The American Way of Death Revisited

BOOK: The American Way of Death Revisited
13.89Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
The American Way of Death Revisited

“The American Way of Death Revisited
has lost none of the original work’s power to shock, appall, and—despite the grim subject matter—jolt the funny bone.”

Business Week

“Jessica Mitford was
sui generis
.… Even in death, Mitford continues to serve as the scourge of those who would profit obscenely from dying.”

Portland Oregonian

“No less startling, or entertaining, than the original.”

The New York Times Book Review

“The ‘value added’ of this edition is considerable.… Nobody will ever bring to [the battle against the funeral industry] the combination of irony, brio, grit and vitriol that stamped the Mitford style.”

Los Angeles Times

“Excellent.… Her revealing interviews allow unscrupulous funeral-industry honchos to dig, as it were, their own graves.”

Entertainment Weekly

“Even in death, Jessica Mitford continues to serve as the scourge of those who would profit obscenely from the dead.”

St. Louis Post-Dispatch

The American Way of Death Revisited

Jessica Mitford—of the notorious Mitford clan—was one of the most celebrated muckraking journalists of our time. Among her books are
Daughters and Rebels, The Trial of Dr. Spock
, and
Poison Penmanship: The Gentle Art of Muckraking
. Until her death in 1996, she lived in Oakland, California, with her husband, the labor lawyer Robert Treuhaft.


Daughters and Rebels

The American Way of Death

The Trial of Dr. Spock

Kind and Usual Punishment: The Prison Business

A Fine Old Conflict

Poison Penmanship: The Gentle Art of Muckraking

Faces of Philip: A Memoir of Philip Toynbee

Grace Had an English Heart

The American Way of Birth


1998 by The Estate of Jessica Mitford
Copyright © 1963, 1978 by Jessica Mitford

All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in the United States by Vintage Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and simultaneously in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto. Originally published in hardcover in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, in 1998, and in very different form as
The American Way of Death
by Simon & Schuster, New York, in 1963, and revised in 1978.

Vintage Books and colophon are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc.

The Library of Congress has cataloged the Knopf edition as follows:
Mitford, Jessica, 1917–1996
The American way of death revisited / by Jessica Mitford. — 1st ed.
p. cm.
1. Undertakers and undertaking—United States. 2. Funeral rites and ceremonies—Economic aspects—United States.
3. Mitford, Jessica, 1917–1996, The American Way of Death.
I. Title.
HD9999.U53U554    1998
338.4′736375′0973—dc21    97-49349

eISBN: 978-0-307-80939-1


Dedicated to Karen Leonard, Lisa Carlson
and Father Henry Wasielewski
who, each and all, have inherited the mantle of
Scourge of the Undertaking Industry


t a happy lunch with me early in 1995, Jessica Mitford—“Decca” to everyone who knew her—agreed to prepare an updated version of her classic work
The American Way of Death
. (As she reports in her introduction to this volume, we had worked on that book together in the early sixties, and had remained close friends both through a number of other publishing ventures and after our professional relationship came to an end.) A lot had changed in the funeral trade since the first edition was published, in 1963, and not many of the changes were for the better. The plan was to retain from the original everything that still applied and to add new chapters as needed, such as the report on the Tiburon conference (“Not Selling”), an investigation of the new international funeral giants (“A Global Village of the Dead”), and an account of the failures of the Federal Trade Commission in the wake of new legislation that was written largely in reaction to the first edition of the book. Certain material—for instance, most of the chapter on floral tributes (“The Menace of P.O.”)—was excised as no longer relevant, although I suspect that the floral deluge that followed Princess Diana’s death would have evoked some new commentary on this subject. And, of course, a great deal of updating—particularly of prices—was needed.

Most of this work—including the new chapters mentioned above, as well as the introduction and the final chapter, “New Hope for the Dead”—Decca finished before her unexpected (and mercifully swift) death from cancer, in 1996. What remained to be done was accomplished by three people. First, there was her brilliant research and investigative assistant, Karen Leonard, who took on increasing responsibilities and, indeed, soon found herself drawn into the funeral reform movement. The second crucial person was Lisa Carlson, probably the most influential figure in that movement, who made many generous contributions to the book, not the least of which was her extensive help with the penultimate chapter, “Pay Now—Die Poorer,” which sets out the complex realities—and booby
traps—inherent in pay-in-advance funerals. Finally, Decca’s husband, Robert Treuhaft, had made a promise to her just before she died: the distinguished labor- and civil-rights lawyer, who had worked with her on many of her books, would retire from his practice and see this book through to completion. This he heroically did.

Almost until her final week, Decca was reveling in the job, bombarding me and other pals with faxes that gleefully skewered the more fatuous and/or hypocritical high jinks of the industry. She could be ruthless—savage, even—when she was on the warpath, but she never stopped laughing, which is probably why
The American Way of Death
was not only welcomed as a necessary corrective in 1963 but was so enjoyed as a piece of writing. And why it still reads so well today.

The American Way of Death Revisited
is being published exactly thirty-five years after the original edition. Unfortunately, the corrective is as necessary today as it was then. Fortunately, it is being applied.



his 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 smalltime crooks such as may be found in any sphere of business. Scandals, although they frequently erupt (misuse by undertakers of the coroner’s office to secure business, bribery of hospital personnel to “steer” cases, the illegal reuse of coffins, fraudulent double charges in welfare cases), are not typical of the trade as a whole, and therefore are not part of the subject matter of this book.

Another point often made by critics of the modern American funeral is that if there are excesses in funerary matters, the public is to blame. I am unwilling on the basis of present evidence to find the public guilty; this defendant has only recently begun to present his case.

I have not included the atypical funerals: quaint death customs still practiced by certain Indian tribes, the rites accorded Gypsy kings and queens, the New Orleans jazz funerals, the great movie and gangland funerals which had their heyday in the thirties and still occur from time to time. I have regretfully avoided these byways, intriguing though they are, for the main highway—the “average,” “typical” American funerary practices, surely fully as curious as any of the customs derived from ancient folklore or modern variants.


o trace the origins of this book: my husband, Bob Treuhaft, got fired up on the subject of the funeral industry in the mid-to-late 1950s. A labor lawyer, he represented a number of trade unions. To his annoyance, he began to notice that when the breadwinner of a union family died, the hard-fought-for death benefit, achieved often through bitter struggle and intended for the benefit of the surviving spouse and children, would end up in the pockets of an undertaker. “These people seem to know exactly how much a warehouse worker gets, and how much an office secretary,” he would complain, “and they set the price of the funeral accordingly.”

Bob’s idea of a solution was to organize a nonprofit group which through contract with a local undertaker would obtain simple, cheap funerals for its members at a fraction of the going rate. Thus was born the Bay Area Funeral Society (BAFS), its membership running heavily to Unitarians, co-op members, university professors and other eggheads. I am sorry to say I rather mocked these good folks, calling them the Necrophilists and teasing them about their Layaway Plan. Why pick on the wretched undertakers? I asked Bob. Are we not robbed ten times more by the pharmaceutical industry, the car manufacturers, the landlord?

After reading some of the trade magazines he brought home, I saw the point. Their very names were captivating:
Casket & Sunnyside, Mortuary Management
, and my favorite,
Concept: The Journal of Creative Ideas for Cemeteries
. Once hooked, I found them to be compulsive reading, revealing a fantasy world I never knew existed: “Futurama, the casket styled for the future …” “The True Companion Crypt, where husband and wife may be truly together forever.…” Spotting an ad for “The Practical Burial Footwear Company of Columbus, Ohio,” I sent for samples and was rewarded with a package containing the “Fit-a-Fut Oxford.” As a leaflet explains, these oxfords were specially designed, after two years of research, to fit the deceased foot after rigor mortis sets in. They are “fit-a-fut” because they lace up at the back as well as in the
front, and the soles slope downwards. (Unfortunately, our son Benji, then in high school, wore them around the house, and they soon fell apart.)

BOOK: The American Way of Death Revisited
13.89Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

The Evil Beneath by A.J. Waines
Domestic Affairs by Bridget Siegel
A Charm for a Unicorn by Jennifer Macaire
Last Gladiatrix, The by Scott, Eva
The Dealer and the Dead by Gerald Seymour
Record of the Blood Battle by Hideyuki Kikuchi
Absolutely Normal Chaos by Sharon Creech
The Games Villains Play by Joshua Debenedetto