“Death, American Style” by Lawrence R. Samuel


No tickets required.

No standing in lines, either, when you take your final trip. You won’t tote luggage, fret about transportation, lose a reservation, miss a connection, or endure a pat-down. It might be, in fact, the Trip of a Lifetime.

Or Deathtime, as in the case of that last monumental voyage.

Does that frighten you, or are you intrigued? Curious or repelled? Your attitude may come from the outlook surrounding you, as you’ll see in “Death, American Style” by Lawrence R. Samuel.

In the years immediately following World War I, Americans were reeling. Not only was there a “sheer volume of people” dead from battle, but the 1918 influenza epidemic also claimed many victims. Americans thought hard about death and reached for spiritualists, who purported to communicate with the newly deceased.

By the 1930s, researchers had an inkling that maybe death wasn’t “necessary.” Alas, according to one nurse of the era, people continued to expire and they all “died the same, more or less…”

In the years prior to World War II, although there were marked increases in death by automobile and by home accidents, dying was “a relatively normal, even innocent affair.” During the war, however, parents suddenly realized that they’d “better be prepared to explain death to their children.” Death on “such a massive scale… was itself frightening and potentially scarring to children.”

Post-war modern medicine benefitted by the increasing acceptance of autopsies, the advancement of medical procedures and medicines, and the growing notion that death could be reversed. The timing was fortuitous, at least for research studies: more people died in hospitals than at home in the 1950s.

For some, though, being surrounded by machines didn’t sound like a good way to go, so the notion of natural death began to take hold in the mid-1960s.

And yet, we just can’t get over our squeamishness: death has been, alternately through the past four decades, a taboo subject, a class subject, reason for “deeply philosophical examination,” and “a principal theme in American pop culture.” Today, we’re able to cautiously discuss death, though many “continue to resist their mortality.”

In his introduction, author Lawrence R. Samuel indicates that his intention with this book was not to look at the death industry, but rather at the attitude Americans have towards death itself.

He accomplishes that in “Death, American Style”… just not all that well.

Perhaps it’s the length of this book: the “cultural history of dying” is a vast subject; much bigger than the small page count allows here, which leads to an irritating lack of depth. It doesn’t help that Samuel’s first chapter sometimes reads like an overgeneralized synopsis of a dime-store novel, or that some subjects seemed to be brushed aside or are totally missing in the narrative.

To the good, there are nuggets of fascination in this book but they’re pretty scattered and might not be enough to satisfy a truly curious mind. If, in fact, you had plans to go find “Death, American Style,” I’m not so sure it’s worth the trip.