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The American Way of Death

3.96  ·  Rating details ·  429 Ratings  ·  48 Reviews
Before the turn of the century, the American funeral was simple "to the point of starkness," says Jessica Mitford, the acclaimed muckraking journalist who published this investigation of the country's funeral business in 1963. That the country went on to develop a tendency for gross overspending on funerals Mitford puts down to the greed and ingenuity of undertakers, whom ...more
Mass Market Paperback, 288 pages
Published December 12th 1983 by Fawcett (first published 1961)
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Petra X
Those, in the animal kingdom, who feast on death are called scavengers and the word 'noble' is not one associated with them! So it is with funeral directors, a bunch of ignoble turkey-necked vultures seeking to clean the bones of a lifetime of hard work and savings in one fell swoop. The American model is more successful than that of many countries, including the UK, because of the carefuly-nurtured acceptance, nay, great desire for, open-coffin funerals.

In countries where a closed-coffin is the
...more
Christina
Mar 19, 2012 rated it really liked it
I can see why this book was a funeral industry shocker in its day, the 1960's. Despite being out of date in a way it's not. The information and description of the services available through the American funeral home of times was fun to read about.

Whether it's because I work in the funeral industry myself (in Finland), or because my inner goth was wide awake and keen for the whole book, I found this expose on the underbelly of the funeral trade full of tips and warnings. I hadn't realized just h
...more
Katie
Oct 11, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: anyone who's ever buried anyone
Of course, it's a business like any other, but the predatory practices of the funeral and cemetary business are sickening. I was seriously considering a career move to embalming and the restorative arts, and I picked up Mitford's book as some preparatory reading. After finishing the book I decided that ethically, I really don't think I could be involved in such a process, even if it is "necessary" for those left behind. Swindling, deceit, shortchanging, lawbreaking, you name it. What will be sa ...more
Mary JL
Aug 16, 2010 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Anyone if interested in the subject;
Shelves: non-fiction
Jessica Mitford reports in excellent and interesting detail on the American funeral industry.

You would think this topic would be boring, but she has a good writing style and keeps a good pace.

She does point out the pressure that many unscrupulous funeral directors put on greiving families. At a time where the family is ill-prepared to make any weighty decisions, they are often pressured to buy more of a funeral than is really needed.

Not exactly a fun read, but i learned a lot. if you are making
...more
Christine
Aug 06, 2009 rated it really liked it
While this is a snapshot of funeral practices and law in California in the early 60s, I shudder to think how much of it still remains true throughout the USA at present. The primary lesson here is to know what you want before you pass. In the 60s it was financially better to go ahead and buy a funeral but not a grave site before you died to keep them from gouging you on the expense of the funeral--I'd assume nothing has changed today. A will is not enough to assure that you will be buried in the ...more
Liz
Oct 06, 2014 rated it really liked it
A good laugh, actually. Also v sad

Chris Gager
Jun 13, 2018 rated it liked it
I just remembered this one, very popular in its time(the sixties). Not sure how much of it i actually read but some for sure. Date read is a guess ...
Melissa
Jan 26, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: death
What an interesting book. Mitford takes the time to explain the funeral industry and some of the general problems with it. While it probably is highly controversial (especially if you're in the business) it does make some very good points. While there probably are honest people in the trade there are probably dishonest too (like any other profession) and sadly this can effect a lot of people. My own experiences with funerals have been largely reflective of the bad so I am a tad biased as well.

In
...more
Greymalkin
Jul 19, 2013 rated it liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
I am very glad I read this and it makes me even more convinced that Mary Roach is the reincarnation or literary descendent of Ms. Mitford. Ms. Mitford's sly humor and pragmatic but not unfeeling approach to the subject is delightful and certainly makes the dense material go down easier.

However it is a massive amount of information and because of the publication date, it was hard to really be moved by the financial and legal issues brought up because so much time has passed and so much has change
...more
Bethany
It is true I most likely wouldn't have read this if it hadn't been written by Jessica Mitford. But I am glad it was written by her because I got the chance to find out how interesting a book about the funeral industry could be! (Also, though I was planning on reading it someday, I may have never gotten around to it had I not found a copy for 50 cents in the used books at the library! Rah!)
My mother did get a little (unnecessarily) disconcerted about this book. She seemed to find my reading it "m
...more
Sara
Mar 01, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction, macabre
Funny the books that pop up in your recommendations or in the descriptions of other books in your recommendations. Yes, I read this book in high school and it was very interesting. I had never read anything quite like it. People may have looked a little askance at me for reading this (I got a couple of comments) but it was very good information.
Bob Newman
Dec 20, 2017 rated it liked it
Big bucks at the check out

OK, Jessica Mitford had a few axes to grind. She wanted to reform American society and expose as many of its injustices and ills as she could. But when she turned to the multimillion dollar funeral industry, she hit a gold mine. You didn't have to exaggerate much to blow the public's mind and that's what she did back in 1963 when she published this book. She did such a thorough job that even Congress involved itself and wound up passing some regulatory legislation. It s
...more
Lee Anne
May 16, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Jessica Mitford's classic expose of the funeral industry is most interesting now when you realize how little has changed--the "funeral industrial complex" is still overcharging, performing unnecessary procedures, and capitalizing on the vulnerable state of their customers. Mitford's tone is breezy and knowledgeable, with just a light bit of snark that makes this a quick read.

I know the book was updated in the nineties, shortly before Mitford's death, and I would be curious to see if she went in
...more
Ryan
Jul 03, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I love this one. Mitford pulls no punches in this book. This is a takedown of the entire funeral industry. I knew that going in. What I didn't expect was the stinging wit she uses to take down these moneygrubbers. It's funny. Although since this was published in 1961, I wonder how much has changed in the funeral industry. We're still enbalming, there's still casket showrooms, and people are still buying burial vaults, so I suspect not much.

When the time comes, please throw me on top of the compo
...more
Mark
Jun 29, 2017 rated it really liked it
Before reading this book I was going with the flow of having a casket, wake, burial, and being buried in a cemetery. After reading this book I realized that I can choose a radically different course for how I want to be remembered. Since reading this book my family gave my grandmother a viking funeral. Cremation is now the route most of my family members have decided upon. My parents are looking to sell the grave plots they bought back in the seventies. In short, this book is an eye opener.
Vincent Konrad
Oct 28, 2017 rated it really liked it
real fascinating stuff. my favourite Mitford. probs quite out of date now though
Vendela
Oct 07, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Jessica Mitford. Wow. An incredibly well-researched, very sarcastic book. On the funeral “industry”.
Michelle
May 07, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: expose, death, non-fiction
In a word: brutal. Some of those quotations she got! Either funeral directors/undertakers are a particularly hapless lot, or Mitford is an incredible journalist. Probably both. This was the inspiration for one of my favorite Nichols and May skits, and closely connected to one of my favorite Evelyn Waugh satires, The Loved One. It did not disappoint. You’d think that an entire book making fools out of the funeral industry would be overkill, but Mitford is such an entertaining writer it amuses (an ...more
Eli
Apr 13, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: anyone. everyone. at any time.
This book is a treasure. I picked it up thinking it would be like other "consumer alert" books of its time: important from a historical standpoint but not particularly relevant today. Instead I found a book almost frightening in its relevance.

Multiply all of Mitford's dollar amounts by 10-15 to account for inflation and strike the most blatant racism and sexism (segregated cemeteries, undertakers and embalmers only referred to as "he" and "men"), and Mitford could've written this book in 2013, i
...more
dejah_thoris
Apr 28, 2016 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
I love Mitford's book on the funeral industry. Yes, I'm sure things have changed, so I'm going to read her updated version next, but some things always remain the same. I'm not surprised to read about all the issues with salesmen or their internal sales tricks because I used to work in sales too. (It can be a predatory industry regardless of the product.) I did enjoy how Mitford tackled all aspects of the related trades, like florists, because they do not come as readily to mind as funeral direc ...more
Judi
Sep 02, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
This book is most enlightening. Things appear not to have changed much since this book was published in 1963. By coincidence, I met last week with the undertaker at the graveyard where my husband and I have purchased our plots. I thought it was time to make and prepay for all of our funeral needs so our children would not have that burden. I went for minimalist. Modest. This book opened my eyes to the potential of vulnerablity with regard to potential expenses in arranging a funeral for a loved ...more
Leilani
May 25, 2010 rated it it was amazing
I had been trying to find a cheap copy of this book in used stores for several years and finally hit gold, finding it for 2 bucks hidden away in a little store in Arcata! I think Mitford's writing is hilarious. There has been many new regulations on the funeral industry, so a lot of the information in this book is really outdated now, but I can see how it must have been controversial at the time it was written. I was totally disgusted to read about the flower industry challenging the newspapers ...more
Michaela
Apr 26, 2015 rated it really liked it
Shelves: funerary, non-fiction
As an aspiring funeral director and currently attending mortuary school, this book was a must-read for me since it is the main reason that funeral service is being regulated now. I also feel that in order to be a truly compassionate and educated funeral director, I need to educate myself on the bad press that funeral service has gotten in the past.

I wasn't alive when this book was published but my father was and he read it numerous times. People who have read this book are people that I am goin
...more
Rena Sherwood
I gave up after about 35 pages. Undertakers are all rip-off merchants -- yeah, yeah, yeah. I get the point. Sadly, this book is WAAAAYYY out of date, which makes it practically useless. I suppose if you're writing a book about funerals in American during the later 1950s and early 1960s then this would be your golden ticket for research. Other than that, skip it.

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Jan
Jun 10, 2014 rated it it was amazing
This witty, although somewhat disturbing, investigation into the move from sobre farewell to full-blown commercial exploitation of funerals, is interesting both in terms of the way the change has been managed (language, the guilt trip, customer's tendency towards choosing the middle price) and in its increasing relevance to the UK. Beware, it's all coming our way!
Kimberly
Apr 05, 2011 rated it liked it
Shelves: 2011
Jessica Mitford is a great prose writer, and kept me interested both with her subject, and her witty comments. The most interesting part of this book is when Mitford goes "Behind the Formaldehyde Curtain" and into the process of embalming; it is what also originally got me to look into her book. It was super fascinating.
Elizabeth Steffen
May 27, 2014 rated it it was ok
If I hadn't read Curtains: Adventures of an Undertaker-in-Training by Tom Jokinen I might have found this more interesting. Jokinen covered much of the same material in a more personal manner. I found Mitford's material dry and just straight facts.
B
Oct 29, 2008 rated it really liked it
Shelves: adult-nonfiction
393 A fascinating book about how the funeral industry works in this country, (embalming,other rituals, etc.) and how it often takes advantage of people when they are at their most vulnerable. It's been updated but I haven't read that yet.
Veronica
May 26, 2012 rated it it was ok
Consider the source. Then go talk to a real licensed funeral director. Then talk to a family who has had a loss. THEN make your own educated decision as to whether the funeral industry is as superfluous as she makes it out to be.
russell barnes
Jan 15, 2009 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: louise pepper & nic
Shelves: nonfiction
Strangely lightweight after reading Decca: The Letters of Jessica Mitford, but still good to see what all the fuss was about.



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Jessica Lucy Freeman-Mitford was an English author, journalist and political campaigner, who was one of the Mitford sisters. She gained American citizenship in later life.