Today shows like HBO’s Six Feet Under, with its modern, edgy sensibility, seem to have resurrected the American public’s interest in death. On the other end of the spectrum, the growing movement to reclaim our end of life rituals through home funerals proves that what is old is sometimes new again.
Death in America has a complicated and colorful history. Disease, war, invention, and industry have brought myriad changes to our experience of dying. As our cultural perceptions of death have evolved, so have our rituals.
Early gravestones proclaimed, “Prepare to die and follow me.” The fear of a sinner’s eternal fate loomed large in the minds of many of the first Americans, who lived closely with death. By the Civil War era, many historians suggest, the “dying of death” had already begun; public health systems took shape and more liberal concepts of death as a painless inevitability arose. Undertakers tasked with the duty of escorting the bodies of fallen soldiers home to their families ushered in a new era in burial practices. Our once-intimate knowledge of and experience with death has grown increasingly more distant since that time. We have literally lost touch with death.