Guest blogger Kristine McCusker about her research

11 Oct

Dr. Kristine McCusker is a faculty member in the history department. She has a  Ph.D. in American History, Folklore, and Ethnomusicology from Indiana University and is the author of Lonesome Cowgirls and Honky-Tonk Angels: The Women of Barn Dance Radio (Illinois, 2008). In this blog entry she talks about her new research:

          I once said to a group of people that I study dead people. One person, John Lodl, head of the Rutherford County Archives, responded, “Kris, we all study dead people.” Yes, but my folks are already dead when I find them so I really do study literally dead people. My new manuscript, entitled Just Enough to Put Him Away Decent, is a National Institutes of Health-funded study of Southern death rituals between 1918-1945. It examines the evolution of “death care”: the burial of the dead, the grieving of the loss and the comfort given the grief-stricken. But I’m examining death care in era when Progressives were focusing on “life extension,” a campaign literally to extend life. Intriguingly, some of that impetus came from Southern Baptist Churches and some of my more interesting searches have been at the Southern Baptist Library and Archives in Nashville. The Southern Baptists founded hospitals and tuberculosis retreats to stave off early death, but in doing so, messed substantially with biblical prescriptions regarding life span. You were supposed to live three score and ten and then, go to your heavenly Father. What happened theologically, then, when Southerners began to live to eighty, ninety and even one hundred years?

           Some have found this research (and me) somewhat morbid. In fact, a dear friend said to me, “I realize you find this all interesting, but just so you know, you’re in a really weird place right now.” Yes, I am morbid, but when I started the work, my dad had just died and it helped me personally to see people grieving and then, being able to move on with their lives. These days, some three years into the project, death does bother me sometimes, although I find I am still quite comfortable being in that weird place. Seeing the large number of babies being buried has been difficult as has been the utterly painful, tragic deaths – the young woman who died because she ate a safety pin (probably an unidentified suicide) or the three children who died and were buried together during the Spanish Flu epidemic.

          But I have been charmed by the kindness extended to the grief-stricken. Frank Essex, professor emeritus in Political Science, told me about his funeral director father who had the Stuttgart (Arkansas) Air Force Base contract. His father buried16 men who died in airplane training accidents. Southerners believed that one had to bury the whole body, yet airplane crashes were catastrophic events for a body. How did Mr. Essex fix this? He used clothing to recreate the body. He tucked the socks into pants where there were no feet or legs, tied a tie around the neck that no longer existed, and all to complete the expected ritual because he knew it brought comfort to the family.

          So, I study dead people and it is morbid, but it is profoundly important work that reveals how well some acted even at the most difficult times in life.

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