On America's eclectic ways of mourning the dead.


in Archive


In her 1928 Blue Book of Social Usage, Emily Post wrote:

At no time are we so indifferent to the social world and all its code as when we stand baffled and alone at the brink of unfathomable darkness into which our loved one has gone. The last resource to which we would look for comfort at such a time is the seeming artificiality of etiquette. Yet it is in the hours of deepest sorrow that etiquette performs its most real service. All set rules of social procedure have for their object the smoothing of personal contacts, and in nothing is smoothness so necessary as in observing the solemn rites accorded to our dead.

Etiquette in America has always been slippery. And so it’s been with regard to mourning. The Pilgrims kept mourning on the DL. A fussy public burial was seen an affront to God’s will, as was mourning dress or other conspicuous displays of grief. Even praying for the dead was seen as a rebellion against predestination. There was no fanfare, no beating of the breast. A quiet, restrained Pilgrim death was most befitting a quiet, restrained Pilgrim life.

All that changed with the queen of artifice herself, Victoria. Of all the protocol of Victorian-era America, mourning etiquette was perhaps the most complicated, especially for women. Handbooks and catalogues rigorously detailed mourning manners, from how one should dress according to degrees of mourning (deep mourning, first mourning, second mourning, half mourning…), to how one’s house ought to be prepared (uncovered mirrors were a big no-no), to the infinite accoutrements like post-mortem photos and the ever-popular hairpiece jewelry made of the deceased’s, yes, hair. You always immediately knew when someone had a death in the family and how much the loss meant to them, not by any display of emotion, but rather by how well that emotion translated into etiquette. All this had the effect of bringing death out into the open, making it a matter of the utmost social importance. By the time the Civil War rolled around, rules of mourning served as a comfort and social cohesion that allowed people to somehow deal with the seemingly unending deluge of dead.

The most dramatic change in the ritual of American mourning was how the dead themselves were buried. The American cemetery came into its own in 1831 with the completion of Mount Auburn in Cambridge. Planned by Dr. Jacob Bigelow and the members of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society, Mount Auburn Cemetery was the United States’ first rural (or garden) cemetery, a burial ground with the open-air, civic nature of a botanical garden. It would have rolling hills and landscaping and beautiful statues that would attract the general public. What better place for our dead-and-gone than among the cheerful diversions of the living? And what better comfort to mourners?

The garden cemetery would also be nonsectarian, removing the ritual of burial from the church and putting it in the hands of the community. The $6,000 needed to purchase 72 acres of land for the Mount Auburn Experimental Garden and Cemetery, (the “Garden of Graves”) would be purchased through the sale of 100 subscriptions and managed by the Cemetery and Garden committee. A death co-op. With a lovely park view.

Immediately after Mount Auburn’s completion, garden cemeteries like Laurel Hill in Philadelphia and the Woodland Cemetery & Arboretum in Dayton, Ohio became all the rage. These cemeteries were the precursors to the great American parks, both of which became refuges for city folk in the 20th century. Frederick Law Olmsted spent many a day musing over the design of Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn before designing America’s über-park, Central Park. (The Park’s early admirers said it was as beautiful as a cemetery.) The two were of the same philosophy — that leisure and reflection are best fulfilled in a sculpted, naturalistic environment that everyone can share.

The thing about Victorian-era mourning is that, even though grief was public, it was so socialized it became almost divorced from actual grief. Cemeteries epitomized this. The more beautiful and romanticized mourning became, the less sad it was. What people experience at most American cemeteries is an overwhelming sensation of life. In a 1947 essay called “Half in Love with Easeful Death” the author Evelyn Waugh noted that what made Forest Lawn in Los Angeles (known to many as the “Disneyland of Death”) especially American is how completely it vanquished death from its gates. The six-cemetery Forest Lawn “memorial park” network hosts free concerts, an art museum, public lectures, film screenings, educational programs for children, pumpkin decorating classes….

With the 20th-century advent of women’s lib, ladies (responsible for most 19th-century mourning) just didn’t have the time or wherewithal to indulge in all the fuss. Rules, niceties, manners — all were quickly falling out of fashion. As the etiquette for death fell away, so did, once more, public grieving. What was left in its wake was a modern funeral industry that some feel is the worst of both worlds. It forces a lot of dehumanizing rules on the death process and — as it makes cemeteries the compulsory place for burial — is also still very public.

But on the morning of June 6, 2009 Nathaniel’s Roe’s family just decided to bury him in the backyard. And according to a July New York Times article — “Home Burials Offer an Intimate Alternative” — the Roes are not alone. It seems Americans are increasingly burying their dead at home. According to the Times, the number of assistance groups or individuals has grown from two in 2002 to 45 today.

Home burials continue the shift away from the public grieving their great-grandparents started a century ago. Advocates of the practice say all the hullabaloo of mourning rituals robs grieving of its intimacy and steers us away from the task at hand. Traditional funerals, they say, are wildly overpriced and artificial. Our grand graveyards spawned all this stuff that has nothing to do with death. Lacquered coffins lined with puffy satin. Professionals to reassemble rotting corpses with embalming fluid, prosthetics, and rouge. Viewing rooms. And decorations for the rooms. And professionals to arrange it all. And limos to take us to the cemetery. A cemetery to which we would rarely return.

All one needs to grieve, says the home burier, is a pine box and a yard. We prepare the body ourselves, dig a hole, and that is that. Organic, dignified, natural, economical. These are the adjectives a home burial offers. This description of a home burial from the New York Times article reads like a Wordsworth poem: “The next day, Mr. Roe was placed in a pine coffin made by his son, along with a tuft of wool from the sheep he once kept. He was buried on his farm in a grove off a walking path he traversed each day.” Who could doubt Mr. Roe and his tuft would find peace with this burial?

By planting our dead in public, Americans solved an urban planning problem and created an emotional one. Cemeteries put death in the public realm. But they also hide death by sticking it on a hilltop in the suburbs. One could thus argue that enveloping corpses with copses, decorating them with flowers and bits of marble, is simply an elaborate process of avoidance. That as we attend a jazz concert together over our dead grandmothers, we are distracted from grieving for them.

The question is whether home burials bring Americans any closer to death. Cemeteries may hide death in plain site but home burials shutter it away completely. The fact that you need a home for a home burial is a case in point. For Americans, the move towards intimacy — into private homes, private families, private graveyards — is also a move away from public life, “not having strangers intruding into the privacy of the family,” as Nancy Manahan, co-author of Living Consciously, Dying Gracefully, puts it. Home burials are kind of like eloping. In trying to preserve privacy they cancel community. Love and death become more than private — they become secret.

Rebelling against the rules has always left Americans at once liberated and lost. Americans are both free from and lacking a cohesive culture of death. We have Veteran’s Day and the newish 9/11 Day, but these are special. Obama’s well-intentioned call to make September 11 a day of National Service is almost absurd in the way it turns a time of mourning into yet another work day. Americans don’t have grief-sharing holidays like some other countries. The Nepalese, for example, have Gai Jatra, a day for the recent dead that’s also a celebration of cows. That day, Nepalese dress in colorful costumes and parade in the streets, playing music and telling jokes and carrying portraits of those lost in the past year. Because America is a mutt society, sharing grief through any one particular ritual is virtually impossible. Lacking such fall-back cultural practices, we fumble around with death like a hot potato, changing our practices according to fashion, constantly wondering how we are to mourn.

A few years ago, I decided that a visit to Mexico City during Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) might give me a fresh perspective on the rituals of public mourning. On the way, I paraphrased a passage from Octavio Paz’s The Labyrinth of Solitude in my head. “The word death is not pronounced in New York, in Paris, in London, because it burns the lips…. The Mexican, in contrast, is familiar with death; jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it; it is one of his favorite toys and his most steadfast love.”

Ay, chihuahua!

Día de los Muertos is many things, but largely, it’s the smell of marigolds. They are everywhere — in crosses, over tombstones, petals crumpled and scattered. You can get them anywhere in the city, along with skulls made from painted sugar and paper. What I’ll remember most, though, is the din of Panteón de Dolores cemetery. Children hawking marigolds at top volume. Full mariachi bands singing the favorite songs of the departed. Families picnicking over graves, wailing for all to see. My friends and I weren’t Mexican, and we weren’t acquainted with their dead, but we bought some marigolds to sprinkle over neglected graves just because it seemed like the thing to do. It was a new experience, a day when a whole society mourned together, all at once, in public, and loudly. Mexicans dressed like skeletons and wept even as they laughed. Public and private were muddled up together, just like life and death.

Paz saw something deep about Mexican culture in this festival. “True, there is perhaps as much fear in his attitude as in that of others, but at least death is not hidden away: He looks at it face to face, with impatience, disdain, or irony.” The mocking of death, though, comes with a mocking of life. “Life and death are inseparable,” Paz says, “and when the former lacks meaning, the latter becomes equally meaningless.” Looked at one way, taking focus off the personal aspects of death, off individual life, is what makes communal mourning not only easier, but exciting, fun, liberating. As everyone cries, no one is crying. As everyone dies, no one has died. But the fun comes with a price: Life is cheap, death is cheap. Easy come, easy go. This cheapening of death (which goes hand in hand with more difficult, more impoverished lives) makes Día de los Muertos possible. And what makes it impossible for Americans. It’s impossible because of America’s cult of the individual and our feeling that death is always so far away, intangible. (The glaring exceptions, usually concentrated in America’s poor communities, only emphasize this.) In making the comparison between the two cultures, Paz writes one of the greatest summations of American optimism ever written: “I met some elderly ladies [in America] who still had illusions and were making plans for the future as if it were inexhaustible.”

Paz was right that how we perform death is a little window into how we perform life.

As we try to deal with that thing called mortality, we all avoid it in our own way. Rituals don’t tell us how to live, but they do show us how we are living. • 29 September 2009



Stefany Anne Golberg is a writer and multi-media artist. She has written for The Washington Post (Outlook), Lapham’s Quarterly, New England Review, and others. Stefany is currently a columnist for The Smart Set and Critic-in-Residence at Drexel University. A book of Stefany's selected essays can be found here. She can be reached at