Grave Matters: A History of Death and Mourning

On Memorial Day, we pay public tribute to those who lost their lives fighting for our country. But how do we live with the memory of the dead the rest of the year?

In this hour, the History Guys explore Americans’ changing attitudes about death. A Gold Star Mother explains why she thinks there should be more media coverage of military deaths in Iraq. Historian Drew Gilpin Faust talks about how the Civil War altered the American way of dying. And BackStory‘s own Ed Ayers tours Richmond’s Hollywood Cemetery — and visits his own gravesite.

Web Exclusive: Wisconsin Death Trip

In 1967, Michael Lesy stumbled upon an otherworldly collection of photographs from late-19th century Wisconsin. He talks about some of the darker images and their meanings in this audio slide show.

Related links:

  • More information on the the media ban at Dover Air Force Base
  • Slideshow about the luminaries buried in Richmond’s Hollywood Cemetery
  • Article about the contested history of San Francisco cemeteries
  • Silent film of a Memorial Day Parade in Cornwall, NY, 1920
  • An excerpt and review of Drew Gilpin Faust’s “This Republic of Suffering”
  • NYT op-ed about the origins of Memorial Day
  • PBS documentary about the growing home-funeral movement
  • Two blog posts from the VFH-based Encyclopedia of Virginia about photographing war dead, then & now


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Comments (17)

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  1. Stewart Walker

    How has the increasing invisibility of death–particularly since WWII–changed the way we fight our wars? If the mortal cost of the recent wars in which we have chosen to participate were more visible (and of course this goes to the heart of the problems inherent in an “all volunteer army”), would it have been politically possible to have remained in Afghanistan and Iraq for this long?

    Also:
    If the evidence that the death penalty has limited if any effect as a deterent to potential murderers is true, is that a function of capital punishment’s inherent ineffectiveness? Or is there evidence that the more public manifestations of the death penalty in the past did indeed have a greater effect as a deterent?

    Reply
  2. Donna Munro

    I know, from my glancing exposure to Central American cultures, that a greater intimacy with death, violent and otherwise, has no deterrent effect in regards to gangsterism or war. I don’t know why that is so, but it is. Nor does the death penalty reduce the amount of heinous crimes.
    Exposure inures.
    Murders and other brutalities are committed/planned under the influence of passionate beliefs that admit little of life’s mundane realities, like, for example, execution, which only applies to losers.

    I do think that we human beings benefit from acknowledging death and being there for the dying of those we care for. It’s a part of life, we’re all headed there, and it would be nice if we could be more gentle in the process. Let people die instead of torturing them alive again and again to suffer longer, for example. Not leave people alone because we don’t know what to talk about to a dying person. Talking about anything. They’re still alive. Gossip. Love.
    I wish we could make more of a big deal of death, the way all the other big days are celebrated. I wish our death ceremonies were more majestic, more silly, I think if we could slow down, we’d have more time to honor death, among other great passages that deserve more than we give them.

    Reply
  3. Erika

    I’ve always been fascinated by the garden cemeteries of England and France, Pere Lachaise and Highgate being the two most prominent. But when it comes to America, we seem so (forgive the pun) puritan in our burial ceremonies.

    Perhaps I just haven’t been to the proper cemeteries in America, but it seems like we have traditionally taken a different approach… Why–when the Europeans were celebrating death with these magnificent crypts and tombs–were we hiding it in such austere and simple cemetery settings?

    It seems like we, instead, manifested our need for the celebration of death in the great monuments in Washington D.C. and elsewhere — far removed from the actual burial grounds of many of those honored.

    Reply
  4. Catherine Moore

    Erika–thanks for the comment! Never fear, you’ll hear plenty about garden cemeteries on the upcoming show…Have you been reading our email or something??? Just a week or two ago we set out with 19th-century Guy Ed Ayers and a local expert to explore Richmond’s own Hollywood Cemetery (1847) (http://www.hollywoodcemetery.org/), which, along with Mt. Auburn in Cambridge, MA (1831), is among the best examples of that style in America. It is true that the trend began in Europe (Pere Lachaise began in 1804), but it seems that Americans did gradually adopt the model as grave sites in urban churchyards began to fill up. The way I understand it, as cities became more and more crowded in the early-mid 19th century, there was a turn to these more park-like spaces for burial of the dead. They became popular Sunday picnic spots where city-dwellers could commune with the dead in the most peaceful of surroundings. I’ve already said too much…you’ll have to tune in for the full story–including how the Civil War further changed our burial landscapes–in a couple of weeks! Thanks again and take care!

    Reply
  5. Jim Bruggeman

    I’ve pondered the question of how the greater longevity, spurred by advances in sanitation and medical science in the late 19th and 20th Centuries, affected our political culture. Arlen Specter at 73 is a case in point of a legislator whose career has spanned generations. Has our political life been changed the lengthening of the life span of our political leaders and the greater overlapping of political generations with different experiences and memories, all pouring into the same political cockpit? Of course, given the long lives of some of our legislators and presidents – Adams and Jefferson who lived well into the 1820′s, albeit relatively politically inactive – this may not be a burning question. The rich and privileged political elites, with their superior diets and ability to ride to their cool upcountry estates during yellow fever and malaria season, always seem to have a leg up on the commoners. Yet, I will let the question stand.

    Reply
  6. Arlynda Boyer

    This is absolutely fascinating to me. We look back at people who lost children then and say, “oh, everybody lost children,” like it’s no big deal. But we know in our hearts that if we lost a child of our own (and some friends of mine just did), it’s utterly devastating — a level of loss and grief that horrifies us. It’s something we would never really expect to get over. And yet when we encounter it in the past, we blow off the suffering of our ancestors.

    Staunton, VA has the historic Western State Lunatic Asylum. Founded in the 1820s, it was a very early mental institution, and conditions were actually spa-like: landscaped grounds with a stream and willows, unlocked doors, and a “rest cure” that encouraged rest and reflection. In fact, the iron fence around the grounds was not to keep inmates in, but locals out, because they wanted to picnic on the lovely grounds. A historian came to town once for a lecture, and he had found, from perhaps 1850 or so, a list of the common reasons to be admitted to an asylum. The reasons are entertaining today: religion (not enough), religion (too much), excessive masturbation, disappointment in business, and disappointment in love.

    But look what’s missing: grief over losing a child, something traumatic that people in 1850 surely experienced. Why did this experience not seem to “rate” as something that required treatment or therapy??? My intuition is that grieving was a more public act then. It had more public support, and you knew that others had been through the same experience, so their counsel helped you more. And your support system was stronger.

    Still, I wonder: what evidence survives of grief? Were the scars then as deep as we know they would be today?

    By the way, I’m not yet forty, but I remember “Decoration Day” quite well. I grew up in rural southwest Virginia. Something else to consider is how much more _Southern_ the culture of death is, how Southerners have our gothic attachment to mossy death and how gravekeeping has lasted longer here than elsewhere.

    Reply
  7. EJ Albright

    I was somewhat dismayed by the opening of your most recent program. I failed to see the point of your interview with the anti-war activist who lost her son in Iraq. It could have been revelatory, as only history can be, but instead turned into a poor journalistic exercise with little or no historical context.

    It was poor journalism because you failed to do the following:

    1) Present more than one side. You interviewed an anti-war activist about the activities of the US government. While the death of Ms. Meredith’s son is a tragedy, it does not mean she is not a biased source. Did you try to get a comment from the Pentagon? You said that many families support the ban on media coverage at Dover. Did you try to talk to any of them? My understanding from the many news articles I read on this subject that Lt. Ballard’s father takes a position that is the opposite that of his ex-wife’s. If so, he would have added balance to your interview. Please review NPR’s coverage of the issue, which interviewed Ms. Meredith and, for the opposing view, another mother of a soldier who was killed.

    2) Confirm any of Ms. Meredith’s claims. She claims she asked to see photographs of her son’s coffin at Dover. She claims that the Pentagon refused her request. What did you do to confirm these accusations? Did she submit e-mails or letters backing up these claims?

    Your opening lacked historical context because:

    1) There was no history, other than mentioning images of flag-draped coffins during the Vietnam era and that the ban was put into place in 1991. A historical approach, for example, would have attempted to explain the reasons behind the ban.

    2) There was no attempt to relate the ban to other similar bans in US history. Where I thought you were going was a historical exploration of government censorship of press coverage of war dead, something that has occurred since the Civil War. Yet there was no mention at all of the history of this practice. During World War I, the federal government censored all attempts to publish photographs of the aftermath of war, not only the dead, but also wounded soldiers. And this practice continued for months after the war was over.

    The rest of the program was top notch, even exceptional. Just because journalism is the so-called “first draft of history” should not give you, as professional historians, the confidence to attempt it.

    I apologize if my criticism seems harsh. Please know that I consider your program by far the best at making history meaningful to the average person. That is, in my opinion, no small feat.

    Respectfully,

    EJ Albright

    Reply
  8. Tony (BackStory Producer)

    Thank you, EJ, for your thoughtful response to the show.

    To respond to your criticisms in order…

    I think you are basically correct to accuse us of practicing poor journalism in our interview with Karen Meredith. We made no effort to include an opposing voice, nor did we independently confirm the facts of Ms. Meredith’s account. That said, however, I think you may perhaps be holding us to a different standard than that to which we hold ourselves. Without getting into the thorny question of who is and isn’t a “journalist,” I would basically endorse the view that journalists are “those who practice journalism.” We have never claimed to “practice journalism,” and don’t have any plans to begin doing so anytime soon. We do from time to time include voices and stories from the contemporary world as a kind of jumping-off point for larger conversations about history, but I don’t think we have ever framed any of these conversations as anything other than what they are: individual voices sharing their own stories or perspectives about the topic-at-hand. Perhaps we did an inadequate job of framing in this case — I would certainly be very interested in hearing from other listeners about their impressions of the way this interview was set up.

    As for your frustration with the shortage of historical context following this segment, I would be the first to agree that this is where BackStory does have the potential to excel, and IS truly the standard to which we hold ourselves with every show. Unfortunately, all I can offer in this case is the meager, but honest, defense that there is a limit to how much you can fit into a 50-minute show. I would absolutely love to have another hour to explore the history of government censorship in wartime, and with luck, will, in the not too distant future. In the meantime, it seems to me that this website provides a second-best option for discussing everything that does not make the on-air cut.

    I hope that this strikes you as an adequate answer to your criticisms, and sincerely look forward to hearing your thoughts on future episodes of the show. Thanks again for listening.

    Reply
  9. EJ Albright

    Tony,

    I appreciate your reply. We’ll have to agree to disagree. I still am a big fan of BackStory, and look forward to every program.

    Regards,

    – EJA

    Reply
  10. Ed Ayers

    Thanks for this excellent point. If you’d like to see confirmation of your thoughts, please see the powerful feature on our website, prepared by Catherine Moore, about Michael Lesy’ book, Wisconsin Death Trip. The loss of those children is still palpable. As Lesy says in his audio commentary there, people would pull out their photos of their child’s bodies in their coffins to talk about and grieve over together. It’s hard to imagine such an event today.

    Growing up just over the state line from southwestern Virginia, I, too, recall Decoration Day as a big deal. It had nothing to do with the Confederacy for us, but for honoring all kinds of people long gone. As a child, I dreaded it, but looking back I can see the power and purpose of the ritual. We lose something when we lose that connection to death and the life that came before it.

    Thanks so much for writing.

    [quote comment="4941"]This is absolutely fascinating to me. We look back at people who lost children then and say, “oh, everybody lost children,” like it’s no big deal. But we know in our hearts that if we lost a child of our own (and some friends of mine just did), it’s utterly devastating — a level of loss and grief that horrifies us. It’s something we would never really expect to get over. And yet when we encounter it in the past, we blow off the suffering of our ancestors.

    Staunton, VA has the historic Western State Lunatic Asylum. Founded in the 1820s, it was a very early mental institution, and conditions were actually spa-like: landscaped grounds with a stream and willows, unlocked doors, and a “rest cure” that encouraged rest and reflection. In fact, the iron fence around the grounds was not to keep inmates in, but locals out, because they wanted to picnic on the lovely grounds. A historian came to town once for a lecture, and he had found, from perhaps 1850 or so, a list of the common reasons to be admitted to an asylum. The reasons are entertaining today: religion (not enough), religion (too much), excessive masturbation, disappointment in business, and disappointment in love.

    But look what’s missing: grief over losing a child, something traumatic that people in 1850 surely experienced. Why did this experience not seem to “rate” as something that required treatment or therapy??? My intuition is that grieving was a more public act then. It had more public support, and you knew that others had been through the same experience, so their counsel helped you more. And your support system was stronger.

    Still, I wonder: what evidence survives of grief? Were the scars then as deep as we know they would be today?

    By the way, I’m not yet forty, but I remember “Decoration Day” quite well. I grew up in rural southwest Virginia. Something else to consider is how much more _Southern_ the culture of death is, how Southerners have our gothic attachment to mossy death and how gravekeeping has lasted longer here than elsewhere.[/quote]

    Reply
  11. jennie

    Thanks for another great show!!!! I ALMOST can’t wait for next school to start so that I can require my kids to listen to the segment about the impact of death on america post-civil war. our first unit is reconstruction and this piece was PERFECT as a discussion starter, since they may not remember their civil war stuff from the previous year!

    Reply
  12. Sarah

    During the show, there was a slight mention about memorials for the Revolutionary War. Well in Philadelphia there is one called tumb of the unknown. There is a monument with a statue of George Washington and underneath is a mass grave of all different soldiers, British, American, some French and even Native Americans.

    Reply

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