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The American Funeral Home : An Archaeology of the Viewing

by Sean Patrick Dockray

Introduction Perhaps no object of study resists chronological historical treatment more than mankind's funerary practices. As archeologists dig deeper into the past, they find newer 'oldest' examples, like the Shanandar tribe of Araq, which is said to have performed some type of funerary behavior 50,000 years ago. From time to time and place to place, there has been a startling variety of rituals for the dead, but the typical story follows the familiar trajectory from Egyptians to Greeks to Jews to Christians to Europe's Middle Ages and so on, with the occasional diversion through Scandanavia or India. Although these histories can be useful for illuminating contemporary attitudes toward death and provide a necessary background for understanding our own rituals, this paper attempts a different kind of archaeology - one that examines the discursive fragments of modern visual culture. The point is that media artifacts and visual display techniques are central to contemporary American funerary practices, particularly in terms of the subject of this paper, which is the American funeral home. Likewise, a description of display within the funeral home, in the form of the viewing, might be useful for the study of visual culture. While many objects of study are easily identifiable as viewing apparatuses (like the panorama, the stereoscope, the zootrope, or the camera obscura), the funeral home doesn't rest easily within any given category. It shares concerns, techniques, and history with stores, theater, cinema, painting, and magic shows. There is a twofold purpose to the study: first, and most directly, it might help us better understand the specific nature of the funeral home; secondly, as an example of an immersive, virtual environment, it can provide an interesting model for current discourse about technologically mediated spaces.

An Introduction to the Viewing The central event of a contemporary American funeral ritual - and the focus of the funeral home ­ is the viewing. After the death, but before the funeral ceremony and burial, the family and closest friends of the deceased gather at the funeral home and are visited by interested membersof the public (usually more distant friends and relatives). These visitors are expected to express their

condolences to the bereaved and to "view" the corpse. In certain circumstances, the casket is "closed," but this is an exception rather than the rule ­ in some instances the body is too disfigured to display and at others, religious prohibition or individual preference is honored by the funeral director. Americans are not the first or only ones to incorporate looking upon the dead body into their funeral rituals, nor did the practice originate with the funeral home. The first Europeans to settle in North America brought with them the tradition of laying the body out inside the home before it was buried, during which time neighbors could visit the home of the bereaved and take a last look at the deceased. There are variations on this practice in other times and cultures, with two important examples being the Christian "wake" and the Jewish religious ritual, the "watching." In both of these cases, the gaze upon the body is active and inquisitive, searching the body for signs of movement or life in order to avoid giving the person a premature burial. Although medical science has removed all doubt in the process of verifying death, the word "wake" continues to be used for the social gathering at the funeral home. On the one hand, this reinforces the fundamental importance of the gaze and its production or denial in many death rituals throughout human history; on the other hand, however, it suggests that viewing practices in relation to the dead are often circumstantial and are formed as much by their social context as historical rituals. Often, as Jessica Mitford explained in her 1963 bestseller, The American Way of Death, the American funeral industry actively fabricates a mythology in order to construct continuities between ancient Egyptian burial technqiues, proper Christian rituals, and contemporary practices, in order to obscure base profiteering. In response to Mitford's indictment of the industry, Gary Laderman admits that the narratives created to explain the history and necessity of embalming and the viewing are perpetuated by the funeral industry; but, he insists that she failed to recognize that many people actually did want the services provided and these services weren't purely the creation of the American funeral home. The history of death rituals, embalming and the viewing in particular, are constructed and deployed in order to sell products, push reform, or express ideological preferences as normal and constant, rather than merely fashionable. This paper, however, does not discuss the viewing in these contested terms and it generally avoids making ethical judgments about the validity of contemporary American funeral practices. Instead, it tries to position the American funeral home within the discourses of visual studies and architecture as a spatial viewing device. Perhaps this shift in perspective can both enrich the growing, active history of the funeral home and introduce a neglected, but important cultural phenomonon into the study of visuality.

Some Images of the Dead in the 19th Century The funeral home, like the cinema, is today a ubiquitous, recognizeable component of American society that took shape over the course of the 20th century. Neither the funeral home nor the cinema existed in the 19th century in a manifestation that would directly correlate to their form today; but, the period offers a variety of artifacts and events with which one can put together some kind of prehistory. The parallel development of the cinema and the funeral home mentioned so far is perhaps nothing more than coincidence, but even a cursory description of images of the dead in the 19th century illuminates some common ground with that which some call the prehistory of cinema.

Abraham Lincoln's 13-City Funeral Tour Abraham Lincoln's death is widely considered to be the birth of the modern American funeral industry. After he was assassinated, the War Secretary, Edwin Stanton, saw the opportunity to encourage unity in the country, which was still fragile from the Civil War. He organized a funeral train that snaked through thirteen cities across the North over the course of almost two weeks. By the time Lincoln was finally buried, it is estimated that over seven million people viewed his remains, one-fifth of the nation's population. Such a long and exposed journey would have left the President's corpse in an advanced state of decomposition if it were not for the embalming team of Brown and Alexander. Although preservation of human remains recurred in various cultures throughout history, the practice of arterial embalming was a radical and new innovation, both uncommon and rejected by the American population at the

time. While the study of the body was actively (and invasively) pursued in the late 18th and early 19th century, a need arose for the preservation of animal specimens and cadavers so that they could be dissected and studied in the future. One chemist named Jean Nicolas Gannal is credited with developing a mixture of chemicals that could be arterially injected, thus allowing for the safe keeping and dissection of sometimes hard-to-come-by human bodies. While several scientists in France at the time experimented with the physiology of vision, Gannal was making the human body visible to the developing medical profession. Although, newer, safer, and better embalming formulas were soon developed, there was little market for them outside of medicine until the American Civil War. As the death toll mounted in the the war, the North and the South both used men trained in embalming to treat the dead before shipping the bodies home. With days or weeks separating the mortal wound from burial, embalming was deployed in order to give the soldiers' families the opportunity to see their loved ones one last time. War photography similarly brought the dead (and the war) home to the living. In a practice that anticipated cinema's action genre, and the posed body in the modern American funeral home, photographers like Matthew Brady and his assistant Alexander Gardner sought to represent the real gruesomeness of the war by moving the bodies around and arranging them for maximum dramatic and aesthetic effect. Soon, the pictures began to sell well to northerners and photographers descended on the battlefield quickly to produce more staged, patriotic images. This immensely popular war photography followed a period of interest in corpse painting - which sublimated the corpse into a idealized memory ­ and corpse photography ­ in which the photographer would pose the dead in some kind of domestic lifelike setting. (Ruby) While the war photographers, corpse painters (like Charles Wilson Peale's son Raphaelle), and corpse photographers staged the content of their images in order to maximize dramatic effect, Sir David Brewster suggested that technical manipulation of the medium "might carry us into the realm of the supernatural." (quoted in Gunning, 47)

In spite of this growing interest in representations of the dead and the use of embalming on the battlefield, the American public was slow to accept the invasive practice of embalming into their own everyday lives, seeing it instead as barbaric and disrespectful to the dead. Abraham Lincoln's funeral tour legitimized embalming to an attentive audience, who saw first-hand its alleged hygenic usefulness and potential for controlling the mourning period and appearance of the dead. The journey was not, however, a flawless one. Over the weeks, the body still began showing signs of decay, forcing Brown and Alexander to continually apply makeup to the corpse and to conceal ice beneath the body, eliciting comments of both approval and disapproval. Nonetheless, embalming was put into the public vocabulary and soon, the idle embalming units from the Civil War were back to work, performing the occasional service and training future generations. An Introduction to the American Funeral Home The purpose of this paper is to provide a preliminary archaeology of the viewing. This entails both an overview of a variety of ways in which the dead have been displayed to the living, mediated through photography, the morgue, and the state; and it requires a description of the funeral home apparatus in relation to other viewing devices. Most people only experience the funeral home in action, which is to say the moment when the dead body is put on display. In such moments, the boundary between the spectacle and its production is most rigorously defined. This does not mean that the visitors and the bereaved are ignorant of the work done on the body in the hidden spaces of production. After viewing the body, it is customary to compliment the funeral director for his or

her handiwork. Nevertheless, the spaces in which the funeral director prepares the body is kept off limits, often hidden, as if these spaces did not exist. In some homes these spaces are located around a bend in a hallway; at others behind locked doors or curtains; and in one New Jersey funeral home that served as a research site for this paper, the floor of the viewing room doubled as an elevator to the preparation space below. For practical purposes, the space where the body is made presentable is adjacent to the space where the body is presented, requiring that the boundary be all quite defined, or in other words, invisible. Whereas the late-19th and early-20th century undertaker used to prepare the body within the home of the bereaved, today's funeral directors perform this task in relative isolation, in the hidden spaces of the funeral home. There have been several explanations offered for this transition: the growth of the hospital as the space for dying; the lack of room in small, overcrowded living quarters, particularly in urban areas; and general concerns for the effects of a dead body on the hygiene and mental health of the living. Each offers a plausible reason why the corpse would be stored and prepared for funeral rituals outside of the home, but none explains the ambivalence between the visible and the hidden. This suggests a link, not only with Civil War photography of dead soldiers and the mediated display of Lincoln's corpse, but also with the illusions created in performances of spirit photography and the infrastructure of visual spectacles like the panoramas. A section drawing of a circular panorama shows that there is as much not to be seen as there is to be seen, hidden space dedicated to upholding the illusion of total panoramic immersion. The private spaces of the funeral home that enable the viewing include: space for assembling the coffin, dressing the body, and applying cosmetics; space for the storage of coffins; garage space for automobiles such as the mourning car and the hearse; living quarters for the funeral director's family; a private office for conducting business; and the space where the body is embalmed. While each of these spaces is necessary, it is the chemical process of arterial embalming that is most important for sustaining the funeral home. In one sense, it suspends the decomposition of the body, allowing it to be put on display so that the viewing might take place. In another, it transforms the role of the funeral director into a profession, complete with standardized training and licensing.

It is easy to make comparisons between the funeral home and theater (which a comparison that Parisians made with their morgue) ­ from the very beginning these comparisons are encouraged by the choice of industry members to call themselves "directors" (dropping the displeasing title of undertaker). Some of the private spaces previously mentioned correspond to a "backstage," where wardrobe and makeup are applied to the body and props for the "performance" are stored. These comparisons between American death rituals and show business were made in literature half a century ago in Evelyn Waugh's The Loved One. This is, however, a peculiar kind of theater. The funeral director is always present to (but often respectfully removed from) the audience, playing close attention in case the family of the deceased might be dissatisfied, and making immediate improvisations in lighting, music, or makeup when needed. Furthermore, this is a theater of showing the professionally treated corpse, akin to the doctor putting the patient on display for the public with all the trappings of entertainment. The American funeral director plays the dual role of entertainer and licensed handler of the dead. While the funeral home serves as a surrogate home for the bereaved to greet friends and visitors, allowing all to witness the dead body, it also is an actual home for the funeral director. First, this is a matter of practicality ­ death can strike at any time and it is the funeral director's responsibility to be on call to pick up the body. Second, in response to a public that was occasionaly skeptical and hostile towards the practices of the industry in the early 20th century, funeral directors became active participants in local communities, sometimes opening their doors to the public and, at others, educating them about these new spaces of death. (Adelman 2003, 27) In El Paso, Texas, on one day in 1929, nearly 1000 people toured a newly opened mortuary. Funeral homes are a place of business where funereal services are sold to the bereaved (or presold to the living); but they are also an open house, a permeable membrane between the funeral home (and the inseparable funeral director) and the community. It is most common for the funeral home to be named after the families running the business, families who were known and trusted to the local population. In Canton, Massachusetts, a central research site for this paper, the two main funeral homes are called Roach-Pushard Funeral Home and Dockray

& Thomas Funeral Home. When large funeral-home conglomerates began purchasing independent, familyoperated homes, recently, they have almost always retained the family names, even if those people had nothing to do with the business any longer. The degree to which the product is bound to the name and reputation of the funeral director, connects it with the performance-based, often family-run moving panorama business. (Huhtamo, 208) In some ways, the American funeral home is an anachronism ­ unlike the movie, food, and retail industries, the funeral industry resists adopting a corporate appearance in its interaction with the public, as the family-based naming convention suggests. Some even say that the trend towards consolidation in the 1990's seems to have slowed and even reversed. Although the funeral home doesn't make use of the same materials prevalent in other industries ­ plastics, cement, flourescents, neons and LCD's ­ and therefore seems strangely "out of style," funeral directors are always modifying and improving the public regions of their interiors. From one perspective, it could be said that the interior design of the funeral home is old-fashioned and mired in small-town tradition; from another, it is an up to date account of attitudes towards what constitutes a "respectful" and "comfortable" (in the vocabulary of funeral home marketing) environment. At a funeral home in Brooklyn, New York, the director explained that he needed to remove the red velvet drapery and upholstery that his father installed in favor of

a more simple, bare interior, because over time attitudes towards red velvet had changed. The ambivalence between display and disguise is paralleled by an ambivalence between tradition and innovation. While embalming and the various preparation, storage, and living spaces are crucial for the creation of the viewing, these public spaces within which the social gathering of the wake occurs also serves to frame the spectacle. In contrast to the Paris morgue, where "[t]he main entrance leads to a large display room... separated from the sidewalk by only a barrier intended to stop the penetration of gazes from the outside," (Schwartz, 57) the funeral home requires visitors to move through successive layers from outside to inside, before finally reaching the corpse. The windows are traditionally blocked by curtains so that little to no natural light enters, allowing the funeral director absolute control over the lighting of the environment, preventing unflattering natural light from reaching the skin of the deceased, and allowing the visitors to leave the outside world behind for their quiet contemplation. After proceeding from entry area to the reception space, visitors queue for their turn to view the body in the chapel or "slumber room." All along the way, light is blocked out and the wall paper, furniture, carpeting, lighting, music, decorative art, and scent are all carefully controlled by the funeral director. Once again, a comparison can be made to the circular panorama, where visitors travel beneath the walking surface and emerge from the floor to the immersive view, or the theme park, where paths and views are similarly constructed to force the visitor to lose sensorial connection with the outside world in order to sustain the illuion being presented. Although the environment directly addresses the senses of hearing, touch, and smell, the funeral home might still be said to be a primarily visual spectacle. In the framing of the viewing, the funeral home constantly creates perspectival views with the patterned carpeting, the gridded ceilings, the symmetric furniture and pedestal arrangements, the long hallways and aisles between chairs. With these formal tactics, the visitor is not so much a body within the space of the funeral home, but a seeing subject, looking towards a two-dimensional view.

In a strange way, the funeral home is much like the camera. This has been a part of the discourse surrounding American death rituals throughout the 20th century. Mabel Hamlin called an article she wrote in 1940, "A Woman's Viewpoint on Children's Funerals; How to Achieve an Effective 'Memory Picture' Which Will Assuage Parents' Grief and Build Good Will and Profit for the Funeral Director" - a wordy and revealing title. It describes the role of women in the funeral industry (usually dealing with the bodies of other women or carefully tending to dead children), but it also names the supposed psychological benefit to seeing the dead ­ creating a "memory picture." For decades, funeral directors have seen their role as helping the bereaved form a kind of image in memory with which they can move on with their lives. In the space of the funeral, under the proper conditions (that is with no external light leaking inside), the mourner will be left with "a memory picture of their tragic experience that will leave them with comforting thoughts in the years to come." (Martin, v) Along with morticians, embalming companies also perpetuated the idea that viewing the dead body was an important step to moving on from the loss, again in the language of photography an advertisement asked: "Shall the last picture be a comforting memory?"

Embalming companies and morticians weren't the only ones to make links between embalming and photography ­ Andre Bazin wrote in What is Cinema? that photography "embalms time" and film historian Antonia Lant compared

silent cinema to Egyptian tombs (of course, funeral directors drew direct connections between their practice and the practices of the ancient Egyptians), "There was... a noted parallel between mummification ... and the ghostliness of cinematic images... a link between the chemistry of mummification and that of film development." (Lant, 72) These comparisons with photography describe two different images ­ one in the casket and one in the memory; the body as medium in one case, and memory as medium in the other. Although the funeral home shares techniques, concerns, and vocabulary with film and cinema, this paper concludes with some comments in relation to painting, and suggests that the funeral home might be an architecture of the sublime. The 19th century saw American westward expansion, slowly domesticating the landscape with the railroads. At the same time as this proliferation of technological power, a fascination with nature grew leading to an assortment of art and poetry characteristic of this bipolar attitude. The so-called sublime landscape paintings John Singleton Copley, Thomas Cole, Frederick Edwin Church, and Albert Bierstadt as well as the Luminists, all sought to overwhelm the spectator with visual effects. While the funeral home would not consider overwhelming the visitor to be good public relations, it nonetheless fulfills some aspects of the sublime. For one, it is at the core concerned with nature, not the natural landscape, replete with miraculous wonders like the aurora borealis, but instead the vast unknown of death. Since the 19th century, the dominion of science has extended across the planet, deep into outer space, and into the body itself, yet it has not advanced at all into the world of the dead, except to dismiss that any such world exists. If the sublime reveals a power that is greater than the human, if it shows part of an object that extends far beyond what can be seen, if it promises to offer transcendence of the human while revealing its limits (Bukatman, 266-276), then the funeral is one of the few contemporary places for representation of this kind of awe-inspiring unknown. The Luminist attention to light, color, and silence are all employed by the funeral director for representing death to the living. In the previously mentioned Brooklyn funeral home, a painting of exaggerated clouds in the sky stretches behind the casket, a gesture with associational significance common in representations of the sublime.

Scott Bukatman, in his article on special effects and the sublime, tries to place special effects designer Douglas Trumbull in the context of landscape painting, saying that his typical sequence is "less the description of an object than the construction of an environment." (Bukatman, 270, italics in original) In this sense, it might be possible to once again connect the funeral home with cinema through the sublime. Like special effects or a "cinema of attractions" (as described by Tom Gunning, whose article on spirit photography was mentioned earlier), the funeral home is clearly a presentational rather than representational spectacle. It directly addresses the spectator, who is put directly in front of the corpse for the viewing, and encouraged to comment on it later, in generally visual terms - "He looks good" or "He did a great job." The funeral home frames a particular kind of gaze that is similar, but not the same, as many models for seeing or devices for looking in the recent history of media. It is an individual, serial experience for the visitor. After passing through successive layers of the space of the funeral home, this visitor kneels directly in front of the body, at a distance of no more than two feet. As opposed to the panoptic and panoramic models of vision, in the funeral home, one travels inward to look further inward. At the center of the spectacle, at the moment of viewing, the terminal point of the corpse becomes another horizon for contemplation of death. It is part of a semi-private event, publicly announced, yet decidedly not public. There are two reactions, exposing images onto two mediums ­ the chemical reaction preserving the body, and the combination of this body and the visitors in order to create "memory pictures." The preparation of the body is both openly acknowledged and physically absent from the ritual. In spite of the regularity from wake to wake, the body is not reproducible, in fact the entire ritual is constructed around the uniqueness of this physical body. It is not a static spectacle, but an active performance orchestrated by the funeral director. It is immersive and contrived, but without being designed for attention; instead, it is meant to be invisible, unnoticed, comfortable, and

familiar. It is a kind of special effect, without the bright lights and explosions.

BIBLIOGRAPHY Tom Gunning. "Phantom Images and Modern Manifestations: Spirit Photography, Magic Theater, Trick Films, and Photography's Uncanny." Fugitive Images: From Photography to Video. Edited by Patricia Petro. Indian University Press, 1995. Antonia Lant. "The Curse of the Pharaoh, or How Cinema Contracted Egyptomania." Visions of the East: Orientalism in Film. Edited by Matthew Bernstein and Gaylyn Studlar. Rutgers University Press. Gary Laderman. The Sacred Remains: American Attitudes Toward Death, 17991883. Yale University Press. 1996. Gary Laderman. Rest In Peace: A Cultural History of Death and the Funeral Home in Twentieth-Century America. Oxford University Press. 2003. Edward A. Martin. Psychology of Funeral Service. No publisher. 1947. Jay Ruby. Secure the Shadow: Death and Photography in America. MIT Press 1995. Vanessa R. Schwartz. "Public Visits to the Morgue: Flanerie in the Service of the State." Spectacular Realities: Early Mass Culture in Fin-de-Siecle Paris. University of California Press, 1998.

--All photographs, with the exception of those from the 19th century were taken by members of the Institute for Advanced Architecture in New York and New Jersey in 2001.



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