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The American Way of Death

3.99  ·  Rating details ·  495 ratings  ·  57 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 $200 for an exhaust leak! Daylight robbery
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 n
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I can see why this book was a funeral industry shocker in its day, the 1960's. Despite being out of date in a way it's not.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
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
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
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
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.
Oct 06, 2014 rated it really liked it
A good laugh, actually. Also v sad

Will Mayo
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 funera ...more
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 ...
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.

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
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
Bob Newman
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
Jan 10, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction
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
Apr 22, 2021 rated it it was amazing
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
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
Ilena Holder
Aug 22, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: adults or older teens
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 emo ...more
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
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.
Mar 01, 2020 rated it really liked it
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. ...more
Vincent Konrad
Oct 28, 2017 rated it really liked it
real fascinating stuff. my favourite Mitford. probs quite out of date now though
Oct 07, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Jessica Mitford. Wow. An incredibly well-researched, very sarcastic book. On the funeral “industry”.
Gayle Juneau-Butler
Nov 25, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2018-books
Good book. I think I expected more exploration of multiple dimensions of death - not only death as business. Still, jet was thorough and eye-opening.
Jun 16, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Every woman considering giving birth should read this book first.
May 01, 2021 rated it it was amazing
Originally published before America had zip codes, this little book is still biting today.
May 07, 2018 rated it really liked it
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
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
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
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
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
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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.

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