My research stay at the British Library was instrumental in helping advance my monograph on the intersection between the American funeral industry and performance history, says Marie Pecorari, Eccles Centre Visiting European Fellow in North American Studies. These resources helped me examine the tensions and overlap between social rituals and aesthetics furthering Jessica Mitford’s claim there is an identifiable “American way of death”.
The starting-point for my research project entitled “Off-Color: Blackness and American Funeral Practices from the Civil War to the Gilded Age” was a little-known biological fact: as a corpse decomposes, the skin gradually undergoes discoloration, ultimately leading the body to look black, regardless of its initial skin-color. Although most bodies are disposed of too early for this evolution to be observed, when burial is delayed and climactic conditions less than optimal for preservation, this development can occur. The sight rarely fails to attract attention and often proves distressing. The American Civil War was such a collective moment of realization. John DeForest,
a novelist writing in the immediate aftermath of the war, and whose lack of success is widely attributed to his graphic realism, describes the following scene: “In an hour more he was a corpse, and before night he was black with putrefaction, so rapid was that shocking change under the heat of a Louisiana May.” (DeForest, 294).
It should then come as no surprise that the Civil War proved to be a turning-point for funeral practices in the United States. The blackening of soldiers’ corpses needed to be avoided if they were to be handed over to their faraway families, leading a nascent caste of self-taught undertakers/ entrepreneurs to advertize their cosmetic skills. “Bodies Embalmed by Us NEVER TURN BLACK” (quoted in Gary Laderman 1997: 115), they claimed, plugging their makeshift embalming skills in the newspapers when not displaying actual specimens in their storefronts.
What was at stake beyond the integrity of the corpse was the racial anxiety behind the color change. In a society segregated along color lines, this manifestation of death as the great equalizer struck as… off-color and contemporaries felt the need to cover it up. The most famous example may be that of President Lincoln, who was taken on a two-week long funeral train from Washington to Illinois before his final burial: white makeup had to be applied to his increasingly blackening skin, as even the initial embalming job could not sustain the journey and succession of lyings-in-state (Swanson 2010: 281-2).
The acceptance of embalming within a relatively brief period represents a significant cultural shift, as the practice had been until then regarded as pagan and inappropriate, and considered only for medical purposes.
My objective was to look at the discourses behind this evolution: beyond the reactions to blackened corpses, how were the radical changes in funeral practices presented and justified by the press, commercial entrepreneurs, and the military? And more specifically, what role did race-based arguments play in the evolution towards a new model in white communities?
I based my methodological approach on my background in theatre and performance studies. There has been recent scholarship on the development of the modern American funeral industry, including pertaining to the racial angle (Holloway 2002; Smith 2010); and there have been publications in performance studies on the theatrical implications in the representation of corpses (Schneider 1991), but without establishing a connection with the evolution of funeral practices or foregrounding the racial angle.
Most scholarship on the subject comes from the fields of social and cultural history, religious studies, or the history of medicine; by bringing in a performance approach and working at the intersection of theatre and history I hoped to open up new perspectives. Why? Because the emerging figure of the funeral director drew on theatrical techniques (lighting, positioning for viewing, use of makeup and music, with the professional funeral home replacing the domestic setting in prior instances of public viewing (wakes)). I posited that contemporary audiences’ theatrical tastes may have played a part in shaping the presentation of the dead body, ushering in new funeral norms constituting, beyond regional, social, ethnic or religious differences, an identifiable “American way of death” (Mitford); and that what is now presented as the dominant model, even – and most conspicuously and paradoxically– in the African-American community, was originally rooted in part in racist biases and a fear of blackness.
My two-part stay at the British Library (3 weeks in August 2014 and 4 weeks in February-March 2015) enabled me to open up perspectives I had not yet envisaged and reframe and tweak my initial assumptions. In order to put my hypothesis to the test I looked at a combination of primary sources and hard-to-find, older monographs, not accessible in my home country.
My research stay was instrumental in helping advance my larger project for a monograph on the intersection between the American funeral industry and performance history, examining the tensions and overlap between social rituals and aesthetics.
My first article based on the research conducted at the British Library is due to be published in 2016 in the peer-reviewed French journal Études anglaises, as part of a special issue on ‘Performing Absence’, which I am also editing. I hope to publish an augmented version of this article as a book chapter in my future monograph.
Not only was I able to access a rich collection of materials, but I also had the opportunity to engage with scholars and librarians over a fairly long time period, exchanging in meaningful and unpredictable ways. Those discussions steered my research in fresh directions that I still have to fully probe and explore. I especially want to thank Pr. Philip Davies and Dr. Cara Rodway, who took the time to welcome me warmly on my arrival in London. I also want to thank Dr. Sue Currell, who encouraged me to apply after meeting at a symposium in Liverpool.
Having a cup of tea in the shadow of the glass tower, sharing a new insight with a colleague on the top floor terrace overlooking Saint Pancras station, attending the Summer Scholars Eccles Centre lectures – those are moments of deeply enjoyable and enriching scholarly exchange I will remember and cherish for a long time. They may not leave as palpable a trace as pages of notes, but I am confident they will shape and inform my future writings and encounters in no small way.
John DeForest, Miss Ravenel’s Conversion from Secession to Loyalty.  London: Penguin. 2000.
Karla F.C. Holloway, Passed On: African-American Mourning Stories. Durham: Duke University Press. 2002.
Gary Laderman, The Sacred Remains: American Attitudes Toward Death, 1799-1883. New Haven: Yale University Press. 1997.
____________, Rest in Peace: A Cultural History of Death and the Funeral Home in 20th Century America. New York: Oxford University Press. 2003.
Jessica Mitford, The American Way of Death. Buccaneer Books. 1963.
Rebecca Schneider, Performing Remains: Art and War in Times of Theatrical Reenactment. London and New York: Routledge. 2011.
Suzanne E. Smith, To Serve the Living: Funeral Directors and the African American Way of Death. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 2010.
James L. Swanson, Bloody Crimes: The Funeral of Abraham Lincoln and the Chase for Jefferson Davis. New York: William Morrow. 2010.
Marie Pecorari is Associate Professor of English at Paris-Sorbonne Université.