Kimberly's Reviews > The American Way of Death Revisited

The American Way of Death Revisited by Jessica Mitford
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F_50x66
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Oct 06, 11

bookshelves: non-fiction
Recommended for: everyone
Read in May, 2010 — I own a copy

I would not have rated this book so highly on the caliber of the writing alone, although Mitford is an excellent writer, but I found the subject matter sufficiently compelling to bump my rating up to five stars. I don't believe there is another book quite like this. A witty book about funeral/burial customs seems like an oxymoron, but that is precisely what this book offers. Mitford's initial volume, published in 1963, garnered widespread attention and lead to some minor reform in abuses that appear to be endemic in the death-related industries. This updated version of the book was published in 1998. Occasionally I became confused about whether the numbers I was reading were 1963 figures or 1998 figures. Moreover, some of the chapters could have been shortened considerably without weakening the book's message, in my estimation.

It strikes me as being so strange that funerals/burials are something that everyone will have a hand in planning at some point (and in which everyone will be the featured participant), and yet we spend so little time in advance thinking about what we want. After a home and car, a funeral/burial is the largest investment most people make in their lifetime. What has come to be the norm in terms of current U.S. customs may be precisely what most people really prefer: invasive embalming, costly casket, public viewing, burial vault, profusion of floral arrangements, etc. But it is far-removed from my own preferences. That's why I think everyone should at least skim this book. (I'd love to have my book club select this book to read, as I think we'd have a lively discussion, but I'm not holding my breath!) I marked dozens of passages and can't resist including a few of them here.

Some of Mitford's most powerful indictments of funeral customs result from her quoting the literature of the funeral industry itself. To wit:

"A funeral is not an occasion for a display of cheapness. It is, in fact, an opportunity for the display of a status symbol which, by bolstering family pride, does much to assuage grief. A funeral is also an occasion when feelings of guilt and remorse are satisfied to a large extent by the purchase of a fine funeral. It seems highly probable that the most satisfactory funeral service for the average family is one in which the cost has necessitated some degree of sacrifice. This permits that survivors to atone for any real or fancied neglect of the deceased prior to his death...." (National Funeral Service Journal)

Another quote from the National Funeral Service Journal: "The minister is perhaps our most serious problem, but the one most easily solved. Most religious leaders avoid interference. There are some, however...who feel that they must protect their parishioners' financial resources and direct them to a more 'worthy' cause."

Mitford: "...the funeral transaction is generally influenced by a combination of circumstances which bear upon the buyer as in no other type of business dealing: the disorientation caused by bereavement, the lack of standards by which to judge the value of the commodity offered by the seller, the need to make an on-the-spot decision, general ignorance of the law as it affects disposal of the dead, the ready availability of insurance money to finance the transaction."

Other practices are discussed such as non-declinable mortuary fees charged, dishonest characterizations about what is required by law, price fixing, the failure of the FTC to enforce the weak laws in place to protect consumers of death-related goods and services...

I was interested in reading about memorial societies that have sprung up across the nation. Mitford's description of them is taken from a pamphlet on such associations: "'Memorial associations and their members seek modesty, simplicity, and dignity in the final arrangements over which they have control. This concern for spiritual over material values has revealed that a "decent burial" or other arrangement need not be elaborate....'" I'm actually interested in starting such a memorial society locally. If any locals among my goodreads friends are interested in learning more about alternatives, let me know!







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