Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War

A while ago I heard a factoid, an assertion, that modern embalming practices largely became popular in the U.S. due to the Civil War. I thought this was interesting, and found the book that was the source of the assertion. Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War.

It was fascinating.

Also, depressing, in that the book humanizes the scale of death and grief in that war. Not merely humanizes it, but makes it intimate and personal and familiar. It’s a rather difficult book to read.

But, fascinating.

I was thinking about the cultural construction of death earlier this year when reading descriptions of how traditional funereal rites in the African nations struck by Ebola were contributing to the spread of the disease. The ways of tending the body, of cleaning and dressing it, were described as … alien, and backward, and somehow wrong.

What I hadn’t realized is that this is the SAME manner of handling the dead used in the United States until about 1900. Mortuary businesses in the U.S. were thought of as ambulance-chasing grief vultures. A Good Death (and the first two chapters of Republic of Suffering discuss exactly what a Good Death meant in the 1800s) resulted in one’s family tending to one’s body, at home.

I could go on, reciting facts from the book. If you have any interest in the cultural construction of death, dying, and grief; if you find hidden logistics interesting; if you want to know the role of women in keeping Confederate values alive after the defeat; if you find Victorian values interesting; if you love the human stories of military history — this is a book for you.

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