Throughout the nineteen-forties, most American cemeteries were subject to the same racially restrictive covenants as housing, and were just as resistant to integration, even after courts deemed this practice a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. Black graves were more likely to be unmarked, their occupants buried in the old ways, a traditional “homegoing.” In the fifties, consumer conformity drove the conventions of burial; the rising cost of dying outpaced the rising cost of living. Black funeral directors sold the same wares. “Negro undertakers gross more than $120 million for 150,000 funerals each year,” Ebony reported in 1953, in an article titled “Death Is Big Business.” “If a person drives a Cadillac, why should he have a Pontiac funeral?” one funeral director asked Jessica Mitford, as she reported in “The American Way of Death,” in 1963. What sounded like a hoax worthy of Barnum had become by then the way a great many Americans buried their dead—on satin sheets in stainless-steel caskets, with hymns piped in their crypts through high-fidelity stereo, beneath vast, manicured lawns. “The desirable crypts are now in the new air-conditioned section,” another funeral director told Mitford when she updated the book.
There were, nevertheless, dissenters, a cadaver counterculture. In 1971, the “Last Whole Earth Catalog” offered instructions for a “Do-It-Yourself Burial” that you could arrange for fifty dollars. Cremation is generally cheaper than burial, and it makes a certain sense if you have no intention of maintaining the geraniums on the family plot. Long forbidden in the Jewish and Muslim faiths, and disparaged by Christians, it slowly became more acceptable. By 1980, the cremation rate in the United States, which had been virtually zero, had risen to nearly ten per cent. For people with no religious faith, cremation proved particularly appealing. (That number is growing, fast: one in three younger millennials has either never or rarely attended a religious service.) In the Gilded Age, the rich were the ones who wanted to be cremated; in the Second Gilded Age, cremation is the only kind of end the poor can afford. Stagnant wages and the financial crisis of 2008 appear to have accelerated the flames: people who’d lost their homes could hardly afford mahogany coffins. In 2013, Time declared cremation “the new American way of death.”
Ashes scatter. In 2016, for the first time, more than half the American dead were cremated, marking a change to the landscape of every city and town—tombstones uncarved, graveyards abandoned—and a weakening of the ties that bind the living to the dead. The dead are a people and the past is a place that half of Americans no longer visit, except to topple stones.