Memento Mori

The American Way of Death Revisited

by Jessica Mitford
Knopf, 296 pp., $25.00

Jessica Mitford
Jessica Mitford; drawing by David Levine

Jessica Mitford was working on The American Way of Death Revisited, an updated version of the book that changed a great many Americans’ attitude toward funerals, until a week before her death, two years ago. The original book had needed updating, and not just because three decades of inflation had added at least an extra zero to the prices. It had also inspired some changes: cremations, the simplest, cheapest type of funerals, rose from 3.75 percent of American dead to 21 percent, and the Federal Trade Commission introduced rules to protect the unwary funeral buyer.

Even so, Mitford is pessimistic in her new introduction. “Morticians,” she writes, “are fast developing techniques for upgrading [cremation] into a full-fig funeral,” and “the Federal Trade Commission’s much heralded trade rule has huge loopholes.” More important, independent funeral parlors and cemeteries are being taken over by monopolies which keep the price of dying artificially high. That last ride to Boot Hill is still the most expensive we ever take.

Since Mitford’s subject is the dreadful price of dying and the funeral industry’s methods of extracting money from the bereaved, it seems only just that the book became a best seller and made her rich. It also seems inevitable that the first indignant question she was asked at a Funeral Service Seminar soon after the original publication of the work was, “How much money did you make from The American Way of Death?” “Absolute tons,” she answered blithely, in her hearty English voice. “So much I can’t even count it—it made my fortune.”

The American Way of Death was first published at the height of the cold war, when death was on everyone’s mind. It appeared the year after the Cuban missile crisis and Herman Kahn’s Thinking About the Unthinkable, and the year before General “Buck” Turgidson (George C. Scott), in Dr. Strangelove, memorably summarized Kahn’s unthinkable thinking: “Mr. President, I’m not saying we won’t get our hair mussed…. But I do say, no more than ten to twenty million killed. Tops. Depending on the breeze.” Mitford’s book and Kubrick’s movie were both masterpieces of black humor; and they made fun of the sacred cows of the time with an equal glee. There is not much to choose between Slim Pickens riding an H-bomb to the last roundup and Mitford whooping it up at the expense of the funeral trade. Both works “cast derision upon/ Supersession of breath,” although their authors, no doubt, would also have cast derision upon Yeats’s grandiose way of putting it. But they did so optimistically, on the assumption that irony and intelligence still had a chance.

By the time the Sixties ended Richard Rovere was calling them “a slum of a decade,” but in 1963 the changes had hardly begun. It was before the kids had begun to “tune in, turn on, drop out,” before Allen Ginsberg started tinkling bells at…

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