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The Boston Globe

Ideas

Why funerals demand a body

Undertaker Thomas Lynch on how American memorials went wrong

The traditional American funeral, as we tend to think about it, was a somber affair. Mourners listened to their priests, ministers, or rabbis eulogize the dead, and then physically engaged in the process of burial—carrying the casket or perhaps shoveling dirt on the grave.

As religious connections have frayed, and our desire to confront loss has waned, the funeral service has changed accordingly. Jessica Mitford’s book “The American Way of Death,” with its chronicles of greedy undertakers and overpriced caskets, played a prominent role in the changes as well. In recent years, many Americans have chosen to transform funerals into celebrations of life, with reminiscences and funny anecdotes shared by family and friends taking the place of religious ritual. With cremation now replacing burial in almost half of American deaths, even the body itself is increasingly absent.

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