The American Way of Death Revisitedby Jessica Mitford
"Mitford's funny and unforgiving book is the best memento mori we are likely to get. It should be updated and reissued each decade for our spiritual health."The New York Review of Books
Only the scathing wit and searching intelligence of Jessica Mitford could turn an exposé of the American funeral industry into a book that/i>… See more details below
"Mitford's funny and unforgiving book is the best memento mori we are likely to get. It should be updated and reissued each decade for our spiritual health."The New York Review of Books
Only the scathing wit and searching intelligence of Jessica Mitford could turn an exposé of the American funeral industry into a book that is at once deadly serious and side-splittingly funny. When first published in 1963 this landmark of investigative journalism became a runaway bestseller and resulted in legislation to protect grieving families from the unscrupulous sales practices of those in "the dismal trade."
Just before her death in 1996, Mitford thoroughly revised and updated her classic study. The American Way of Death Revisited confronts new trends, including the success of the profession's lobbyists in Washington, inflated cremation costs, the telemarketing of pay-in-advance graves, and the effects of monopolies in a death-care industry now dominated by multinational corporations. With its hard-nosed consumer activism and a satiric vision out of Evelyn Waugh's novel The Loved One, The American Way of Death Revisited will not fail to inform, delight, and disturb.
"BrillianthilariousA must-read for anyone planning to throw a funeral in their lifetime."New York Post
"Witty and penetratingit speaks the truth."The Washington Post
Very interesting, informative, and easy to read, this book is written with wit, solid information, and refreshing bluntness. Everyone will benefit from it. -- Edward G. McCormack, University of Southern Mississippi Gulf Coast Library
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Read an Excerpt
The American Way of Death Revisited
By Jessica Mitford
Vintage Books USACopyright © 2000 Jessica Mitford
All right reserved.
When funeral directors have taxed me--which they have, and not infrequently--with being beastly about them in my book, I can affirm in good conscience that there is hardly an unkind word about them. In fact, the book is almost entirely given over to expounding their point of view. It is chock a block with their Wise Sayings, observations, exhortations, and philosophical reflections culled from funeral trade magazines and interviews with individual funeral directors and official spokesmen.
I did mention that "like every other successful salesman, the funeral salesman must first and foremost believe in himself and his product" (pages 151-52), and that "they long to be worthy of high regard, to he liked and understood, a most human longing.... Merchants of a rather grubby order, preying on the grief, remorse, and guilt of survivors, or trained professional men with high standards of ethical conduct? The funeral men really would vastly prefer to fit the latter category" (page 155).
To what extent, if any, has their outlook changed over the decades? I had a rare opportunity to observe a representative cross section of the industry in action when to my astonished delight I was invited by Ron Hast, editor of Mortuary Management, to be a featured speaker at a two-day Funeral Service Seminar to take place in October 1995 in Tiburon, California. "That's like Ralph Nader being invited to address General Motors!" a friend said. For me, the anticipation was akin to that felt by a five-year-old promised a trip to Disneyland, or a teenager offered a bit part in a Hollywood movie.
The reality did not disappoint. Tiburon is in Marin County, which, aside from being one of the richest communities in the country, has a cremation rate of about three times that of the national average. And thereby hangs a tale; for while the seminar topics could have fit handily into any trade-meeting agenda--"Maintaining an Effective Workforce," "Responding to Community Trends," "Better Public Relations," etc.--the subtext of many a speech was how to extract maximum profit from cremation.
We gathered in the Tiburon Lodge meeting hall overlooking a huge swimming pool, a congenial WASPish crowd consisting of forty-four funeral directors from around the country, five presidents of casket companies, a few insurance men, the president of Dinair Airbrush Systems, and various spouses.
Welcoming the group, our host--Ron Hast--glumly mentioned that there had been plenty of protest about my presence at the seminar, not the least of which was a state funeral directors' association executive's dire threat to have his members cancel their subscriptions to Mortuary Management.
The audience was soon put at ease by the first speaker, perhaps appropriately from the world of big business: John Baker, spry young former manager of a United Airlines subsidiary with a staff of one thousand, responsible for all employee programs. His subject: "How to Maintain an Effective Workforce," which he attacked con brio, with much folksy banter and down-home humor. His first question to the audience established the tone: "Who's minding the store when you're away?" Someone answered, "My wife." "Are you sure you can trust her?" Gales of laughter. And: "Be sure to chitchat with your customer." "But our customers don't talk!" quipped a casket manufacturer to much hilarity.
The rest of his speech was unexceptional, about a Motivation Study he had conducted to find out what employees value most about their jobs. He assured us that job security, wages, and fringe benefits came far down on the list. First and foremost were Appreciation, Inclusion, Being Part of a Team. "People want to be touched, loved, hugged," said Mr. Baker. "Lots of touchy-feely! You can buy toy dinosaurs, three for 99 cents--give one to a worthy employee! Put his name in the firm newsletter! Give them balloons--people are mad for it! Invite them to a staff meeting...."
Our next speaker, Tom Fisher, was a man of many parts: regular feature writer for Mortuary Management, owner-director of a North Dakota funeral home, and, as we learned from his opening remarks, a longtime, much admired radio and TV personality in his home state. "I'm known as Dakota Tom," he told us.
Speaking in the sonorous tones of his calling, he evinced a poignant nostalgia for past glories: "My vocation in funeral services began at a time when the Golden Age of this profession was coming to an end," he said. "Funeral practitioners who brought sophistication, expansion and acceptance of mortuary services, goods, and equipment to the national marketplace were no more. With their passing, the onset of a professional menopause took place. Isolationism, self-protective insulation from outside forces--these were the attitudes encouraged by industry leadership."
As an Outside Force, I shifted uncomfortably in my chair at the thought of having caused a professional menopause. But Dakota Tom now launched into his major theme: the lessons he had learned from his radio and TV career. "Basically, this gave me a unique opportunity. The rewards were immeasurable in terms of experience because radio/television accorded me the chance to appreciate the full extent of the power of media image-making. Here is the point I make to you. We, as funeral directors and suppliers, have all kinds of problems on our respective plates these days, but I am here to tell you the greatest of these is based in our lack of identity and image. The public we serve--those consumers we market--aren't buying into our programming. When we witness a high-profile funeral on television, it warms our hearts. Those occasions are not frequent enough in their occurrence to build consumer image."
The solution, he believes, is for funeral directors and suppliers to "scrap the present inefficient marketing methods," pool their resources, and produce fifteen- to thirty-second commercials which "could be delivered by a respected, recognized spokesperson such as a Lloyd Bridges type." The commercials would "affirm the personality of the industry. They should speak of memorialization, the reason for American funeral service. We could finally become the professionals we want to be and should be." Ideal network programs for these commercials would be "Today," "Good Morning America," and "Regis and Kathie Lee": "We should target the 18-to-25-year-olds. Remember, they are the ones who will be making arrangements for their parents. This is a passionate cause for me...."
His peroration: "Funeral service may be listing a bit under the strain of too much undue criticism. But I don't think we have anyone to blame for that but ourselves. We don't have to apologize to consumers, to critics or to anyone else....
"When The American Way of Death became a best-seller, funeral service went on a diet from which it never recovered. She was trying to tell us we should do something positive about ourselves. We have nothing to apologize for."
Next up, the wondrously named Enoch Glascock offered what he described as "an odyssey." Graduating from mortuary school at the age of twenty-three, his first job was in Greenwood Park, San Diego. "It's the Forest Lawn of San Diego," he told us, with three crematoria on the premises. But its selling methods were hopelessly wrong. People would ask for cremation--and there was stiff competition among the staff as to how quickly they could get rid of a cremation family. Some employees bragged that they could do it in twelve minutes! "That wasn't right," said Mr. Glascock. "I started talking with the cremation families, explaining their many options. When they realized the possibilities, some wanted the deceased present for the service. Some found it of value to purchase a cremation casket.
"As we went forward, management asked me to meet with all the cremation families. We only had two urns, tucked away on a shelf. I built an urn display and got a rental casket. We had a beautiful statue of Christ near the display, and niches by a babbling brook--those sold like hotcakes! We taught the rest of the staff these techniques. Families are served when there are options. But it's tragically wrong to sell anything," Mr. Glascock emphasized. "We go for informed buying choices."
Mr. Glascock's next job was with Pierce Brothers in Los Angeles. By then he had become an expert in the cremation business, and his new employer sought his advice on developing a cremation market. "Pierce did very few cremations, although they had the first crematory in Los Angeles. They just weren't doing it right." His first step was to conduct a community survey in which respondents were asked three questions; (1) Do you know the name Pierce? Many answered "Yes," as Pierce had high name recognition in the area. (2) What do you know about cremation--can you have a traditional funeral with cremation? Most people answered "No" to that. (3) What does one do with the ashes? Almost everyone thought that ashes should be scattered.
The last two answers showed where the trouble lay--and pointed to the solution. "I'd spend at least an hour with the cremation family, and I'd come out with an urn, a memorial plaque, flowers",
Over the years, Mr. Glascock continued to perfect his methods. "We came up with '$495 Forever Cremation,' although this $495 didn't last forever," he told us. (Too true. Checking later with Pierce Brothers, I learned that the rock-bottom price in 1995 was $728.) He listed Pierce Brothers under "Cremation" in the Yellow Pages and in the obit pages of the newspapers. He put the emphasis on urns; at that time, the urns were too small, so he arranged for bigger ones.
Further outlining his strategy, he explained, "I welcome the family as I would guests to my own home. I offer the rest room, soda, hospitality. Today, I'd come out with embalming, dressing, visitation. At the end of the arrangements conference, we hold hands, say a prayer, have coffee. I'm a tour guide! We are starting to see more memorialization with cremation. We must all be tour guides."
He gives the family the vital statistics form and tells them he will obtain the death certificate. "I say that we are required to show them a price list. So I give them the price list and tell them I'm leaving them to read it; go out of the room for about five minutes, or as long as needed to smoke a cigarette. I ask if they have any questions. We don't accept cash--we take checks or credit cards. We don't do accounts receivable." And when it's all over, "we send a card and a little tree."
He left us with a final anecdote: "A family came from Pacific Palisades. Later, we heard from the daughter, who told me, 'You took care of our mother. We had discussed your firm among others. I want to share a thought: we almost didn't use you, your prices were so low. But then we talked with you and your staff multiple times and concluded you are 'Our Sort of People.'"
As introduced in the program notes, Ron Hast "created the Casket Airtray, and presented it to funeral service in May of 1960--a design that continues unchanged." (There is a color photo of "The Air Casketray Combination" and the "Original Casket Airtray" on the back of Mortuary Management under the headline FRATERNAL TWINS. They are cardboard shipping boxes, each in a wooden tray fitted for the purpose.) Publisher of Mortuary Management, Funeral Monitor, and Mortuary Science Monitor, he is also part owner of Abbot & Hast funeral homes. His topic for the seminar: "Easy, Low-Cost Methods of Public Relations."
For starters, how to achieve name recognition? One funeral home gives turkeys at Thanksgiving and Christmas to deserving families--that is, to doctors, hospital executives, and others in a position to steer cases their way. (I remember in the dim past being told by a physician friend of receiving such gifts; his only complaint was that the turkey was delivered in a hearse, which he felt caused his patients some uneasiness.)
Ron Hast suggested that there are "more subtle ways of building real strength in your community. The important factor is to give something which allows everyone to participate.
"For example, apples cost 39 cents a pound with a discount by the case. You could buy ten cases at Lucky's and make up packages of these with enough apples for everybody to get one. You could give a package to the employees of the local police station with a card saying, 'We appreciate your fine service, with thanks from XYZ Chapel.' Then--the officer on the next death call will remember XYZ! It's cheap and easy. Take some to the ambulance service, the nurses' lounge, the city health department--with a card, 'Thanks for your good service.' It's cheap, it goes right to the heart of people in a position to remember your name. This concept works."
Then there is that all-important matter of gaining patronage via the clergy. For this, Mr. Hast hit on the simple and highly effective scheme of having a photo taken of each local church. He showed samples of these, which cost 80 cents apiece. "We give hundreds of these to the minister, who can sell them to the parishioners for $10 apiece, thus raising $1,000 for the church fund," he explained.
There was more to come. The Hast mortuary hired students for an hour or so after school to do odd jobs around the premises. Mr. Hast estimates that each student brings in an average of two cases a year.
Lastly--"System. Remember the word System." Too many people, he explained, find it difficult to write letters; they keep putting it off, the moment passes, the letter never gets written. To overcome this obstacle, one can get five hundred cards and envelopes inscribed with the name of the sender for $100. He flourished some sample cards. "Send one to the lady at Kaiser who referred a death, and simply write on it, 'The family appreciated your kindness to them.'"
The brothers Kevin and Mark Waterston titled their talk "Niche Marketing," a double entendre for those attuned to mortuary-speak; a niche is a repository for cremation ashes but also a specific area of commerce, geddit? The Waterston Funeral Home in Minneapolis was started by their father, a "traditional" funeral director, Ron Hast told us in his introduction; but Kevin and Mark are very nontraditional. "They operate out of one building that will serve more than 2,000 a year, over five percent of all the deaths in Minnesota. They are true marketers," he said. "They have a pre-need backlog of more than 20,000. And in the last several years they've served more than 1,000 new families each year."
Like Tom Fisher, the brothers see "identity as the major problem in funeral service." They learned much from the books Marketing Warfare and Bottom-up Marketing by Jack Trout and Al Ries, which led them to establish a cremation marketing "niche" in Minnesota. "We don't treat cremation as a stepchild, we treat all families the same," said Mark Waterston. "We put the service into cremation. Other funeral homes don't do this. It's strictly a volume-type operation." They are also devoted believers in the power of advertising. "We spend $200,000 on advertising. If you want to get into my niche, can you top $75,000 in mailing brochures?"
Aside from the set speeches, there were a couple of early morning treats before the regular meeting got under way.
First of these was a "60 Minutes" documentary dated December 20, 1980, on the subject of the Neptune Society. The video shows Colonel Denning, known as Colonel Cinders (now on his ninth wife, we are told), proclaiming on camera that in eight years he has saved the public $40 million by providing cremations for $400. Much scornful comment from the assemblage, as the rock-bottom minimum offered by Neptune has risen in fifteen years to over $1,000.
Of greater interest was the live demonstration by Dina Ousley, luscious blond president of Dinair Airbrush Systems, of her maquillage as applied to corpses. Dinair offers a range of products to actors on stage or screen, plus a "Fantasy Kit" and "Theme Park & Large Event Systems" with spray makeup in turquoise, black, and white plus glitter. Their price list offers a large variety of stencils, including stars, whales, skeletons, skulls and crossbones....
An appreciative audience clustered round as Ms. Ousley deftly sprayed the face of Max Carroll, owner of a Stockton funeral parlor standing in (or rather lying in) for the cadaver. Later, she told me something of her recent successes in progressing from show biz to mortuary work. "I've had a wonderful response on the Internet," she said. "I've sold to mortuaries from Ireland to Argentina, and was at the National Funeral Directors Association annual meeting in Florida this year. Rose Hills in Whittier, California, bought three systems. They're big business--buried a hundred in one day!"
The "Glamour Kit" consists of a compressor, airbrush hose, cleaner, holder, and makeup in a tote case. "It's the ultimate camouflage, a technique comparable to pointillism in art," she said. An important feature is its use after the embalmer has completed restorative work on an accident case, in which replacements are used to repair the injured face. "The airbrush can create little frown lines, wrinkles, crow's-feet, to give a more natural look."
Once the mortician has acquired the system, which sells for $850, the cost per customer is minimal; the makeup bottles cost $15.75, each containing up to forty applications. "We have a portable system in a little carrying case that can be taken to a church or other site of the funeral."
Ms. Ousley thinks there would be much less demand for direct cremation if "people didn't look so dead--if they looked more alive. People choose cremation with no viewing because the body didn't look good before my method was in use." She told me that a recent survey showed that 75 percent of mortuary customers are unhappy with the appearance of the deceased. "I want to help them grieve properly. I myself want to look good leaving here! I just think it helps."
As for my part, I was the last speaker, billed in the program as having had "a profound impact on the changes experienced in postdeath-care services." Ron Hast told the audience that "she will share her insights about funeral service," so I shared away, much to the displeasure of some of my listeners.
First, I gave them a rundown on the origins of The American Way of Death--how I came to write the book, as described in the introduction to the present revised volume. Next, I quoted from some of the reviews that appeared when the book was first published: the favorable ones from a dozen mainstream newspapers and magazines, followed by the unforgettable fulminations of the funeral trade press inveighing against "the notorious Jessica Mitford," "the Mitford blast," "the Mitford missile." But the main point, and the reason I had been invited to speak, was a preview of the forthcoming revised American Way of Death, based on recent developments in the death industries such as huge price increases, ingenious methods of extracting the maximum from cremation customers, and monopolization of the industry.
After my talk, the first question was, "How much money did you make from The American Way of Death?" "Absolute tons," I answered. "So much I can't even count it--it made my fortune." Audible groans from the audience.
There were a few more questions, some about the Federal Trade Commission, some about the anticipated response to the Service Corporation International (SCI) invasion of Britain. In answer to the latter, I tried to explain that I thought it unlikely that the Brits would ever fall for the American way--the idea of people gathering to gaze at a corpse in a coffin wouldn't catch on. Nor would they embrace the notion of undertakers as grief therapists. The session ended with a short, sharp interchange in which a funeral director refused to tell the assemblage what his exact prices were because, as he explained, he did not wish to divulge this information to his competitors.
Later that day, some of us gathered round the lodge swimming pool for a chat with Tom Fisher. Karen Leonard, my researcher, asked him to elaborate on the point he had made at the meeting about outside forces. "Since you were in the business in 1963, can you talk a bit about the reaction to The American Way of Death?" she asked.
In his Dakota Tom mode, Mr. Fisher replied: "I said in my speech that I applaud Jessica Mitford. She did us the greatest favor this industry ever experienced. We were flaccid and a little fat around our waist, and I said we were a little smug up here. I said that cleansed us of that. It put us on a diet. The problem was that the funeral directors overreacted so badly, the diet became a starvation diet, and they never found the strength, you know, for almost twenty-five years, to find their way out--how to do something for themselves--so I always applaud her."
Enclosed in the seminar program was a sheet in which participants were asked to rate the speakers, with a space for comments on each. Avid to hear how I had scored, a few days later I rang up Ron Hast. Enoch Glascock came in first of the seven speakers, he said, but I was No. 2. The comments on my talk ranged from "very complimentary" to "very adverse." He read out a few examples. Under complimentary: "A true brush with history, a wonderful perspective." "Delightful, but she appeared to irritate many in the audience." Adverse: "She's still a cancer--how easily we forget all the damage she did, making a mockery of funeral service." "Most unnecessary to provide a platform for a critic of our profession." There had also been some phone calls, Mr. Hast told me: "One was somebody from Michigan State Funeral Directors Association, a pompous numskull, I couldn't repeat his language!"
In a subsequent Mortuary Management editorial entitled "Tuning In or Out," Ron Hast made some of the same points as Tom Fisher had in his poolside chat. He stoutly defended his decision to invite me; as to those who threatened to stop their subscriptions to Mortuary Management, he would "encourage them to call us at our expense to cancel their subscriptions--then go and put their heads back in the sand."
"We may or may not agree with the beliefs or expressions of Jessica Mitford," he wrote. ". . . Statistics now demonstrate throughout North America that simplicity or funeral avoidance is now the tradition in many regions. The American funeral-buying public has changed, and continues to change.... Ms. Mitford asked questions and listened to the answers more than thirty years ago, and produced something the public wanted to hear. Is it not time for us to do the same? ...
"Can we expect to receive bouquets and laudatory cheers from Jessica Mitford in her new book? I think not. In fact, it is sensible to anticipate volatile criticism of current practices and agendas targeting death-care providers."
Reflecting on what I had gleaned from the Tiburon experience, I have concluded that not much has changed over the years in the way undertakers see their world. They would still "vastly prefer" to be looked on as "trained professional men with high standards of ethical conduct," but the exigencies of their trade still force them into the role of "merchants of a rather grubby order." Enoch Glascock's exposition of how to manipulate a family bent on a simple cremation into buying a full-fledged funeral was for me a high point of the seminar--I agreed with the No. 1 rating accorded him by his colleagues. But how does that fit in with Ron Hast's perception that "simplicity or funeral avoidance is now the tradition in many regions"? Or with the general tone of his and Tom Fisher's remarks about the impact of The American Way of Death?
Possibly it was the split personality of the calling, arising out of its inherent contradictions, that led to my invitation in the first place.
The American Way of Death
How long, I would ask, are we to be subjected to the tyranny of custom and undertakers? Truly, it is all vanity and vexation of spirit--a mere mockery of woe, costly to all, far, far beyond its value; and ruinous to many; hateful, and an abomination to all; yet submitted to by all, because none have the moral courage to speak against it and act in defiance of it.
O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? Where, indeed. Many a badly stung survivor, faced with the aftermath of some relative's funeral, has ruefully concluded that the victory has been won hands down by a funeral establishment--in a disastrously unequal battle.
Much fun has been poked at some of the irrational "status symbols" set out like golden snares to trap the unwary consumer at every turn. Until recently, little has been said about the most irrational and weirdest of the lot, lying in ambush for all of us at the end of the road--the modern American funeral.
If the Dismal Traders (as an eighteenth-century English writer calls them) have traditionally been cast in a comic role in literature, a universally recognized symbol of humor from Shakespeare to Dickens to Evelyn Waugh, they have successfully turned the tables in recent years to perpetrate a huge, macabre, and expensive practical joke on the American public. It is not consciously conceived of as a joke, of course; on the contrary, it is hedged with admirably contrived rationalizations.
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. The same familiar Madison Avenue language, with its peculiar adjectival range designed to anesthetize sales resistance to all sorts of products, has seeped into the funeral industry in a new and bizarre guise. The emphasis is on the same desirable qualities that we have been schooled to look for in our daily search for excellence: comfort, durability, beauty, craftsmanship. The attuned ear will recognize, too, the convincing quasi-scientific language, so reassuring even if unintelligible.
So that this too too solid flesh might not melt, we are offered "solid cooper--a quality casket which offers superb value to the client seeking long-lasting protection," or "the Colonial Classic beauty--18 gauge lead coated steel, seamless top, lap-jointed welded body construction." Some are equipped with foam rubber, some with innerspring mattresses. Batesville offers "beds that lift and tilt." Not every casket need have a silver lining, for one may choose among a rich assortment of "color-matched shades" in nonabrasive fabrics. Shrouds no longer exist. Instead, you may patronize a grave-wear couturiere who promises "handmade original fashions--styles from the best in life for the last memory-dresses, men's suits, negligees, accessories." For the final, perfect grooming: "Nature-Glo--the ultimate in cosmetic embalming." And where have we heard that phrase "peace-of-mind protection" before? No matter. In funeral advertising, it is applied to the Wilbert Burial Vault, with its 3/8-inch precast asphalt inner liner plus extra-thick, reinforced concrete--all this "guaranteed by Good Housekeeping." Here again the Cadillac, status symbol par excellence, appears in all its gleaming glory, this time transformed into a sleek funeral hearse. Although lesser vehicles are now used to collect the body and the permits, the Cad is still the conveyance of choice for the Loved One's last excursion to the grave.
You, the potential customer for all this luxury, are unlikely to read the lyrical descriptions quoted above, for they are culled from Mortuary Management and other trade magazines of the industry. For you there are the ads in your daily newspaper, generally found on the obituary page, stressing dignity, refinement, high-caliber professional service, and that intangible quality, sincerity. The trade advertisements are, however, instructive, because they furnish an important clue to the frame of mind into which the funeral industry has hypnotized itself.
A new mythology, essential to the twentieth-century American funeral rite, has grown up--or rather has been built up step-by-step--to justify the peculiar customs surrounding the disposal of our dead. And just as the witch doctor must be convinced of his own infallibility in order to maintain a hold over his clientele, so the funeral industry has had to "sell itself" on its articles of faith in the course of passing them along to the public.
The first of these is the tenet that today's funeral procedures are founded in "American tradition." The story comes to mind of a sign on the freshly sown lawn of a brand-new Midwestern college: "There is a tradition on this campus that students never walk on this strip of grass. This tradition goes into effect next Tuesday." The most cursory look at American funerals of past times will establish the parallel. Simplicity to the point of starkness, the plain pine box, the laying out of the dead by friends and family who also bore the coffin to the grave--these were the hallmarks of the traditional American funeral until the end of the nineteenth century.
Secondly, there is the myth that the American public is only being given what it wants--an opportunity to keep up with the Joneses to the end. "In keeping with our high standard of living, there should be an equally high standard of dying," says an industry leader. "The cost of a funeral varies according to individual taste and the niceties of living the family has been accustomed to." Actually, choice doesn't enter the picture for average individuals faced, generally for the first time, with the necessity of buying a product of which they are totally ignorant, at a moment when they are least in a position to quibble. In point of fact, the cost of a funeral almost always varies, not "according to individual taste" but according to what the traffic will bear.
Thirdly, there is an assortment of myths based on half-digested psychiatric theories. The importance of the "memory picture" is stressed--meaning the last glimpse of the deceased in an open casket, done up with the latest in embalming techniques and finished off with a dusting of makeup. Another, impressively authentic-sounding, is the need for "grief therapy," which is big now in mortuary circles. A historian of American funeral directing hints at the grief-therapist idea when speaking of the new role of the undertaker--"the dramaturgic role, in which the undertaker becomes a stage manager to create an appropriate atmosphere and to move the funeral party through a drama in which social relationships are stressed and an emotional catharsis or release is provided through ceremony."
Lastly, a whole new terminology, as ornately shoddy as the rayon satin casket liner, has been invented by the funeral industry to replace the direct and serviceable vocabulary of former times. "Undertaker" has been supplanted by "funeral director" or "mortician." (Even the classified section of the telephone directory gives recognition to this; in its pages you will find "Undertakers--see Funeral Directors.") Coffins are "caskets"; hearses are "coaches" or "professional cars"; flowers are "floral tributes"; corpses generally are "loved ones," but mortuary etiquette dictates that a specific corpse be referred to by name only--as "Mr. Jones"; cremated ashes are "cremains." Euphemisms such as "slumber room," "reposing room," and "calcination--the kindlier heat" abound in the funeral business.
If the undertaker is the stage manager of the fabulous production that is the modern American funeral, the stellar role is reserved for the occupant of the open casket. The decor, the stagehands, the supporting cast are all arranged for the most advantageous display of the deceased, without which the rest of the paraphernalia would lose its point--Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark. It is to this end that a fantastic array of costly merchandise and services is pyramided to dazzle the mourners and facilitate the plunder of the next of kin.
Grief therapy, anyone? But it's going to come high. According to the funeral industry's own figures, the average undertaker's bill--$750 in 1961 for casket and "services"--is now $4,700, to which must be added the cost of a burial vault, flowers, clothing, clergy and musician's honorarium, and cemetery charges. When these costs are added to the undertaker's bill, the total average cost for an adult's funeral today is $7,800.
The question naturally arises, is this what most people want for themselves and their families? For several reasons, this has been a hard one to answer until recently. It is a subject seldom discussed. Those who have never had to arrange for a funeral frequently shy away from its implications, preferring to take comfort in the thought that sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof. Those who have acquired personal and painful knowledge of the subject would often rather forget about it. Pioneering "funeral societies" or "memorial associations" dedicated to the principle of funerals at reasonable cost do exist in a number of communities throughout the country, but until recently their membership was limited to the more sophisticated element in the population--university people, liberal intellectuals--and those who, like doctors and lawyers, come up against problems in arranging funerals for their clients.
Some indication of the pent-up resentment felt by vast numbers of people against the funeral interests was furnished by the astonishing response to Roul Tunley's 1961 Saturday Evening Post article. As though a dike had burst, letters poured in from every part of the country to the funeral societies, to local newspapers. They came from clergymen, professional people, old-age pensioners, trade unionists. Three months after the article appeared, an estimated six thousand had taken pen in hand to comment on some phase of the high cost of dying. Many recounted their own bitter experiences at the hands of funeral directors; hundreds asked for advice on how to establish a consumer organization in communities where none exists; others sought information about prepayment plans. Thirty years later, the situation seems worse. In 1993 I wrote a letter encouraging funeral simplicity which appeared in a "Dear Abby" column. More than thirty thousand people wrote asking for information about funeral-planning societies. The funeral industry, finding itself in the glare of the public spotlight, continues to engage in serious debate about its own future course--as well it might.
Some entrepreneurs are already testing the waters with stripped-down, low-cost operations. One, calling itself "Church and Chapel Funeral Service," contracts with conventional funeral homes to lower costs by doing the unthinkable--moving the service out of the mortuary to a church, a cemetery chapel, even a nursing home.
In 1994 Russ Harman launched Affordable Funeral Service in a Washington, D.C., suburb. Taking the low-cost approach to the extreme, he operates with no facilities outside his own home. He uses private residences, churches, or, if viewing the deceased is desired, a rented mortuary. The basic strategy, according to Ron Hast's Funeral Monitor, is to keep overhead low. A white, unmarked van is used instead of a hearse. There are no limos. Business is booming, with three vans patrolling the nation's capital and lone vans in five other cities. Harman's next project is to take the operation nationwide. Will Affordable Funeral Service be able to do it? It seems likely, since late word is that it has been swooped into the net of SCI, whose worldwide operations are the subject of chapter 16.
Is the funeral inflation bubble ripe for bursting? Back in the sixties, the American public suddenly rebelled against the trend in the auto industry towards ever more showy cars, with their ostentatious and nonfunctional fins, and a demand was created for compact cars patterned after European models. The all-powerful U.S. auto industry, accustomed to telling customers what sort of car they wanted, was suddenly forced to listen for a change. Overnight, the little cars became for millions a new kind of status symbol. Could it be that the same cycle is working itself out in the attitude towards the final return of dust to dust, that the American public is becoming sickened by ever more ornate and costly funerals, and that a status symbol of the future may indeed be the simplest kind of "funeral without fins"?
Excerpted from The American Way of Death Revisited by Jessica Mitford Copyright © 2000 by Jessica Mitford. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Jessica Mitfordof the notorious Mitford clanwas one of the most celebrated muckraking journalists of our time. Among her books are Daughters and Rebels, The Trial of Dr. Spock, and Poison Penmanship: The Gentle Art of Muckraking. Until her death in 1996, she lived in Oakland, California, with her husband, the labor lawyer Robert Treuhaft.
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