October 06, 2011

The American Way of Death by Jessica Mitford

What an interesting book. Mitford takes the time to explain the funeral industry and some of the general problems with it. While it probably is highly controversial (especially if you're in the business) it does make some very good points. While there probably are honest people in the trade there are probably dishonest too (like any other profession) and sadly this can effect a lot of people. My own experiences with funerals have been largely reflective of the bad so I am a tad biased as well.

In this book the most attention Mitford gives is to the cost of the funeral. Mind now that Mitford wrote this book in the 60's so obviously figures have changed, but the premise is still sound. Only now you just need to add about 10,000 to the total figure for a funeral. She explores the sky high prices on services, coffins, flowers, and other items associated with a funeral.

Next she moves on to the odd way Americans have of making a funeral be open casket with the body to view by anyone as it is embalmed and dressed up for the occasion. I have always thought this was strange and somewhat disgusting and was surprised to learn that the United States is largely the only practitioner of this concept (this might have changed since the 60's). This concept she writes about also includes the fancy accessories a corpse can have like special mattresses in a coffin, special shoes, and other such items. My thought is, what on earth for? A corpse will not get a bad back or arches! That may seem disrespectful but to me it just seems silly.

She also visits the new concept of cemeteries and how not only their name has become something fancy (Restful Meadows, etc.) but you can now have a garden plot for your loved one or a special crypt overlooking the sea. This also seems a bit silly to me as I'd hope whatever happens after death, the person is not stuck in their coffin.

Throughout the book she includes excerpts from funeral director's magazines and other such articles in which they are trying to sell the best and have a strong suspicion against clergy and other type folks who may convince people they only need a simple funeral. The seriousness of some of the statements by these people almost makes it seem like someones trying to start a revolution rather than just pick a wooden coffin over a metal one. While I understand its their livelihood its not the end of the world; money is still being spent.

Surprisingly in the last chapter Mitford seems to reverse a bit on what she's saying and state that there's hope yet and things are changing. While it is a positive chapter it just doesn't fit with what she's been reiterating in the rest of the book and doesn't follow the tone she set for all the chapters previous. My other complaint on the book would be that she does tend to repeat herself quite a bit. She'll go over the same concept in several different parts of the book. They may vary a little in detail, but not much.

I now know that she's written a sequel to this book titled "American Way of Death Revisited." This was written not that long ago and I definitely want to read it as it will be interesting to see if she thinks anythings improved since she wrote this book. While I think she's provided a key perspective that there's something wrong in the industry, I do have to agree with the industry that ultimately people are spending the money. They may be being taken advantage of after the decision to spend is made, but they are not educating themselves to prevent it. As for me, even before reading this book I had already decided to donate my body to a body farm. I do highly recommend reading this book though, as everyone should be educated on something that is eventually going to happen to them.

The American Way of Death
Copyright 1963
287 pages plus chapter notes, an appendix, list of places you can donate your body, sample forms, and an index

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