Calm Dwellings

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Several years ago Thornton’s Mortuary, an Atlanta funeral home, announced a new service available to its customers. It had installed a large plate-glass window facing onto its parking lot so that families who wished to could now avail themselves of a drive-by viewing ceremony.

Rarely has the link between a culture’s way of life and its way of death been shown more graphically. And yet it is a link that always has existed.

Throughout most of the course of human history, the funeral ritual of one society has often been seized upon by another as an object of wonderment, ridicule, and even sacrilege. It is only in relatively recent years, however, that students of history have begun to perceive the valuable insight the funeral ritual may provide into a society’s deepest concerns. Examples of this connection abound, from the rise of macabre tomb sculpture in Europe during the time of the late-medieval plagues to the apparently carefree tossing of infants into rivers and woods among so-called primitive peoples beset with staggeringly high infant mortality rates. But for most Americans, few instances of this phenomenon are more striking than the creation of what was called the “rural cemetery” in the early and mid-nineteenth century—at the same time that there settled on the American mind serious worries about the growing urbanization of life and the steady withdrawal of the family from day-to-day involvement in that life.

Throughout the seventeenth and much of the eighteenth centuries in America, the responsibilities of family, church, and community overlapped and were often inseparable. As one seventeenth-century Puritan minister put it: “A family is a little church, and a little commonwealth, at least a lively representation thereof, whereby trial may be made of such as are fit for any place of authority, or of subj ection, in Church or commonwealth. Or rather, it is a school wherein the first principles and grounds of government are learned; whereby men are fitted to greater matters in church and commonwealth.”

As a result, family, church, and community all were called upon to share in the burdens of caring for the young, the old, the infirm, and the socially deviant. When it came to dealing with death, this social network responded powerfully: Puritan funerals, in particular, were noteworthy for their large and elaborate displays of concern for the loss of a member of the society. Indeed, so excessive did this response become that legislation was passed early in the eighteenth century to limit what was coming to be seen as a social problem—funeral expenditures so great that they left the survivors impoverished. If there was a good reason for the expression of such concern, there was also good reason for the activity that brought it about: the integrated worlds of family, church, and community responded as one to the genuine damage done to the social fabric by the death of an individual.

But by the middle of the eighteenth century, Puritanism was in a state of rapid decline, if not collapse. And by the close of the century, the Revolutionary War and the societal upheaval that followed in its wake had left the worlds of family, church, and community reeling. As the historian David Hackett Fischer recently observed, “… the existence of change is constant in history, [but] its rhythm is variable.” At certain historical moments we can see relatively abrupt alterations in the rate of change—what Fischer terms “deep change.” In recent years historians of family, religious, and social life have come to recognize the period from 1780 to 1820 as just such a time. It is no coincidence that this era was also the seedbed for a major change in the American treatment of death.

 

As the unity of family, church, and community began to disintegrate, the large communal outpouring of response to the death of an individual also started to disappear. The concern that in the 1720’s gave rise to legislation aimed at curbing funeral expense had, by the 1780’s, been replaced with a new concern: legislation now was required to see to it that at least some funeral ceremony was carried out and that minimal care was given to the tending of grave sites. Reverend William Bentley, a New Hampshire cleric, could have been addressing the plight of most American cemeteries at the turn of the nineteenth century when he lamented in his diary that Salem’s “antient graveyard” was “in the greatest confusion & tho’ the monuments of the best families are to be found in it, [they are] in the utmost neglect.” In the uncertain first years of nationhood, many of America’s cemeteries fell prey to “the utmost neglect”—not only insulting the sensibilities and endangering the health of those who remained alive, but also bearing witness to the tempestuous realignment of community values.