July 23: Jessica Mitford died on this day in 1996. Having laid bare the funeral industry in her bestselling The American Way of Death, Mitford was not about to lose an opportunity with her own passing. She eschewed the Fit-A-Fut, the Post Mortem Form Restoration Bra and all the rest, opting for the simplest cremation service she could find, and a cheap urn—total bill $475. Afterwards, as directed, her research assistant sent the bill to Service Corporation International, America’s largest franchise funeral home operation and one of her book’s primary targets:
Ms. Mitford feels that you should pay the bill. In her own words “after all, look at all the fame I’ve brought them.” Enclosed you will find the statement of funeral goods and services selected. I’m sure you will appreciate her frugality. I think you will particularly like the price of $15.45 for the cremation container. While looking through SCI’s price lists while we were in Texas, we couldn’t find a cremation container for under a couple of hundred! Think of what it would have cost you if she had dropped in Houston!
Among Mitford’s other pre-mortem arrangements was the letter she wrote to a handful of friends and former students asking them to act as “bouncers” at her memorial service, giving “the bum’s rush” to anyone who spoke her praises and then added a qualifying, “but” comment. One speaker intentionally did this—because “What would a memorial to Decca be like if we all followed the rules?”—and at every “however” and “but” a chorus of protests and catcalls erupted. Mitford’s friends also granted her at least some of the pomp she had jokingly requested: the funeral procession wove through San Francisco with six plumed horses pulling an antique, glass-sided hearse, followed by the twelve-piece Green Street Mortuary Band.
All the fun might mitigate Mitford’s celebrated response to her friend, Evelyn Waugh’s review of The American Way of Death: “…I was amazed to note that it was quite pro, actually, at least said the book was funny etc. But he said I don’t have a ‘plainly stated attitude to death.’ So if you see him, tell him of course I’m against it….”
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.