Los Angeles holds a special place in the history of death. Until relatively recently, Europeans “were as familiar with the dead as they were familiarized with the idea of their own death,” writes the French historian Philippe Ariès. They painted decomposing cadavers in manuscripts and carved them on church walls. Starting in the high Middle Ages, though, Ariès argues, Western attitudes began to change: “Death, so omnipresent in the past that it was familiar, would be effaced…would become shameful and forbidden.” By the middle of the 20th century, the British anthropologist Geoffrey Gorer was writing about “the pornography of death,” observing that “natural processes of corruption and decay have become disgusting”—just as sex had been rendered obscene by the Victorians. The dead had become an affront to the living.11
Neither Gorer nor Ariès knew quite what to make of the United States, which in many ways followed the general Western trend, banishing decay from polite conversation. At the same time, Americans ritualize death in a manner extraordinary to Europeans. Until a few years ago, even a basic working-class American funeral—from the open-casket display of the chemically preserved and cosmetically improved decedent to the long, slow procession of cars to the graveside—matched a level of pomp reserved across the Atlantic only for the most celebrated dead.
Southern California, home to the theme-park necropolis Forest Lawn, came to represent the apotheosis of America’s disturbingly “euphoric” approach to mortality, to borrow Ariès’s term. Angelenos not only failed to tastefully ignore death, they did everything they could to render it sunny, cheerful, lifelike. To Evelyn Waugh, who parodied Forest Lawn in his 1948 novel The Loved One, such vulgarity was symptomatic of the “endless infancy” of West Coast culture. To the journalist Jessica Mitford, the “American way of death” was a crude product of capitalist manipulation: We had elaborate funerals because the funeral industry was able to charge us more for them; Forest Lawn’s kitsch was just a sophisticated strategy for lubricating the checkbooks of the grieved.
No aspect of American funereal ritual has been more consistently alarming to foreign observers than embalming, which is practiced nowhere else in the world with the near universality that it achieved in North America. Mitford characterized embalming as expensive quackery, a recently revived pagan practice without roots in the Judeo-Christian tradition. The funeral industry’s insistence on its hygienic necessity, she argued, lacked any scientific or medical foundation. Waugh was better humored about the practice, if no less horrified at the notion of being, as he put it, “pickled in formaldehyde and painted like a whore, / Shrimp-pink incorruptible, not lost or gone before.”MORE