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An Expensive Way To Go – The American Way of Death Revisited by Jessica Mitford

The American Way of Death RevisitedThe American Way of Death Revisited by Jessica Mitford

A blistering expose of the bloated funeral industry, Jessica Mitford’s The American Way of Death Revisited is a bunch of things: infuriating, illuminating, interesting and very funny.

Back in the 60s, Mitford wrote a book about the rise of the funeral industry and it’s many shady practices. They ranged from salespeople exploiting grieving families by price gouging to unnecessary practices like embalming or specialized clothing for the deceased. Her book caused an outpouring of letters and support – “it touched a sensitive nerve,” she writes here – but caused spasms of outrage from the community of funeral salespeople.

In the years before her death, Mitford worked on a revision of that book, which was published in 1998 as The American Way of Death Revisited. It’s essentially a rewriting of her early book, with updated material and her hindsight on the early material. It’s an interesting book, one I’d recommend wholeheartedly to anyone.

Mitford takes on an industry piece by piece, exposing the more ruthless falsehoods and busts them one by one. For example, she has numerous funeral directors explain why embalming is important: it stops decomposition; it stops the spread of pathogens; it’s a way to make sure the person is actually dead. Then Mitford busts these one by one: it only stops decomposition for a few days (and if the coffin is sealed, actually speeds it up!) and dead bodies don’t really spread pathogens; you’re way more likely to catch an infectious disease from someone who’s still moving around and breathing than someone who isn’t doing either. And undertakers like it more if the person is still not quite technically cold and dead, since it makes embalming a whole lot easier.

Mitford busts many aspects of this industry. There’s the huge markup on coffins and caskets, which often are just discarded when the diseased is cremated. There’s the bait-and-switch schemes they use to lure customers in and high-pressure tactics they use to coerce high-cost, high-profit funerals. There’s the relentless pressure they’ve posed on congress and governmental groups to help get their way: the FTC, which once regulated this industry, has turned into a rubber stamp for their practices, alleges Mitford. In some places, it’s even become a crime to dispose of ashes yourself – although one that’s unlikely to be enforced.

The best part of Mitford’s book is how she sprinkles it with a dry English wit. For example, here’s her taking on the so-called public demand for elaborate, expensive funerals:

“‘It is a little hard to conceive of how this public demand is expressed and made known in practice to the seller of the funeral service. Does the surviving spouse say… “I want my wife to be throughly disinfected and preserved. Her casket must be both comfortable and eternally durable. And do be sure her footwear is really practical.”

At others, she lets the hyperbolic funeral industry hang itself with it’s own words, like when she quotes from ad copy in a trade magazine:

“All three visions have come to be realities- the steamboat, electricity and the Hilco Peerless Cast Bronze Receptacle.”

My experience with funerals is admittedly short, but a casual asking-around of family and friends has shown their experiences to be similar to that of those Mitford relates in the book: expensive rituals, high-pressure sales and disturbing encounters with the deceased, who’ve been painted up to lool ‘alive’ once again.

Rating: 9/10. During her lifetime, Mitford worked up a reputation as a muckraking journalist and published several books – Poison Penmanship: The Gentle Art of Muckraking is another that seems great! – and this one is no slouch. Recommended, unreservedly, even if only for the final chapter where she lays out practical advice on how to avoid getting gouged yourself and where to turn for an inexpensive funeral.