Last week was one of those weeks when my personal reading and my teaching prep coincided in unexpected and rewarding ways. I’ve just finished reading Jessica Mitford’s The American Way of Death, and have also finished preparing a lecture on Roman attitudes to funerals and memorialisation. The American Way of Death is a sharp-tongued exposé of funeral practitioners in America in the 1960s; I read an original edition, but Mitford published a revised version shortly before her death. You wouldn’t expect many points of intersection between the two cultures, but I was quite surprised by how many similarities there actually were.
I want to elaborate on two examples. The first concerns the treatment of the body after death. Mitford is particularly scathing about the practice of embalming (supposedly carried out for reasons of ‘public health’, although she can find no doctor who agrees with this) and open casket funerals, which embalming enables; she points out that the open casket is a peculiarly American practice, and that the funeral director’s obsession with creating ‘A Beautiful Memory Picture’ of the deceased is based on sentiment rather than hard psychology. The open casket also, she feels, is sold as an opportunity for ostentation (in loving memory of the deceased, of course) rather than a genuine act of remembrance.
The Romans would have been right on the side of the funeral directors for this one. Particularly for wealthy families, displaying the body in the hall of the house (Italian weather, one suspects, permitting) was a standard practice, sometimes for up to seven days if the dead person had been particularly distinguished. The picture to the left depicts the laying in state of a woman’s body depicted on the tomb of the Haterii; she’s lying on a couch in her hall, surrounded by mourners and musicians. The display of the body allowed visitors to come and pay their respects – and see and be seen. Once the body had been displayed for an appropriate period, it would be carried to the forum on the couch, open to the elements and visible to all who passed the procession. When the procession reached the forum, someone, normally the eldest surviving son, would give an eulogy about his dead father, emphasising his achievements and accomplishments in public life – and, incidentally, not-so-subtly indicating that the speaker too was part of this successful political lineage. The Romans also took great care to dress the deceased in appropriate clothing (so a senator would be dressed in his senatorial toga) – just as the American undertakers Mitford explores have a range of dedicated clothing catalogues at their disposal to make sure that the deceased is properly fitted out in comfortable footwear. Of course, this is for the wealthy – the Roman poor would probably have been buried as soon after their deaths as possible, and I don’t think we have enough evidence to judge whether they would have buried in their best clothes. But the public display of the corpse for social purposes feels like something the Romans would have found fairly familiar.
They would, I suspect, also have had sympathy with the extravagant tombs that Mitford criticises as costing far too much for far too little, and indeed being rather too ostentatious for their purpose. She recounts various objet d’mort sold to those wishing to do their best for their loved ones – overpriced and overdesigned coffins, cement liners for graves (something I had never heard of before) in various beautiful patterns and colours, cemeteries designed to function as art museums, mausolea with architectural and creative pretensions (mostly pre-sold, so not built at the time of their purchase, but the artists’ impressions look lovely).
Again, this partly fits in with Roman patterns of commemoration. The roads into Rome were lined with large and elaborate tombs, and other cities had their graveyard roads as well – the tomb on the right comes from Pompeii, and is the grave of a freedwoman who did well for herself in business. You can see that there’s a lot of elaborate scrollwork and plant imagery around a central frieze and the inscription, plus her bust at the top centre of the flat panel. The tomb was a family one for herself, her husband and their freedmen and freedwomen, so it echoes the sort of family mausolea that Mitford’s American cemetarians offer. The artistic merit of what both traditions offers struck me – Mitford mentions the art of Forest Lawn Memorial Park (which I note still advertises its museum) as something that seeks to make the cemetary less – well, less cemetary-like, and more a public space. The Roman habit of building tombs along roads is, in its own way, a version of that – and the public art (to use an anachronistic concept) that this practice created is potentially as striking and as hackneyed as what is now found in the modern cemetary.
Of course, one major way that the Romans would have differed sharply from Mitford’s Americans is on the subject of cremation. The cremation/inhumation question is one of those things that scholars interested in it argue about endlessly – there was a shift from cremation to inhumation, but precisely when it happened is up for debate. Sarah Bond tells me that cremation went out of fashion in the Roman mediterranean during the second century A.D., but that means it was still de rigeur for several centuries – after the eulogy had been given, the body would be carried off to the pyre. Mitford’s American subjects would have shuddered. One of the most interesting fights she documents takes place in California, and concerns the right of the bereaved to collect the ashes from a crematorium for scattering rather than location in an urn in a cemetary. The American funeral directors disapprove of cremation, for what Mitford identifies (from the trade papers) as economic reasons – if the body is to be burned, why spend money on an expensive casket?
And this, I think, brings me full-circle to a question that I’m not sure I have the answer to yet. One of Mitford’s central themes is the exploration of the economics of the funeral – how funeral directors inflate their prices, create unsupported claims for how much their services cost, the tensions between various industries in the ‘death business’ and so forth. (The discussion of P.O. notices, otherwise known as requests in obituary notices not to send flowers, and the aggressive fight against them by the florists was particularly instructive.) But if I think about it – I don’t know very much about the economics of the Roman funeral, beyond the distinction of the burial of the rich and poor. I don’t know what the system behind them was, whether undertakers thought of themselves as professionals, what sort of costs were involved (presumably quite a lot, given the tombs). I’m sure somebody’s done some work on this…