California: Mayfield Publishing Co., 1992.
Fast, Jonathan. “After Columbine: How People Mourn Sudden Death.” _Social Work _ Oct. 2003: 484-492. _Professional Collection_. InfoTrac. U of Sioux Falls Lib., Sioux Falls, SD. 8 July 2004
King, Christine. “The Death of a King: Elvis Presley (1935-1977).” _The Changing_ _Face of Death: Historical Accounts of Death and Disposal_. Ed. Glennys Howarth and Peter C. Jupp. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997. 164-176.
McGinn, David, and Julie Edelson Halpert. “Final Farewells.” _Newsweek_ 14 Dec. 1998: 60. _Professional Collection_. InfoTrac. U of Sioux Falls Lib., Sioux Falls, SD. 8 July 2004
O’ Connor, Nancy. _Letting Go With Love: The Grieving Process_. Apache Junction, Arizona: La Mariposa Press, 1986.
Rodale, Ardath, and Sharon Stocker. “Beyond Grief: A Guide to Reconciling Life After Loss.” _Prevention_ August 1994: 88-97. _Professional Collection_. InfoTrac. U of Sioux Falls Lib., Sioux Falls, SD. 8 July 2004
Webb, Marilyn. _The Good Death: The New American Search to Reshape the End of_ _Life_. New York: Bantam Books, 1997.
Jeffery A. Johnson is member of St. Thomas Orthodox in Sioux City, Iowa and a student at Kilian Community College in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.