Grief and Solemnity


on the American way of death.

At the scene of his mother’s funeral, Elvis Presley — invincible sex symbol, cocksure performer, the man who changed the world and music forever — was reduced to a pathetic, blubbering mama’s boy. “Mama, I’d give up every dime I own and go back to digging ditches, just to have you back,” he told her body while it lay in repose the night before the funeral. At the service, according to biographer Peter Guralnick,

Elvis himself maintained his composure a little better until, towards the end, he burst into uncontrollable tears and, with the service completed, leaned over the casket, crying out, “Good-bye darling, good-bye. I love you so much. You know how much I lived my whole life just for you.” Four friends half-dragged him into the limousine. “Oh God,” he declared, “everything I have is gone.”

Compare this to another scene, a century earlier: Ralph Waldo Emerson, also a celebrity in his own day, describing the transference of the remains of his mother and son Waldo to Concord’s Sleepy Hollow cemetery:

The sun shone brightly on the coffins, of which Waldo’s was well-preserved — now fifteen years. I ventured to look into the coffin. I gave a few white-oak leaves to each coffin, after they were put into the new vault, and the vault was then covered with two slabs of granite.

It’s hard to say how much emotion lies behind that statement, “I ventured to look into the coffin,” but it’s clear how vastly different this response to a death of a loved one is. Emerson’s mode of grief is more restrained and reflective, and yet the gesture of opening the coffins of loved ones to gaze at their remains seems macabre, a transgression of the sanctity of the dead, alien to our own time.

Read More>>

Michael Kammen
Digging Up the Dead: A History of Notable American Reburials
University of Chicago Press, 2010. 272 pp.
David Shields and Bradford Morrow, eds.
The Inevitable: Contemporary Writers Confront Death

Norton, 2011. 336 pp.

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