Book Review: The American Way of Death Revisited, Jessica Mitford (1998)

Tuesday, May 10th, 2005

Surely the dead must be rolling in their proverbial graves!

five out of five stars

In “The American Way of Death Revisited,” journalist and muckracker Jessica Mitford presents a searing exposé of the “death-care” industries, particularly funeral homes/directors and cemeteries. She potently argues that many death-care workers, rather than looking out for their customers’ best interests, are more concerned about their bottom lines; that the FTC has failed to curb manipulative and downright illegal sales techniques engaged in by these businesses; that many of our assumptions about funerary practices are wrong; and that consumers should actively take part in honoring their dearly departed, rather than turning the task (and thousands of dollars) over to McMortuaries.

With the help of undercover investigations, disgruntled death-care workers, and grieving families who fell prey to unscrupulous death-care workers, Ms. Mitford details the manipulative, deceitful, and sometimes illegal tactics that death-care workers use to trump their competitors in an increasingly oversaturated market. We’re even treated to shocking statements right from the horses’ mouths: the authors offers a multitude of quotes pulled straight from the trade journals, such as “The Director,” “Mortuary Management,” “Casket & Sunnyside,” and (my personal favorite) “American Professional Embalmer.”

In “The American Way of Death Revisited,” we learn the following:

* Although funeral directors would like you to believe otherwise, embalming is neither required by state law nor essential to public health.

* Again contrary to the fibs of the “funeral men” (as Ms. Mitford ominously refers to them), citizens are free to scatter “cremains” wherever they so choose (the state of California is the lone exception) – it is not necessary to bury them, store them in a pricey urn, or pay someone to scatter them. Nor is it required that your loved one be cremated in a casket – a cardboard or pine box or shroud does just as well.

* The purchase of “pre-need” plans usually serve as in invitation for the old “bait-and-switch” trick; by the time you pass away, the casket you initially paid for is no longer available. Thus, your grieving relatives are forced to choose between a free yet inferior substitute – or an “upgrade” for a fee.

* Open casket funerals are a rather new invention, and are unique to the United States. Although funeral directors assert that a public viewing (of an embalmed corpse, of course) is necessary for healing in the survivors, they cannot produce one documented, scientific study to support this claim. Nor are they licensed psychologists; strangely, this does not prevent them from charging customers for “grief counseling.”

* As in many other industries, the ownership of funeral homes and cemeteries is becoming concentrated in the hands of a few massive McMonopolies. In some areas of the country, as many as 70% of the funeral homes may be owned by one company (talk about price fixing!). Even more infuriating are the companies’ attempts to conceal ownership from consumers; they would much rather have you believe that you’re purchasing a plan from kindly old “Uncle” Jack, who handled your grandmother’s funeral arrangements so many years ago.

Of course, these are but a few of the insidious practices engaged in by the “funeral men.” The author manages to fill a full 274 pages with the others.

Ms. Mitford also explains where the Federal Trade Commission was (and has been) while millions of Americans were (are) being ripped off during their time of utmost vulnerability. The answer certainly won’t give you much faith in the current state of our government (unless you share Mark Twain’s sentiments: “I think I can say, and say with pride, that we have legislatures that bring higher prices than any in the world.”).

“The American Way of Death Revisited” is actually a revised and updated version of 1963’s “The American Way of Death.” While Ms. Mitford does offer some new information and insight, including more on the FTC and the development of McMortuaries, much of the information is dated. For example, many of the price quotes are still in 1960s currency. For this reason alone, I’d give the book 4.5 stars rather than 5.

Nonetheless, “The American Way of Death Revisited” is an impressive and shocking piece of work. It’s interesting to note how the “American Way of Death” is a relative recent phenomenon, and not a longstanding tradition, as those in the industry would have you believe. England is proud to boast that they’re 50 years behind us in their funerary practices; let’s hope that, through collective action, we can regress even further back than 50 years, to the days of simple pine coffins and home viewings.

(This review was originally published on Amazon and Library Thing, and is also available on Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you think it so!)