Jessica Mitford - The American Way of Death Revisited

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The Death Trade: These Men Want to Have Their Way With Your Body

May 16, 2001 (Updated May 30, 2001)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Well researched; well written with acerbic wit

Cons:Only if you lack a sense of humor; or work in the funeral industry.

The Bottom Line: Unless you plan to live forever - read this book!


Dying is a very dull, dreary affair. And my advice to you is to have nothing whatever to do with it.
Somerset Maugham

Life is pleasant. Death is peaceful. It's the transition that's troublesome.
Isaac Asimov

When journalist Jessica Mitford’s The American Way of Death was first published in 1963, it quickly made it to Number 1 on the New York Times best-seller list, spurring a nation-wide debate. Funerals, said Ms. Mitford, were too expensive. Only in America had the “funeral industry” become a highly profitable undertaking (so to speak) run by syndicates – the “Bier Barons”. It was a national disgrace.

The American Way of Death created a movement for reform of the funeral industry. It succeeded to a degree; but by the 1990’s the book had been forgotten and the Bier Barons were back to business as usual. Ms. Mitford and her husband decided it was to time to update the book and publish it again. The American Way of Death Revisited was published in 1998, two years after the author’s death.

In her forward, the author notes:
This would normally be the place to say (as critics of the American funeral trade invariably do), “I am not, of course, speaking of the vast majority of ethical undertakers.” But the vast majority of ethical undertakers is precisely the subject of this book. To be “ethical” merely means to adhere to a prevailing code of morality, in this case one devised over the years by the undertakers themselves for their own purposes. The outlook of the average undertaker, who does adhere to the code of his calling, is to me more significant than that of his shadier colleagues, who are merely small-time crooks such as may be found in any sphere of business.

And look she does- with the sharp eye and research skills of a seasoned journalist, combined with a native wit that appreciates the absurd. There was a lot of “absurd” to be found in the publications and speeches of the trade itself, and Ms. Mitford uses it to good effect. This book will make you angry, and it will also leave you laughing.

In the pages of this book you will meet the Fit-a-Fut oxford, (worn by all of the best corpses) produced by The Practical Burial Footwear Company of Columbus, Ohio. Exactly why a dead body would need “practical footwear” is left to the readers’ imagination. (It is, presumably, the same reason that the best in modern caskets come equipped with adjustable headrests and innerspring mattresses.) And there are the trade journals with such names as Casket & Sunnyside and Concept: The Journal of Creative Ideas for Cemeteries.

Who could resist the kits produced by the Dinair Airbrush Systems: makeup kits for corpses. ”The airbrush can create little frown lines, wrinkles, crows-feet, to give a more natural look." And after Granny spent all of that money on cosmetic surgery! She will be rolling… (oh, never mind!) For the truly fastidious, there is the Batesville Burping Casket, which discreetly expels the gasses produced by anaerobic bacteria. (Before the advent of the Batesville, hermetically sealed caskets had the unfortunate tendency to explode. Not a great problem for the ones safely buried, but an embarrassment to managers of crypts and vaults.)

So here we have the “traditional American funeral.” The newly deceased is whisked away by the Funeral Director (never referred to as a “mortician” or * gasp * “undertaker”) to be embalmed, enhanced with cosmetics and the latest in funeral finery; placed in the best $6000 casket (which cost the funeral home $595), and put in a “slumber room” for “viewing”. After a discreet interval, the body will be moved to the funeral site, where it will again be displayed as the centerpiece of a lavish floral array. Attendees, one and all, will be encouraged to file by the open casket, so they can retain the wonderful “memory picture” of the Dearly Departed, looking wonderfully “lifelike” due to the extraordinary skill of the embalmer. Off we all go to the cemetery or crypt, with one last viewing of the Departed under a tent with the name of the funeral home in prominent letters. A good time is had by all- except the guest of honor.

This kind of funeral is uniquely American, and is viewed with a mix of horror, amusement, and grim distaste by everyone else in the world. American funerals are gaudy, expensive, and about as tasteful as a Hollywood beer bash (which they often resemble.) Is this really the way we want to go out – in the latest funeral finery and Fit-a-Fut shoes?

The MYTH and the REALITY

Myth: But it’s traditional!
Reality: No it isn’t. Up until the 20th Century, the traditional American funeral was a family affair. The body was cleaned and dressed by the family and placed in a coffin either handmade or bought from a carpenter/coffin maker. Services were conducted by a minister or other religious leader, and the grave prepared by the family, a church sexton, or hired gravediggers. Flowers, if they were used at all, were handpicked.

Myth: Embalming is required by law. It not only preserves the body, but is necessary for the public health.
Reality: Embalming is not required in any of the 50 US states, except in rare cases where the body must be shipped long distances (overseas) or be held for extremely long periods before burial. Embalming does not preserve the body for more than a few days, and does nothing to increase public health. Unembalmed bodies, except in very rare cases, are no threat to public health. The only use for embalming is to make the body appear “lifelike” for viewing, and to increase the profit margin of the funeral home.

Myth: A casket is required, even if the body is to be cremated. Bodies can only be transported in hearses. Ashes must go in an urn, and you need a special permit to scatter ashes. Bodies may not be buries anywhere but in an approved cemetery plot.
Reality: Caskets are not required for cremation, and most places prefer that the body be shrouded but not in a casket, since metal in the casket interferes with the process. There is no requirement for a “hearse”, which is merely a wagon big enough to accommodate a casket. There is no requirement for an urn - cremated remains may go in any container. California is the only state that requires a permit to scatter cremated remains on private property. All states permit burial of bodies, with a proper death certificate, on private land. Funeral directors hate the thought of direct cremation and scattering of ashes (referred to in the industry as a “bake and shake”) because it eliminates their biggest profit items – embalming, viewing, casket sales with 900% markups, vaults and funeral overhead expenses.

Myth: My religion requires it.
Reality: No major religion or religious organization in the United States endorses the “modern American funeral”. In fact, every major religion; Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Moslem, and Buddhist, stresses the need for simplicity, not extravagance. Religious leaders have been trying for years to curb the excesses of the funeral industry. If you are in doubt about the exact requirements of your religion, ask your pastor, priest, rabbi, etc. Don’t rely on the word of the funeral director, whose only interest is in separating you from the largest amount of money he can manage.

Myth: There’s no real alternative, is there?
Reality: A nonprofit organization called the Funeral and Memorial Society of America (FAMSA) has become a clearinghouse for information about funeral options and costs. They have offices in every state (including one right here in Northwest Arkansas), and a website at www.funerals.org. The website has a lot of the information Ms. Mitford included in her book. I highly recommend the book and the website. (If nothing else, please read the story at: www.funerals.org/judge.htm )

One final thing: When those nice “Pre-Need” salesmen call to sell you a preplanned funeral, there’s a way guaranteed to send their blood pressure soaring: Just smile sweetly and say “Oh, no need! I’m leaving my body to science!”

A special tip of the coffin lid to Ed Grover (ed_grover) for sending me on a quest to find a copy of this book, and review it.


Recommend this product? Yes

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