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 she regards as salesmen guilty of pressuring families into agreeing to their excessive standards for burial. Mitford, who died recently, delivers facts and criticism in a forthright and humorous manner. She would certainly appreciate that her assessment of the American way of death endures after her own passing.
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 carefully-nurtured acceptance, nay, great desire for, open-coffin funerals.
In countries where a closed-coffin is the norm, as in the UK, there is a lot of expenditure that can be saved. A coffin only need look respectable from the outside, it doesn't need fancy interior fittings and faux-satin bed sheets. The dead don't have to be embalmed at great cost nor do they have to have their faces stuffed with bits of paper to simulate plumpness, then make-up so they can look as though they were just asleep, and require wigs, special back-less shoes, clothes or anything else.
Then there is the desire for preservation. A bit like potted meat it's not enough to preserve the body, the container must be one that also lasts. So there the funeral directors have you with hermetically-sealed metal coffins of immense strength and cost, strong enough to enclose all the explosive gases the decaying body will generate. Then there are their first-cousins in rapacity, the florists. Wreaths can cost in the hundreds and with a good relationship with a funeral director a florist can expect to make thousands from each funeral.
The marketing techniques of these scavengers is worse even than ambulance-chasing lawyers. They play on the emotions of the bereaved, and if the bereaved don't seem to care to give their late loved one 'the best possible send-off', then they add a bit of guilt into the mixture. They subtly intimidate that this is what the their loved one deserved and that the family and the community expect from a person so valued. The family wouldn't want to let themselves down and be so low status as to want to have a pauper's funeral and be seen to hang on to the money themselves, would they?
If the dearly-departed was clued-in enough to have a funeral policy all paid-up, a million small-print clauses are invoked in order to squeeze money from the bereaved family's possible inheritance. One way or another that day is going to cost as many thousands as the funeral directors can extract. The average cost of a funeral in the US, without the cost of a plot, church expenses or a headstone, is $12-15,000.
Two groups of people are totally immune to this. Muslims and Jews who bury their dead as simply and as fast as possible in plain shrouds and boxes without flowers, leaving no time or opportunity for the vultures to hook their claws in except perhaps for a hearse or two with no extras.
The green movement isn't much better. My niece, who left a little boy turned four a few days after she died, had a green funeral. She was buried under a tree in a willow basket. The cost of this coffin was over $800 and the rest of the funeral costs, the cars etc were the same as any other
So how do you get out of all of that? You research it yourself first and lay down strict instructions with people who have both the power and the desire to follow them. Then you have to hope they don't succumb to emotional pressure.
I know how I'm going to be buried. I want to be cremated and my ashes cast with concrete as a reef ball, resting in a coral reef. On my little contribution will be a brass plaque with my names and dates. Or if that's too much trouble, just drop me overboard somewhere wrapped in an old sail and I'll feed the fishes directly, that's how most ex-pats here get buried. A final toast and the body is dropped overboard trailing a few flowers as the boat motors on.
Either way, the money I worked hard for will go in great part to my sons and not the men with the cultivated sad expressions who sit in their offices waiting for the death knell and then rush out dressed in black rubbing their hands. Business!
The book is years old and a bit out of date, new techniques for shaking down money from the grieving have been developed, a business must grow or else stagnate and errr, die.
Rewritten 25 May 2019 because it was full of typos and I felt like expanding it.
Među šest sestara Mitford, Džesika je bila ona najkul - crvena ovca u aristokratskom toru. Ako bih sagu o Mitfordima posmatrao kao neku zanimljiviju i intrigantniju verziju Downton abbey iz života, bez sumnje bih bio team Jessica; briljantna i oštrog jezika poput ostalih sestara, a opet, nije se udala za vođu britanskih fašista Osvalda Mozlija poput Dajane, niti je prosvirala sebi mozak kao nacoš Juniti, već je sa 19 pobegla od kuće da bi se priključila republikanskoj armiji u Španskom građanskom ratu, zatim nastanila u radničkom kvartu Londona, a potom emigrirala za Ameriku. U Americi se proslavila 1963. objavivši ovu knjigu o gomilanju kapitala na primeru američke pogrebne industrije.
Bez obzira što je „Američki način umiranja” velikim delom vezan za trenutak objavljivanja, te je vremenom knjiga izgubila nešto od svoje aktuelnosti, ona se i dalje lepi za prste prilikom čitanja. Ajde što je tema morbidna, nego što su američke sahrane sa balazamovanjem, šminkanjem, protezama, raskošnim kovčezima, plišanim kapelama i diznilend grobljima ipak nekoliko spratova iznad klasične morbidnosti evropskih sahrana. Analizirajući časopise pogrebničkih udruženja, marketinške slogane, kataloge, ankete, iskustva, ponudu i potražnju, autorka bez teških i komplikovanih koncepata utvrđuje zašto je sprovod u Americi postao najveći porodični trošak nakon kupovine kuće i auta. Studija, pre svega, jeste o gomilanju kapitala u pogrebnoj industriji, ali se izdvojeni manipulativni mehanizmi – krivice, tuge, konformizma, zbunjenosti, plasiranju novoosmišljenih mitova, neobrazovanosti, neobaveštenosti – mogu iskoristiti za objašnjenje razloga akumulacije enormnog kapitala u bilo kojoj isplativoj delatnosti razvijenog kapitalizma. Pored toga što je knjiga oštra u svojim zapažanjima, ona je oštra i na jeziku: duhovita, ironična i šarmantno lajava. Vidi se da je Džesika stasavala uz bright young generaciju jer je satirični ton knjige zapravo humor njene sestre Nensi, Ivlina Voa, Sitvelovih i drugih iz sjajnomlade ekipe. Iskustvo čitanja nalikuje odlasku na sahranu ruku pod ruku sa prefinjenom gospođom koja će kroz svoj britanski nos imati oštru ironičnu opasku o svemu, a vi se uzdržavate da ne puknete od smeha jer nije pristojno da se smejte na sahranama, a i pazite da gospođa ne primeti da ste provalili da je, i pored toga što je naučila gde se plaća račun za struju i kako izgleda voziti se gradskim prevozom, u duši ostala snob.
I super je što je ova knjiga bila toliki hit u svetu da je u Jugoslaviji prevedena već za tri godine i koliko je imala uticaja ne samo na percepciju američkih pogreba, nego i šire na popularnu kulturu čak i decenijama kasnije. Recimo, bila je indirektna inspiracija za seriju Six feet under, imala je svoj kameo u Mad Menu, pa i stalno je na tim listama voljenih knjiga, uključujući i listu omiljenih knjiga Dejvida Bouvija. A i sama autorka je objavila dopunu knjige The American Way of Death Revisited 1998.
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 seems that the morticians, flower-wallas, crematory czars, and cemetery owners have not much reformed their ways since then, because she wrote a follow-up exposé many years later, just before she herself went to that Great Memory Garden in the sky.
THE AMERICAN WAY OF DEATH is based on her readings of many trade magazines and newsletters, on interviews with a number of figures in the funerary trade, and interviews with public health officials, county or state officers, lawyers, and doctors. She wasn't above posing as a potential customer to get choice bits of information. The book covers the high (and unreasonable) cost of funerals, coffins, flowers, and embalming and contains a classic description of the embalming process that will require a strong stomach from any reader (see pp.54-65). You learn about the nexus between cemetery plots, coffins or vaults, services, and flowers--all often controlled by the same company. She pillories the euphemism-laden vocabulary commonly used, the veiled threats to `consumers', and the use of snobbism, class image, and guilt feelings to manipulate said consumers into paying much more than they should for what is, after all, a basic human need.
One of the reasons this book became a bestseller at the time is that Mitford had a great sense of humor. Writing on such an essentially grim subject, she can still elicit laughs all these years later. Perhaps muckraking is an art in which "more is always better". I don't know, but the book palls (pun intended) around two-thirds of the way through because even though you GET IT ! she keeps on hammering you to the end. I have given THE AWD only three stars because of that and because it is hardly contemporary anymore. However, for a look at the inanities and insanities of the American funeral industry at mid-20th century, you must read this book.
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 how great of a difference there is in American funeral customs vs European -as the book compares.
Like the full catalogue of footwear for cadavers that the bereaved family could flip through, in making decisions. The line of cadaver lingerie, the eleborate coffins in every colour and kind imaginable. The "Sleeping Rooms" for the displayed corpses, which were similar to and billed like a motel per night...
The authors tone was harsh but fair, and her research was done well. I only disagreed with her on one detail, which is a subject that is timeless and not bound to the 60's. The author criticized how undertakers aka funeral directors, claim there is therapeutic value to viewing the body -in most cases. The author attacked this claim because (up until the 60's anyway) there was no actual psychological research or medical evidence to back this funeral directors claim. She didn't seem to believe them at all, and took the strong slant that the only reason funeral directors would encourage body viewing is because then they could do embalming and make-up on the body, thus billing extravagantly for the viewing. And though the addition to the bill is the point of attack, I can say that from my own experience, from what mourners themselves claim, it is and can be therapeutic to view the dead one last time. I know many mourners who regret not looking, and only about two out of ten regret taking a gander at old grandmother laying in the coffin bed. Just from my own experience in the trade, I would say that a body viewing can be a big stepping stone in a particular mourning journey, and should not be downplayed just because some undertakers have exploited even that for unfair money.
Despite the attack slant, it makes a fair study of American funeral history, giving quotes from funeral trade magazines and other sources the industry used and possibly uses. And now i'm just dying for a tour of Forest Lawn L.A.
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 said and done to wrest insurance money from grieving widows, or to prey on the guilt of the deceased's children is appalling. The version I have is from the 1960s but there is an updated edition that gives the financial figures in todays' dollars. What they charge you versus what this stuff actually costs is reprehensible. You would think that an industry expose that cites statistics and figures would be a terribly dull read, but the pacing and precision of the writing make for a fascinating, consise and absorbing work.
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 way you like, as it may not be read until after the funeral. Maybe you should include this in a medical directives order?
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.
This was a 1963 non-fiction bestseller. I read it for research. It is an expose of the funeral industry in 1950s and 1960s America, revealing the tactics used to bilk mourners of their money while funeral directors and purveyors of coffins, vaults, flowers, etc. got rich.
It led to simpler funerals and increased use of cremation. The writing was good, even humorous at times. I read a chapter a day until done.
I've not been to many actual funerals. My parents would not let me go to my beloved grandmother's funeral because they thought it not appropriate for a nine year old child. I was devastated that I could not say goodbye to her. I saw my aunt in an open coffin, embalmed and painted, when I was a young woman. Creeped me out. I could hardly believe it was her. Perhaps it was better I didn't see my grandma's dead body after all. My parents were each cremated and we scattered their ashes in the compost area and in their garden, then held a memorial.
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 a will or a funeral directive, I'd recommend it for sure--otherwise, recommended if the subject matter interests you.
At times, I think of Jessica Mitford. Yes, Jessica Mitford with her American Way Death with its expose of the funeral industry's price fixing and abuse of the grief ridden that changed our death landscape forever. What would she think of today's world, I wonder, with its natural burials and its body composting sites and easier donation to medical science? "Well done, chaps!" she'd say. And then she'd take a look at our technological wonder, the World Wide Web with its Go Fund Me sites for funerals otherwise too expensive to afford, and she'd say, "There's work to be done. Better get cracking!" Yes, that's our reporter. Gotta love her. Read her book. I for one loved it.
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 this book the most attention Mitford gives is to the cost of the funeral. Mind now that Mitford wrote this book in the 60's so obviously figures have changed, but the premise is still sound. Only now you just need to add about 10,000 to the total figure for a funeral. She explores the sky high prices on services, coffins, flowers, and other items associated with a funeral.
Next she moves on to the odd way Americans have of making a funeral be open casket with the body to view by anyone as it is embalmed and dressed up for the occasion. I have always thought this was strange and somewhat disgusting and was surprised to learn that the United States is largely the only practitioner of this concept (this might have changed since the 60's). This concept she writes about also includes the fancy accessories a corpse can have like special mattresses in a coffin, special shoes, and other such items. My thought is, what on earth for? A corpse will not get a bad back or arches! That may seem disrespectful but to me it just seems silly.
She also visits the new concept of cemeteries and how not only their name has become something fancy (Restful Meadows, etc.) but you can now have a garden plot for your loved one or a special crypt overlooking the sea. This also seems a bit silly to me as I'd hope whatever happens after death, the person is not stuck in their coffin.
Throughout the book she includes excerpts from funeral director's magazines and other such articles in which they are trying to sell the best and have a strong suspicion against clergy and other type folks who may convince people they only need a simple funeral. The seriousness of some of the statements by these people almost makes it seem like someones trying to start a revolution rather than just pick a wooden coffin over a metal one. While I understand its their livelihood its not the end of the world; money is still being spent.
Surprisingly in the last chapter Mitford seems to reverse a bit on what she's saying and state that there's hope yet and things are changing. While it is a positive chapter it just doesn't fit with what she's been reiterating in the rest of the book and doesn't follow the tone she set for all the chapters previous. My other complaint on the book would be that she does tend to repeat herself quite a bit. She'll go over the same concept in several different parts of the book. They may vary a little in detail, but not much.
I now know that she's written a sequel to this book titled "American Way of Death Revisited." This was written not that long ago and I definitely want to read it as it will be interesting to see if she thinks anythings improved since she wrote this book. While I think she's provided a key perspective that there's something wrong in the industry, I do have to agree with the industry that ultimately people are spending the money. They may be being taken advantage of after the decision to spend is made, but they are not educating themselves to prevent it. As for me, even before reading this book I had already decided to donate my body to a body farm. I do highly recommend reading this book though, as everyone should be educated on something that is eventually going to happen to them.
The American Way of Death Copyright 1963 287 pages plus chapter notes, an appendix, list of places you can donate your body, sample forms, and an index
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 into how British funeral customs, which she compared favorably to ours for their relative dignity and austerity, have fallen in line with our more gaudy ways. But I wanted to read the original copy that Don Draper was seen reading in "Mad Men," so I don't know the answer. That's why there's Google, I guess.
I am a Baby Boomer and read this book in high school. I remember about 90% of it, it was so shocking to me. I believe 90% of it still would hold true today. We first had undertakers, then morticians, later funeral directors. They all do the same thing-- thrive off your grief and talk you into spending thousands of dollars because you feel guilty. If you ever find a copy of this, read it. But don't read it if you have a relative close to death. It is better to read it with a clear head and no emotions involved. See how funeral directors are like car salesmen. They take you to the prettiest (and most expensive models) at the front of the showroom. The plain wooden coffins are in the back. If you are not already planning on cremation, you might want to reconsider after reading this. The TV show "Adam Spoils Everything" did a good segment on funerals this year.
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 "morbid" and then she asked me if I was depressed. (?) Actually, I didn't have the heart to tell her that on my darkest days I am more likely to gravitate towards cheery books. I don't want her to get worried every time she sees me reading a brightly-coloured, quirkily-titled book. ;)
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 changed since then. It was very telling to see the numbers. And outrageously expensive funeral costing $3000 then... I think we'd have to tack two zeros onto that price now. Inflation is scary.
I just finished The American Way of Death by Jessica Mitford. This book, published in 1963 is necessarily a bit dated. It's been sitting on my parent's bookshelf since publication, and I decided to read it at some point. When I was in high school I read The Loved One by Evelyn Waugh, basically a parody of burial practices that was written around the same time or a little earlier than the Mitford book. My father had passed away a couple of years earlier, and I was quite familiar with the industry's revolting tactics.
My mother and I were set on cremation, which is technically a violation of the Jewish religion. Our Rabbi recommended using a non-Jewish funeral home, both for lower cost and for more considerate treatment. My mother insisted on trying a Jewish funeral home. When the director or a salesman approached us in the waiting room he said "you realize we're a Jewish facility?" I guess the fact that we were both redheads (coincidence) threw hm off. I whispered to my mother I wanted to leave.
When we went downstairs to look at caskets the salesman said "this is our cheapest, a pine box. You'd probably feel guilty using that. This time I insisted on leaving. We went to Ballard-Duran in White Plains. The experience, as predicted by our Rabbi, was more friendly. Far more. We used them and they took care of everything after the funeral, which was two days later.
I felt that the practices of the first funeral home was almost a parody of those detailed in The Loved One. This was stated in more detail in the book I just read, The American Way of Death. The only difference was the order in which the caskets were shown; we were shown the cheapest one first, and in The American Way of Death the more expensive ones were shown first. Other than that, same drill.
The problem with The American Way of Death, and why I give it "two or three stars", is its pounding repetition. I put it down three times and read other books in between. Even though not excessively long at 228 pages (before the appendix) the same points could have been made more economically. Yes, as other reviewers pointed out it was funny, albeit in a morbid way. It was a book that needed to be written. A little bit of editing would have helped a lot.
A savage, meticulously researched take-down of the American funeral industry. Writing in the 1960s, Mitford delves into every aspect of the funeral industry, exposing how grieving families risk being exploited by shady business practices, exorbitant costs, misinformation and the enormous lobbying power of funeral associations.
Mitford draws on real life examples to great effect: the bizarre court case of August Chellini, the courtroom drama regarding the legality of scattering of ashes, and even the funeral of Franklin D Roosevelt to name a few. The chapter on ‘fashion in funerals’ offers fascinating insights into the development of modern funeral practices and is peppered with charming and weird historical nuggets, such as Dr William Hunter and the ‘Dear departed’ wife he kept on display in the living room - and who knew that Nelson’s body was returned to England from Trafalgar in a barrel of brandy?
Mitford doesn’t pull her punches when it comes to gory details. Chapter 5 graphically describes the gruesome process of embalming and is definitely not for the squeamish, and the bits about decomposition in chapter 6. aren’t for the faint-hearted either.
Mitford’s biting wit and tart asides are a entertaining balance to the frankly, appalling practices she exposes in this brilliant book. I found it shocking even today, but absolutely gripping reading. It has also left me with a burning desire to drop by Forest Lawns Memorial Park should I ever visit California. Super-highly recommended.
A colleague of mine, "a historian by training and by temperament" in her own words, finds that obituaries are where newspapers keep all the history. We were talking about death (as colleagues often do?) and realized something major we have in common: Our love for Jessica Mitford.
There are sooooo many reasons to love Jessica. She was the 6th of 7 Mitford children. Her sisters Unity and Diana were proud members of the British Union of Fascists, and very close friends of Hitler. Diana even married the leader of the union, and I think Unity tried to commit suicide when the war went south for the Nazis. Not to forget, in Jessica's own words, her father was "one of nature's fascists", so...what a family!
Jessica renounced her privileges, became an anti-fascist investigative journalist, became the voice of communism in her era, and took on one of the most powerful businesses in the US: The funeral industry. If you would like to learn more about how Jessica repeatedly and tirelessly pissed off and exposed countless funeral directors who capitalized on the grief of families, then this book is for you.
What a delight it was to read The American Way of Death! I'd read 2 Caitlin Doughty books and watched tons of her YouTube videos, and figured it was high time I make my way back to 1963 to read Mitford's groundbreaking work.
I agree with Doughty's assessment that Americans are being robbed of meaningful rituals surrounded death (moreso than the solely financial look Mitford takes), but still found this a valuable, insightful, and funny read. Mitford is surprisingly sassy for a woman writing in the 1960s! This was jam-packed with interesting anecdotes and multiple perspectives, including things I hadn't given much thought before, like the floral industry, the clergy, how things work in England, etc.
It was also noteworthy that many things don't seem to have changed much since then (though some have). I know there's a revised/revisited version of this, I don't know if I'd read that next, but I definitely want to poke around online to see more thoughts/perspectives on this!
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 compost pile at the Urban Death Project.
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.
Although written in the 60's a fascinating must read for people wanting to know about the black art of profiting from death, and how to avoid not being disposed of how you would like or being ripped off post-mortis .
A great find on my Bowie Book Club List
Note: If anyone spend a penny on a funeral for me beyond getting me to the bonfire on my own, I will haunt the fucker, go to a gig instead xx
Wowee. I can only imagine how scandalous this was in 1963. Witty and educational. I definitely want to read the "revisited" edition. And just fyi, Mitford's funeral (in 1996) was only $533.31. What a champ.