2.3 Death in North America, Late-19th to Early-20th Century

VIDEO: A Very Short History of Death

In this video Chris Woolf of PRI’s The World, explains how prior to the 20th century, the visibility of death tied to a variety of social factors (e.g., food insecurity, poor hygiene, lack of knowledge of infectious diseases, high childhood mortality) contributed to a much lower life expectancy.


There were important societal level changes beginning in the late 1800s through the early 1900s that moved death away from the daily lives of non-Indigenous North Americans, influencing how we view death and deal with the dead (Lundgren & Houseman, 2010). The four key changes were: an increase in life expectancy (Lundgren & Houseman; 2010; Roser et al., 2015); enhancements in medical knowledge, skills and technology (e.g., better understandings of viruses such as polio, vaccine developments and improvements, and the development of antibiotics), including the development of the hospital (DenHoed, 2016; Lundgren & Houseman, 2010); the emergence and professionalization of the funeral industry (Lundgren & Houseman, 2010); and the move from urban church yard cemeteries to rural park-like settings (Lundgren & Houseman, 2010; Ted-Ed, 2018).

In the early 1800s, life expectancy in North America was around 35 years of age (Roser et al., 2019). As public health improvements (e.g., understandings of and practices in sanitation; better nutrition, protection of drinking water; access to medicines such as vaccines, etc.) evolved, and medicine and medical advancements became focused on preventing death (Barkin & Gentles, 1990; Lundgren & Houseman, 2010), life expectancy increased to 50 years by 1900 and has steadily increased since then (except during the Spanish Flu pandemic – see Chapter on Plagues & Pandemics) (Barkin & Gentles, 1990; Roser et al., 2019; Whitmore et al., 2016).

By the end of the 19th century, cemeteries began to be moved outside of urban areas to allow for more space for the dead (Ted-Ed, 2018). The funeral industry also began the process of professionalization – moving from the undertaker who built caskets, dug graves, and transported bodies to graves, to the mortician who offered full funeral package services outside of the home, including the increasingly popular practice of preserving bodies through embalmment (Walsh, 2017). With the assistance of medicine and the funeral industry, death was literally cleansed from people’s lives. Most of the dying and death related practices that had taken place after the death of a loved one moved behind closed doors (Frontline PBS, 2015). Even today, if we are at the bedside of a loved one at moment of death, shortly thereafter they are taken away. The next time we might see their body, if at all, is the funeral service and only if there is an open casket. These key societal changes, including increased life expectancy, death prevention medicine, distancing from cemeteries and funeral practices, has led to physical and social distancing from death. Such distancing help account for a rising fear of death and the death avoidance practices common today (See Chapter on Talking About Death).

Click the following link to read about
the popularizing of embalming bodies at end of life:

When You Die, You’ll Probably Be Embalmed. Thank Abraham Lincoln For That

VIDEO: North American Funerals (History of Funerals in the U.S.)

This video explains the history of funeral practices in the U.S., starting with home-based funerals and moving toward those taken care of by the emerging funeral professionals.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License

On Death and Dying (Original) Copyright © 2022 by Jacqueline Lewis is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book