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  • By liberazoo
    Oct 15, 2009
    "Funeral Customs in America: A Book Review" David Farthing For an in depth look into the history of the contemporary funeral, I recommend Sam James’ The Evolution of Funeral Customs and Beliefs in America: Including Science and Technological Developments and the Increased Desire for Creamtion and Natural Burial. Starting with the Pilgrim’s emigration to the New World in 1620, he explores the history of death practices to answer sociological questions such as: why do we embalm? When did cremation begin? What is a green cemetery? And so on. As is often the case, monetary gain as well as curiosity was the motive for the first colonist’s opening of graves in the new land they discovered. Quoting Roger and Walter Echo-Hawks’ text Battlefield and Burial Grounds: The Indian Struggle to Protect Ancestral Graves in the United States (Minneapolis: Lerner, 1994), James’ opening sentence in his first chapter reads: “We brought sundry of the prettiest things away with us and covered up... More > the corpse again.” These words, supposedly spoken by a scout from the Mayflower shortly after it arrives at Plymouth, elucidate the first recorded instance of grave robbing by Europeans in the New World. James then gives us a quick snapshot of the modern American “traditional funeral.” “[It] consists of a funeral director going to the deceased’s place of death, placing their body on a cot and bringing them back to the funeral home. Upon arrival back to the funeral home, the body is embalmed ─ which sanitizes, preserves and restores the body ─ then the body is dressed in whatever clothes the family chooses, it is casketed in whatever casket the family picks out, the body is laid out, viewed, driven to a church or rolled into the funeral home chapel for a funeral ─ typically conducted by a minister ─ driven in a hearse to the cemetery, carried by pall bearers to the grave, committed to the grave by spoken words and prayer, enclosed in a vault and buried eighteen inches underground.” Contrast this sterile procedure with that of the Pawnee Indians, a nation of about 2,500 individuals who resided in what is now the state of Oklahoma. They had a form of government called the council elected by the people, carried out diplomatic relations with England, France and America, never fought against the United States, even allying themselves with the U.S. against other Indian tribes. In return, they were moved from their land by white settlers, beat up by other Indian groups, and were completely unprotected and unsupported by the U.S. government. (James, pp. 9-10) “The body was painted red by priests and was clothed to enter the spirit land. Red paint, for many Indians, is symbolic of life. The body was given gifts to be enjoyed in the afterlife. They had laws to protect the grave, demanding that it not be disturbed. It was a common belief that a disturbed grave could evoke the spirits and the living could be harmed. The body was wrapped in a coat of that all important animal, the buffalo (Echo Hawk, p. 48).” I don’t want to give away any more of the bounty of information, James has compiles in his thesis, though I would like to wrap up this review with a few comments about the work itself. James’ writing is not the dry, complicated and obfuscating text one would expect with academic writing. Instead, he writes in an accessible style meant for the average reader to comprehend without seeming to “dumb it down” or patronize the reader’s intelligence. Nor does he lean to a flowery style meant to bring attention to his writing capabilities (though they are more than adequate to the task). He lets the facts speak for themselves, and I found myself drawn along from one fascinating topic to another.< Less
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Product Details

November 1, 2007
Perfect-bound Paperback
Interior Ink
Black & white
0.34 lbs.
Dimensions (inches)
6 wide x 9 tall
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