AT THE SCENE OF HIS MOTHER'S FUNERAL, Elvis Presley — invincible sex symbol, cocksure performer, the man who changed the world and music forever — was reduced to a pathetic, blubbering mama's boy. "Mama, I'd give up every dime I own and go back to digging ditches, just to have you back," he told her body while it lay in repose the night before the funeral. At the service, according to biographer Peter Guralnick,
Elvis himself maintained his composure a little better until, towards the end, he burst into uncontrollable tears and, with the service completed, leaned over the casket, crying out, "Good-bye darling, good-bye. I love you so much. You know how much I lived my whole life just for you." Four friends half-dragged him into the limousine. "Oh God," he declared, "everything I have is gone."
Compare this to another scene, a century earlier: Ralph Waldo Emerson, also a celebrity in his own day, describing the transference of the remains of his mother and son Waldo to Concord's Sleepy Hollow cemetery:
The sun shone brightly on the coffins, of which Waldo's was well-preserved — now fifteen years. I ventured to look into the coffin. I gave a few white-oak leaves to each coffin, after they were put into the new vault, and the vault was then covered with two slabs of granite.
It's hard to say how much emotion lies behind that statement, "I ventured to look into the coffin," but it's clear how vastly different this response to a death of a loved one is. Emerson's mode of grief is more restrained and reflective, and yet the gesture of opening the coffins of loved ones to gaze at their remains seems macabre, a transgression of the sanctity of the dead, alien to our own time.
There are, in other words, two aspects to the phenomenon of death. On the one hand, there is death itself — immutable, the single certainty all of us face, unchanging as it has always been. On the other hand, though, is how we living face the death of others, which is constantly changing, composed of ritual, emotion, and something that each culture and each generation must define — and redefine — for itself.
Our current culture seems generally uncomfortable with facing the prospect of mourning, and even more uncomfortable with the dead body itself. Only nine days after the attacks of September 11, 2001, George W. Bush forcefully declared that it was time to turn grief into action, attempting to foreclose any extended period of public mourning period. And personal losses aren't much different; half a century ago, Jessica Mitford's The American Way of Death laid bare the amount of chemicals, makeup, and money we waste in order to give death a pleasant, less death-like appearance. Death is a thing to be acknowledged but not dwelled on, not faced head-on.
Michael Kammen's Digging Up the Dead: A History of Notable American Reburials offers a fascinating history of how we got here, and how the process of mourning has evolved in the course of one young nation's history. Kammen, an Emeritus Professor at Cornell University and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of People of Paradox: An Inquiry Concerning the Origins of American Civilization, sets out to track how the United States has struggled to define and redefine the purpose and meaning of its illustrious dea...