- Death and Dying in the Working Class, 1865–1920 by Michael K. Rosenow
“The ‘history of death,’ historian Craig Koslofsky astutely observes, ‘is never the history of death alone’” (3). Michael K. Rosenow’s Death and Dying in the Working Class, 1865–1920 successfully combines labor history with the history of American “deathways”—the rituals and beliefs surrounding death, dying, and mourning—to examine death in a broader context. This combination leads to new insights into how industrialization, ethnicity, labor, gender, and race influenced the way working-class Midwesterners experienced death and, by extension, life. Death provided the working class an opportunity to reassert their humanity when outside groups tried to strip it away. Death also created instances of worker solidarity and ethnic pride. All of this contributed to funerary rituals and burial traditions but also to working-class identity.
Rosenow’s Death and Dying in the Working Class not only adds to the work of previous scholars but pushes the field in new directions. He builds on Drew Gilpin Faust’s formidable This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, using her argument to examine how coal and mine workers were unable to die the “good death,” a peaceful death at home surrounded by loved ones. Other scholarship has focused on middle-class attitudes about death. By studying the working class, Rosenow recovers the experiences of those left out of other studies of death and dying. In doing so, he fills a significant gap in the historiography. His approach to religion is also notable: for him, religion is part of the rituals and belief systems associated with death and dying—not the whole of it, as some other works imply.
The book is divided into four discrete essays each exploring different aspects of death and dying. “Such focal points are meant to be suggestive rather than exhaustive” (5). This is very much the case, and while Rosenow successfully defends his choices, this approach made it feel as if something was missing. In all of the essays, Rosenow deftly weaves race and gender into the narrative but only introduces the readers to these topics rather than fully exploring the issues he raises. The result is so tantalizing that the work almost demands a full treatment of both of these themes. With the exception of the first essay, all of the studies are located in the Midwest, leaving the reader to wonder if the rituals and beliefs that Rosenow is examining are local phenomena.
The first essay, “The Marks of Capital: The Accident Crisis and Cultures of Industrialization, 1865–1919,” is an excellent overview of the history of industrialization, the growth of the laboring class, and the history of the body. The essay is so well constructed and well written that it would make a superb reading assignment for an introductory class on deathways or labor history or even for a US Survey course. The chapter serves as a contextualizing narrative for the other essays, but this essay stands out because it addresses so many issues at once. This approach is largely successful, as there is a lot of [End Page 109] ground to cover between the end of the Civil War and the end of World War I, but the relationship between this essay and the other chapters could have been stronger.
“The Power of the Dead’s Place: Chicago’s Cemeteries, Social Conflict, and Cultural Construction, 1873–1913” examines the theme of dignity in death that permeates the rest of the book. The essay explores cemeteries as contested spaces and cemeteries’ role in the fight against the dehumanizing effects of industrialization. These spaces reinforced and contributed to racial, ethnic, and class divisions but were also a source of pride for those looking to bury their loved ones with dignity and respect. Perhaps the most compelling part of the essay is Rosenow’s treatment of Waldheim Cemetery, where those who had been executed or committed suicide in connection to the Haymarket bombing were interred. Their funeral and...