The Nature of Death in the United States: Varied Deathways Reflect Social Relations with Nature

Contemporary Mainstream American Deathways

Before the turn of the twentieth century, American deathways looked very different from the standard way of dealing with corpses in modernity. Historically, most Americans died at home and their corpses were cared for by their family and community (Doughty 2014). As indicated by early photography from the mid to late nineteenth century, there was little cultural revulsion associated with the near proximity of the living and dead.

A major cultural shift occurred in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, during which time the norms of dealing with the dying and dead became standardized and commodified. Today, most people die under institutionalized medical care; their corpses are transported directly to funeral homes for disposition, which usually consists of embalming for short viewings, and then cremation or casket burial (Doughty 2014). Corpses are alienated from their social and ecological contexts through the standard processes of care and disposition, as well as the bureaucratization of how we deal with them.

The modern funeral industry is rigorously bounded, with credentialed experts seen as the most appropriate and knowledgeable people for providing corpse care and disposition (Cahill 1995). As we will see in the following sections, these boundaries are porous, but the fact remains the vast majority of Americans rely on the profit-driven, formally regulated funeral service institution for dealing with the realities of death. This relationship between society and the physical realities of death closely mirrors the relationship between society and nature. The growth of scientific understandings of the world in mainstream American culture has influenced how we deal with corpses much as it has influenced how we deal with nature. Like nature, death and corpses are viewed through the lens of empiricism, which asserts that we can know the world and discover reality through our senses, as well as rationalism, the idea that knowledge can be developed and reality understood through logical deduction and reasoning (Gould and Lewis, 2015).

Much like our relations with nature, individual and social relations with death and corpses in the United States are overseen, curated, and regulated by credentialed experts and agencies. Bureaucratic agencies with credentialed experts manage natural or wilderness areas; lay people are only allowed access under certain circumstances, and may only interact with landscape in approved ways. This is very similar to the bureaucratic and heavily regulated funeral industry, where only certain people have the credentials to handle the technology associated with corpses or to fill out the necessary paperwork (like death certificates) (Warnock 2016).

In order to work as a funeral director or embalmer, one must go through the proper steps and receive the appropriate license for the state of operation. In Washington state, for example, funeral directors are considered separate from embalmers, and there are two licenses one must obtain if the goal is to be able to work in all the areas of death care (Warnock 2016). In most states, the license to embalm requires a four year schooling program in mortuary sciences, including coursework in anatomy and physiology, and a yearlong apprenticeship (Warnock 2016).

The development of embalming technology was a major driver for this shift in American deathways. Though practiced in various settings in Europe for hundreds of years, embalming didn’t become a regular practice in the United States until the Civil War (Cahill 1995). With high rates of soldier mortality, and the cultural emphasis on Christian burials, Civil War surgeons were faced with the challenge of preserving bodies for transportation. This led to the implementation of embalming in camp, and hundreds of dead soldiers were embalmed before their bodies were shipped to their families. This is an example of how naturework is performed using technology as a mediator between the social and natural worlds. Today, most American corpses have their blood removed and replaced with preservative fluids, using specialized technology that has been refined since the days of embalming in tents on battlefields (Doughty 2014). This creates a simulacrum from the corpse, an entity that serves to represent or mimic the living person, hiding the true effects of death on the body, and disturbing the natural decomposition processes.

Like many twenty-first century cultural institutions, the death care industry is complexly interwoven with capitalism. The commodification of death over the last 150 years or so has manifested in an industry that makes around $20.7 billion a year (PBS). Most of that profit is made from providing products and services, such as embalming and caskets. (Though out of the scope of this examination, it is interesting to note that though only 14% of funeral homes in the USA are corporate owned, they make up the majority of profits in the funeral industry [PBS].) Anna Tsing describes the concept of salvage accumulation as, “the process through which lead firms amass capital without controlling the conditions under which the commodities are produced” (2015). We can consider the commodification of death a type of salvage accumulation. Corpses are not an inherent part of a capitalist system; no one has control over how they are “produced.” They are not products developed for sale, or hazardous things in need of specialized technology to mitigate (though there is narrative to that effect). However, there is a multibillion dollar industry built from their care and disposal. 

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