The American Way of Death Revisited (Magill Book Reviews)
Since Jessica Mitford took on the funeral industry in her ground-excavating expose THE AMERICAN WAY OF DEATH (1963), dying in America has changed very little. THE AMERICAN WAY OF DEATH REVISITED reopens the casket of concerns about the practices of the industry, especially the promotion of a costly death.
The 1998 revision updates not only the statistical material of the original but documents new developments in the industry which postdate the first version. Americans can now prepay their funerals and live to regret the investment (see the chapter entitled “Pay Now—Die Poorer”). Those whose grief occurs in the late twentieth century must deal with multinational funeral conglomerates rather than cede the bodies and final rituals of their loved ones to a local and likely well-known family friend (“A Global Village of the Dead”). In Mitford’s view the issues are money rather than concern for families. It is not difficult to pay as much as eight or nine thousand dollars for a funeral. Often prices include full package add-ons which the grieving neither want nor choose.
Mitford’s practical aim is to offer alternatives in the form of low-cost funeral societies to bereaved families. How threatening these alternatives are to the funeral industry is demonstrated in their characterizations of such groups as “the burial beatniks of contemporary America.”
The reader will appreciate the index as well as a “Directory of Not-for-Profit Funeral and Memorial Services.” Resources are listed by state, with full address and phone number. For those who wish to avoid the costly and coercive practices documented in the text, this is an invaluable resource. One assumes that Mitford herself, who died before the book was complete, has had the last laugh.
Sources for Further Study
The Atlantic. CCLXXXII, September, 1998, p. 24.
Business Week. September 21, 1998, p. 18B.
The Lancet. CCCLII, November 21, 1998, p. 1713.
Library Journal. CXXIII, July, 1998, p. 117.
Los Angeles Times Book Review. August 2, 1998, p. 6.
The New York Review of Books. XLV, September 24, 1998, p. 20.
The New York Times Book Review. CIII, October 4, 1998, p. 22.
Publishers Weekly. CCXLV, May 18, 1998, p. 58.
The Washington Post Book World. XXVIII, August 2, 1998, p. 3.
The American Way of Death Revisited (Magill's Literary Annual 1991-2005)
Since Jessica Mitford took on the funeral industry more than thirty-five years ago in her ground-excavating exposé The American Way of Death, the trappings surrounding dying in America have changed very little. The cost, however, padded by industry-initiated advancements, has increased dramatically. The American Way of Death Revisited reopens the casket of Mitford’s concerns about the practices of the inevitable industry, especially its promotion of costly additions to the ceremonies of death and what the author sees as less-than-ethical marketing techniques. The exposed body, ill-preserved, lets out a mighty stench. The jacket cover of the current edition promises a “brilliant piece of satirical writing.” Despite this claim, the interior product is good but does not quite reach the level of brilliance.
Mitford first exposed the travesties of the “American way of death” in 1963. The earlier book—perhaps the first to tackle such a difficult topic so inclusively—enjoyed sufficient popularity that it was republished about fifteen years later. In the 1998 edition Mitford remembers, with not a little glee, that publishers originally shied away from her work as unsalable. Who would pay to read about the funeral industry? The current revision not only updates the statistical material of the original but also adds chapters on developments in the industry since the first book was published. Mitford documents the increase in the cost of cremations and other peripheral services and the advancement of consumer protection laws to aid those faced with the unpleasant task of providing for the dead. Americans can prepay their funerals and live to regret the investment (“Pay Now—Die Poorer”). In arranging a funeral, those for whom death occurs in the late twentieth century have little choice but to deal with large multinational funeral conglomerates rather than cede the bodies and final rituals of their loved ones to a local and likely well-known family friend (“A Global Village of the Dead”). Although the consolidation of multiple small companies into a few giants is not unique to the funeral industry—one could cite the health care conglomerates and the increasingly fat book behemoths—the impact on vulnerable mourners seems more problematic. As an old African proverb states: When elephants fight, the grass suffers. In this case, those who must deal with the final disposition of loved ones have little choice but to deal with the elephants. The fight for the field is over. And the cost of the grass upon which the elephants now rest becomes dearer all the time.
In Mitford’s view the funeral industry is concerned with monetary gain rather than the alleviation of grief. In the late twentieth century it was not uncommon for a family to pay as much as $8,000 or $9,000 for a funeral. Often these prices are for full- package funerals that include add-ons that the family neither wants nor needs. The “tour guides” of the industry, the funeral directors, lead their parties through the foreign world of ever-increasing functions to the souvenir shop of the dead. Since you will never pass this way again, it is imperative that you go in style.
As Mitford notes, “Gradually, almost imperceptibly, over the years the funeral men have constructed their own grotesque cloud-cuckoo-land where the trappings of Gracious Living are transformed, as in a nightmare, into the trappings of Gracious Dying.” Dying in America has taken on all the expensive accessories of living in consumer America: high-quality “housing” in the form of caskets, fine fabrics to drape the deceased, the best cosmetology to bring a blush of life to the cheeks. American culture’s denial of death reaches its summit, its finest hour, in the marvelous production of the funeral and its accompaniments, which exquisitely perpetuate the myth that dying can capture and preserve (might we say “embalm”?) the best of living. Mitford’s documentation of these developments is as humorous as it is horrific. Making use of what she calls “keeping up with Joneses to the end,” Americans can go out in style with hostess gowns or negligees, Fit- a-Fut Oxfords (for feet afflicted with rigor mortis) or comfy slippers (lest the trip to the afterworld be hard on the feet). Glamour extends to the beautification of the body itself, injected and painted,...
(The entire section is 1781 words.)