The American Way Of Death Revisited

Stephanie Zacharek reviews 'The American Way of Death Revisited' by Jessica Mitford

By Stephanie Zacharek
Published July 29, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

Muckraking journalist and ballbreaker extraordinaire Jessica Mitford died in 1996, just as she was putting the finishing touches on this new version of her 1963 exposi of the funeral industry, "The American Way of Death." The original book, a classic not just because of its fearless exposure of scams and shams but also because Mitford's dry, witty style is a sheer pleasure to read, was ripe for updating. The book, which became a much-talked-about bestseller -- even Robert Kennedy had it in mind when he found himself faced with the sad task of arranging his brother's funeral -- raised the hackles of U.S. funeral directors with its scorching revelations of massively inflated prices and high-pressure selling of unnecessary products and services. Mitford's book raised awareness among the public and set in motion numerous reforms, but as this update shows, many of the old problems remain uncorrected, and new ones have popped up as well.

Some of Mitford's new tales from the crypt are enough to knock the pennies right off your eyes. In the past 35 years, cremation, long considered a less-expensive solution to the full-nine-yards burial (and thus an option funeral directors have historically tried to discourage) has become more common -- and accordingly, funeral directors (even the "honest" ones) have figured out ways to charge more for it. Although embalming is not, contrary to popular belief and to the claims of many morticians, required by law, funeral directors continue to assume that it's what all Americans want. And foregoing embalming will not help the savvy funeral shopper to save money, as most funeral directors charge the same amount to refrigerate remains as they do to embalm them. The most chilling of the new material profiles the large conglomerates, like the nefarious Service Corporation International (SCI), a huge organization that's been stealthily buying up small funeral homes across the United States as well as in Britain and Australia. The company centralizes those businesses' operations to cut costs, only to hike up consumer prices extravagantly -- all in the service, the company claims, of offering a wider range of "options" to the bereaved. After itemizing all the elements of a $20,000 SCI funeral, Mitford dryly observes that "readers can check out the SCI facilities in their own communities via 1-800-CARING."

Then, of course, there are all those nifty details that enthralled readers the first time around: a not-for-the-faint-of-heart embalming procedural (which several editors tried to excise when Mitford was originally shopping the book around) and a catalogue of oddball burial accouterments like the Fit-a-Fut Oxford, an adjustable shoe for the deceased (which, she notes, fell apart rapidly after her teenage son wore them around the house). But Mitford's sheer gutsiness remains the biggest delight of all. Doing a little undercover work, she calls an undertaker, posing as a woman whose aged aunt is rapidly nearing death. A simple cremation is all she wants, with no service and no casket. The funeral director responds calmly (and falsely) that it would be "illegal" for him "to enter into such an arrangement." "In that case, perhaps we could take a body straight to the crematorium in our station wagon?" she asks earnestly. Her goal then, as now, was to provoke, to call the bluff of people and organizations who might otherwise take consumers to the cleaners. It's wonderful to think that with "The American Way of Death Revisited," Mitford is still breaking balls from beyond the grave.

Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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