Reviewed by Caroline Cummins
The rebellious daughter in a famously eccentric British family, Jessica Mitford spent her life going against the grain. She married Robert Treuhaft, an American civil-rights and labor-activist lawyer, and settled with him in Oakland, California. When her husband complained about the surprisingly lavish funerals of his impoverished labor-union clients, Mitford — who had previously written a satire and a memoir — became intrigued. The results of her investigations into the funeral industry became the bestselling 1963 expose “The American Way of Death.”
Written in a style that blended precise formality with wry humor, “The American Way of Death” chronicled, in exhaustive detail, the concerted efforts of American funeral providers to wring as much money as possible out of the bereaved. Mitford took on not only funeral homes, with their unnecessary embalmers, unctuous funeral directors and unnervingly overpriced products (coffins that cost a few dollars to make were routinely sold for hundreds of dollars), but greedy real-estate speculators, cemetery owners, casket makers, vault manufacturers, monument builders and florists. She painted the funeral industry as aggressively paranoid, ever-wary of the parsimonious endeavors of clergy, legislators and ordinary citizens to have simple, inexpensive funerals. In “The American Way of Death,” funeral providers are “merchants of a rather grubby order, preying on grief, remorse and guilt of survivors.”
The first edition of “The American Way of Death” sold out in a single day. Reviewers heaped praise on the book's well-documented indictment of the funeral industry, as well as its acerbic humor (“the paths of glory now lead but to the gift shop and museum”). As with Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel “The Jungle,” a bestseller that attacked the Chicago meatpacking industry and led to the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act that same year, the astonishing success of Mitford’s book led to Congressional hearings on the funeral industry and the passing of new regulations protecting consumers. Membership in “memorial societies,” or nonprofit groups dedicated to negotiating economical funerals for their members, rose from 17,000 to nearly one million. Cremation, in 1961 chosen for just four percent of American deaths, doubled in popularity within a dozen years. Dubbed the “Queen of the Muckrakers” by a Time magazine reporter, Mitford went on to skewer prisons, fat farms, obstetricians and television executives. The home-schooled daughter of the British upper-classes made the unsavory seem almost tasteful, and became one of America’s best-known investigative reporters.
In the mid-1990s, Mitford began working on an updated edition of “The American Way of Death,” documenting the changes (and lack thereof) in the funeral industry over the previous 30 years. She died in 1996 from lung cancer; “The American Way of Death Revisited” was published in 1998, with new chapters detailing the rise of international funeral conglomerates, price gouging by companies selling “pre-need” funeral packages, loopholes in federal regulations and the Americanization of the British funeral industry. Plus ça change, as Mitford might say.
Long despised, naturally, by those in the funeral industry, Mitford was also attacked for her Communism (she was a card-carrying member in the 1940s and 1950s) and for what many saw as her blanket dismissal of an entire industry. It’s true that she tackled the gaudy American way of death without researching how it got that way; naked capitalism seems to be her only answer for why a plain, cheap service was transformed into a grandiose, expensive operation in less than 50 years. But Mitford cared less for history and her critics than for whether she was able to stimulate change by embarrassing the establishment. And many journalists, such as Eric Schlosser (2002’s “Fast Food Nation”), have followed in her footsteps, adopting for themselves the Mitford way of writing.
“The American Way of Death” is no longer in print, but “The American Way of Death Revisited” is currently in print in paperback (Vintage, $14)