The American Way of Death Revisited

The American Way of Death Revisited by Jessica Mitford

In 1963, Jessica Mitford published an expose on the funeral industry. In 1998, an updated version of this original work was published shortly after her death. It was her dying wish that her husband carry her work through to publication, which he did. That work is The American Way of Death Revisited.

Much could be said about the audacious author herself, but this text redirects the reader’s focus away from the writer and towards the outrages of the funeral industry. While we can all agree that it’s ok (ideal, even) for businesses to make a profit, I would hope that most people would agree that profit based on exploitation cheapens us all. This is Mitford’s unstated assumption as she exposes (and mocks) the way the funeral industry takes advantage of people’s fears, insecurities, love, and grief in order to prosper. The funeral industry claims, she suggests, that they are only giving people what they want, when in fact the funeral industry is refusing to give people what they want (a simple, respectable good-bye with little fuss). And when people do manage to get a quiet farewell, the industry charges their relatives just as though there’d been a parade or a national day of mourning. Mitford claims that practitioners of the funeral industry are leeches of the very worst sort.

I found her book very persuasive. The prose seemed a little over-burdened with data, but this is a good rhetorical move for someone writing to a potentially hostile audience. I was willing to believe her from the beginning, so I didn’t need as much evidence to be convinced. This was an enjoyable as well as informative read. My only regret is that Mitford has passed on, and thus there is no current version of this book to tell me what may have changed in the past thirteen years.

The end of the book provides contact information for associations committed to providing or arranging exactly the type of funeral Mitford assumes one wants. At the very least, they are organizations that can be trusted to carry out one’s final wishes without any fear of being fleeced. Mitford recommends using these funeral or memorial societies, but here is her parting advice for those who cannot:

Send a friend to two or more mortuaries to obtain their general price lists and casket prices. Ask for the cost of direct cremation, including transportation costs and crematory fees. Likewise, for the cost of immediate burial. Pay no money in advance. If death has not yet occurred and you wish to pay in installments, do so by setting up a Totten Trust, naming yourself or a relative or close friend as beneficiary. Remember, above all, that many funeral homes have a ‘no-walk’ policy, which means simply that if and when you start to walk out, the price will come down, down, down until a level acceptable to you is reached.

I absolutely recommend this to everyone. For more about Mitford’s writing, check out this review of some of her collected works.



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