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 love-ins, before sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, before the real nightmare in Vietnam began. In 1963, the American century was at its peak, the economy was booming, Senator McCarthy was dead and gone, and Kennedy, the last president with a well-tuned sense of irony, was in the White House. It seemed like a good time to lay into the hypocrites and the complacent.
Mitford had been laying into them all her life, starting with the members of her eccentric, aristocratic family. One of her sisters, Unity, was a dedicated Nazi, so infatuated with Hitler that she tried to kill herself when the war began; another, Diana, married Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Fascist party; Nancy, the oldest, wrote novels; and Deborah became Duchess of Devonshire. Jessica, who was the youngest, rebelled against the lot of them and joined the Communist Party. Her father, Lord Redesdale, was unperturbed by her politics but he disinherited her when she eloped, at the age of nineteen, with her second cousin—despite the fact that the cousin, Esmond Romilly, was Winston Churchill’s nephew. When the young couple went off to the Spanish Civil War, Churchill sent a naval destroyer to try to rescue them.
Romilly was killed in action in 1941. Mitford’s second husband, Bob Treuhaft, was a labor lawyer who had tangled with the funeral industry on the subject of union death benefits, and it was he who got her interested in the American way of death. More precisely, she started reading the funeral trade journals he brought home:
Their very names were captivating: Casket & Sunnyside, Mortuary Management, and my favorite, Concept: The Journal of Creative Ideas for Cemeteries. Once hooked, I found them to be compulsive reading, revealing a fantasy world I never knew existed: “Futurama, the casket styled for the future…” “The True Companion Crypt, where husband and wife may be truly together forever….” Spotting an ad for “The Practical Burial Footwear Company of Columbus, Ohio,” I sent for samples and was rewarded with a package containing the “Fit-a-Fut Oxford.” As a leaflet explains, these oxfords were specially designed, after two years of research, to fit the deceased foot after rigor mortis sets in. They are “fit-a-fut” because they lace up at the back as well as in the front, and the soles slope downwards.
As many other robust upper-class Englishwomen would be, she was entranced by the ghastliness of it all. She was also far too sure of herself to be troubled by questions of taste. The Dismal Traders had hitherto been protected from outside scrutiny by a certain public fastidiousness: no decent person would want to add to the misery of a grief-stricken family by suggesting they were being manipulated. Evelyn Waugh, of course, had written The Loved One back in 1948, but he was a novelist, so most people—that is, most people outside California—assumed he was laying on the vulgarity for his own devious satiric purposes.
Mitford was doing nothing as fancy or ambitious as novel-writing; her book was a straightforward piece of investigative journalism, stylish and witty but, unfortunately for the funeral industry, she wasn’t making it up. If Herman Kahn could think about the unthinkable, she could speak about the unspeakable. Or rather—and this was her special stroke of genius—she could make the undertakers do most of the speaking for her:
So that this too too solid flesh might not melt, we are offered “solid copper—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….”
…The women’s lingerie department of Practical Burial Foot-wear supplies a deluxe package, in black patent box with gold-embossed inscription, of “pantee, vestee,” and nylon hose, “strikingly smart—ultimate in distinction.” Also for the ladies are custom burial gowns, bootees, stole, and bra “for post mortem form restoration,” offered by Lipari Gowns of Johnstown, Pennsylvania.
Florence Gowns of Cleveland, Ohio, exhibited their line of “streetwear type garments and negligees,” together with something new, a line of “hostess gowns and brunch coats,” at a convention of the National Funeral Directors Association. However, the devotional set exhibit at the same meeting, put on by Kelco Supplies of Minneapolis, while it included “The Last Supper,” failed to come through with a “Last Brunch.”
It was all good clean fun and, to Mitford, it was irresistible. Most irresistible of all was the mass of evidence, so innocently provided by the trade itself, that funerals were a business like any other business, with expensive products and services to sell, and special techniques for selling them. It took a New York judge to point out that a funeral salesman almost always has an edge on the customer:
On the one side is generally a person greatly agitated or overwhelmed by vain regrets or deep sorrow, and on the other side persons whose business it is to minister to the dead for profit. One side is, therefore, often unbusiness-like, vague and forgetful, while the other is ordinarily alert, knowing and careful.
When it came to the sales pitch, however, the customer’s grief and guilt and confusion seemed not to bother the National Funeral Service Journal:
Buying habits are influenced largely by envy and environment. Don’t ever overlook the importance of these two factors in estimating the purchasing possibilities or potential of any family…. Envy is essentially the same as pride…. It is the idea of keeping up with the Joneses…. Sometimes it is only necessary to say, “…Here is a casket similar to the one the Joneses selected” to insure a selection in a substantially profitable bracket.
Funeral pomp and used cars are equal in the eye of the good salesman. Similarly, within the relative privacy of its professional journals, the various branches of the funeral business jostle as rancorously as any other industry for their share of the profits. When the cemetery owners complained that the undertakers were trying to cut them out of the action, “Mortuary Management stated editorially that it is the funeral director’s traditional prerogative to ‘get first whack at the family.”‘ As Walter Matthau said of poker, it “exemplifies the worst aspects of capitalism that have made our country so great.”
How the American funeral industry became great is a puzzle for foreigners. Outside North America, the undertaker is just another tradesman, like the butcher or the baker. Indeed, I suspect that some of Mitford’s cheerful scorn for their line of work was rooted, despite her left-wing politics, in the aristo’s disdain for people in trade. Emily Post was equally snooty. In the first edition of Etiquette, in 1923, she took for granted that undertaking was a profession “devoid of taste” and that a funeral director “will perform every rite that his professional ingenuity for expenditure can devise.” The profession took umbrage at Miss Post’s criticism and thirty years later the offending passage was deleted. In the interval, the American way of death had become just another manifestation of the Veblenesque American way of life. “If a person drives a Cadillac, why should he have a Pontiac funeral?” asked a San Francisco funeral director. In other words, “If you’ve got it, flaunt it.”
The funeral industry’s first step toward respectability was to clean up the language, starting with the trade descriptions. As Mitford wrote in 1963,
A whole new terminology, as ornately shoddy as the rayon 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.” …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 “calcification—the kindlier heat” abound in the funeral business.
Typical of the whole process was the replacement of “coffin” by “casket.” According to the big Oxford dictionary, “the only difference between an English ‘casket’ and ‘coffin’ is in the shape, the former being rectangular, and the latter, tapered or ‘kite-shaped.”‘ There is a considerable difference, however, in the word’s associations: coffins are only for corpses, but caskets may also contain jewels. Hawthorne called caskets “a vile modern phrase, which compels a person to shirk…from the idea of being buried at all.” But that is now precisely part of the word’s charm: it muffles the stark truth that a funeral involves the burial of a corpse.
The same is true of the change from “undertaker” to “funeral director.” The father of Thomas Lynch was an undertaker. Lynch has followed him into the family business, and he calls his book of essays The Undertaking. When he was small and his friends asked what his father did, he used to reply, “He takes them under. Get it? Under ground.” Not so a funeral director. Like the director of a movie or a play, he is someone who puts on a production to gratify the living, and the living, generally, don’t want to be reminded too brutally of the facts of death. “In undertaking establishments,” the anthropologist Nigel Barley writes in Grave Matters, “an iron distinction is made between front and back, just like that between on- and off-stage, the part the public can see and that absolutely off limits.”
Mitford’s original publishers—Victor Gollancz in England and Houghton Mifflin in the States—turned down her book because they objected to the savage relish of her description of the goings-on backstage—of how a dead body “is in short order sprayed, sliced, pierced, pickled, trussed, trimmed, creamed, waxed, painted, rouged, and neatly dressed—transformed from a common corpse into a Beautiful Memory Picture.” In Grave Matters, Nigel Barley thinks that is how death must inevitably be in a secular society. “In a culture that believes in neither afterlife nor reincarnation, memory is the only place left for identity to go.” For a traditionalist and devout Catholic like Evelyn Waugh, however, the Forest Lawn production was a sanctimonious sacrilege that denied death:
Dr. Eaton has set up his Credo at the entrance. “I believe in a happy Eternal Life,” he says…. This theme is repeated on Coleus Terrace. “Be happy because they for whom you mourn are happy—far happier than ever before.” And again in Vesperland: “…Happy because Forest Lawn has eradicated the old customs of Death and depicts Life not Death.”
The implication of these texts is clear. Forest Lawn has consciously turned its back on the “old customs of death,” the grim traditional alternatives of Heaven and Hell, and promises immediate eternal happiness for all its inmates. Similar claims are made for other holy places—the Ganges, Debra Lebanos in Abyssinia, and so on…. But there is a catch in most of these dispensations, a sincere repentance, sometimes an arduous pilgrimage, sometimes a monastic rule in the closing years. Dr. Eaton is the first man to offer eternal salvation at an inclusive charge as part of his undertaking service.1
Waugh saw Forest Lawn as just another theme park, a commercial enterprise devoted to the Disneyfication of death.2
The star of the American funeral, of course, is the embalmed Loved One, got up to look as if he were still in the best of health—not dead, not even gone before, but lingering on to enjoy his last appearance. And so he should be since it is his presence at the feast that justifies most of the expense: the rental of the “slumber room” for viewing (“How much would it cost you to stay in a good motel for three days?” an undertaker asked Mitford when she questioned his prices), the funeral wardrobe, ornate casket, and banks of flowers, the embalming and makeup (“the face was entirely horrible,” Waugh wrote in The Loved One: “as ageless as a tortoise and as inhuman; a painted and smirking obscene travesty”).
The United States and Canada are the only advanced societies in the world in which the corpse is routinely embalmed and put on display. “Foreigners are astonished by it,” says Mitford, although they may not stay astonished for long, now that the American funeral conglomerates are moving into Europe, swallowing up the small, decent family businesses that have done the job until now. Lynch’s father told him that the custom began
during the Civil War when, for the first time in our history, lots of people—mostly men, mostly soldiers—were dying far from home and the families that grieved them. Dismal traders worked in tents on the edge of the battlefields charging, one reckons, what the traffic would bear to disinfect, preserve, and “restore” dead bodies—which is to say they closed mouths, sutured bullet holes, stitched limbs or parts of limbs back on, and sent the dead back home to wives and mothers, fathers and sons.3
In short order, the American funeral industry transformed the success of “Dr.” Holmes—the man, Mitford writes, who “is often affectionately referred to as ‘the father of American embalming”‘—into a tradition with roots which, they claimed, “extend back in a direct line several thousand years to early Judaeo-Christian beliefs as to the nature of God, man and the hereafter.” Not true, says Mitford; embalming “originated with the pagan Egyptians and reached its high point in the second millennium BC. Thereafter, [it] suffered a decline from which it did not recover until it was made part of the standard funeral service in twentieth-century America.”
The Greek historian Diodorus Siculus scorned embalming as “a kind of inverted necromancy,” the Jews and early Christians regarded it as a pagan custom, and in 1299, according to Barley, Pope Boniface VIII denounced it as “an abuse of abominable savagery, practiced by some of the faithful in a horrible way and inconsiderately.” “A ‘long, slow development with its roots deep in the history of Western civilization,”‘ Mitford asks, “or a short, fast sprint with its roots deep in moneymaking?”
Before Mitford’s book, the American funeral industry had two ways of justifying embalming. The first was that the process was a hygienic measure, legally required in order to safeguard public health. Mitford checked with various pathologists who all denied this: Dr. Jesse Carr, then chief of pathology at San Francisco General Hospital and professor of pathology at the University of California Medical School, “explained that in cases of communicable disease, a dead body presents considerably less hazard than a live one. ‘There are several advantages to being dead,’ he said cheerfully. ‘You don’t excrete, inhale, exhale, or perspire.”‘ She also quoted a Canadian health minister who stated unequivocally, “Embalming serves no useful purpose in preventing the transmission of communicable disease.” There was also no law to enforce it. Later, as a result of the uproar caused by her book, the Federal Trade Commission Consumer Protection Bureau attempted to regulate the funeral industry. Most of its moves were hobbled by the industry’s lobbyists, but one ruling stuck: that it was “a deceptive act or practice for a funeral provider” in any way to imply that embalming was legally required.
The second rationale was what the industry calls “grief therapy,” which Mitford defines as “the mental and emotional solace which, [the funeral men] claim, is achieved for the bereaved family as a result of being able to ‘view’ the embalmed and restored deceased.” Again, Mitford was unable to find a psychiatrist who agreed with the undertakers, not even the one they referred her to. But that in itself was not significant because mourning is a slow and difficult process and there are no rules for it. As Freud said of neurosis, “All cases are unique and similar.”
The most persuasive argument for embalming and “grief therapy” is Lynch’s shocking example of a schoolgirl who was abducted by a madman who raped, strangled, and stabbed her, then bashed her head in with a baseball bat:
Most embalmers, faced with what Wesley Rice [Lynch’s colleague] was faced with after he’d opened the pouch from the morgue, would have simply said “closed casket,” treated the remains enough to control the odor, zipped the pouch, and gone home for cocktails. It would have been easier. The pay was the same. Instead, he started working. Eighteen hours later the girl’s mother, who had pleaded to see her, saw her. She was dead, to be sure, and damaged; but her face was hers again, not the madman’s version. The hair was hers, not his. The body was hers, not his. Wesley Rice had not raised her from the dead nor hidden the hard facts, but he had retrieved her death from the one who had killed her. He had closed her eyes, her mouth. He’d washed her wounds, sutured her lacerations, pieced her beaten skull together, stitched the incisions from the autopsy, cleaned the dirt from under her fingernails, scrubbed the fingerprint ink from her fingertips, washed her hair, dressed her in jeans and a blue turtleneck, and laid her in a casket beside which her mother stood for two days and sobbed as if something had been pulled from her by force…. “Barbaric” is what Jessica Mitford called this “fussing over the dead body.” I say the monster with the baseball bat was barbaric. What Wesley Rice did was a kindness. And, to the extent that it is easier to grieve the loss that we see, than the one we imagine or read about in papers or hear of on the evening news, it was what we undertakers call a good funeral.
It served the living by caring for the dead.
In this hideous instance, not even Mitford would argue that embalming didn’t help and wasn’t an act of kindness carried out with the purest of motives.
But Lynch is talking about a nightmare in a small town in Michigan, where the whole community was presumably doing what it could do to comfort the bereaved family. The case for the therapeutic effects of embalming is not usually so clear-cut. According to Lynch’s father,
All of this bother and expense was predicated on the notion that the dead need to be at their obsequies, or, more correctly, that the living need the dead to be there, so that the living can consign them to the field or fire after commending them to God or the gods or Whatever Is Out There. The presence and participation of the dead human body at its funeral is, as my father told it, every bit as important as the bride’s being at her wedding, the baby at its baptism.
He was right, of course, although a corpse doesn’t need to be embalmed and painted to be unarguably present at its own funeral. I have seen only four dead bodies and none of them had been embalmed: those of my parents, just after they died, Sylvia Plath’s on the morning of her inquest, and the battered body of a friend whom I had to identify after a climbing accident in North Wales. I don’t know if what I experienced when I saw them would count as “grief therapy,” but it was certainly grief and—although I remember all four of them vividly—what I remember is not any soft filter “memory picture” but the terrible deadness of these people I had loved.
“The complete stillness was more startling than any violent action,” Waugh wrote in The Loved One. “The body looked altogether smaller than life-size now that it was, as it were, stripped of the thick pelt of mobility and intelligence.” The same goes for the many funerals I have attended in England, where the body is almost never embalmed for viewing: the corpse screwed down tight in its coffin is a far more powerful presence—a dead weight hefted by the pallbearers—than any creamed and rouged parody of a living person displayed in a “slumber room.” Because I don’t believe in God or an afterlife, it is the finality of death—the deadness of the dead—that matters most to me at funerals. That, too, becomes part of my memory of them.
For the irreligious, in other words, death is strictly the concern of the living, and that means the living person who is about to die as well as those who survive the death. In the late Miroslav Holub’s poem “The Dead,” one man dies swiftly, full of life and appetite, and “another dragged on through eight insipid years/like a river weed in an acid stream.” The poem ends:
Both here and there the angel of death
quite simply stamped his hobnailed boot
on their medulla oblongata.
I know they died the same way
But I don’t believe that they are
dead the same way.
Holub is not merely saying the two men live on differently in his memory; rather, that dying itself is a manifestation of living—the final manifestation—and how you do it matters a great deal.
Everyone would like to go out in style, preferably with a joke, like Lord Palmerston: “Die, my dear Doctor?—That’s the last thing I shall do!” An outsized figure like Rabelais is credited with four different famous last words (the best known are “I go to seek a great Perhaps” and “Ring down the curtain, the farce is over!”), and his Rabelaisian translator, Sir Thomas Urquhart, died appropriately of laughter. Unfortunately, most of us are like Pancho Villa, who said, “Don’t let it end like this. Tell them I said something clever.”
Saying something clever or funny is not necessarily a futile attempt to triumph over death or deny it or outwit it (“If he’s so fucking smart, how come he’s so fucking dead?” Jack Nicholson says in Prizzi’s Honor); it may also mean that the joker is going on living as he or she has always lived right up until the last moment. Melvin Frank, the director of A Touch of Class and a connoisseur of funny stories, was telling Jewish jokes as he was wheeled into the operating theater where he died, and the last words of a pinochle-playing friend of Zero Mostel were “The cards are in the top drawer.” To say someone died as he lived is usually a compliment, and even when it’s not—when a violent man, say, dies a violent death—at least it implies that the life story has a certain aesthetic wholeness.
The aesthetic view works two ways. Camus thought that a writer’s works derive their significance only from his death: “They receive their most obvious light from the very life of their author. At the moment of death, the succession of his works is but a collection of failures. But if those failures all have the same resonance, the creator has managed to repeat the image of his own condition, to make the air echo with the sterile secret he possesses.” The author’s death, that is, gives his works an added coherence and meaning which they lacked while he lived. (In the art world, the consequences are economic as well as intellectual; paintings usually soar in value when the oeuvre is complete.)
According to Nigel Barley, this need to see life as a story in which “the guardian angel ends up with a ‘This Is Your Life’ book to be presented after death that delivers the deceased’s life for judgement” is mostly a quirk of Western cultures:
Our own urge to see life in narrative terms is clear in the creation of heroes whose lives must fit into an acceptable narrative form with alternative endings to please different factions. So Catholic propagandists rewrote the death of the great agnostic Voltaire to have him either calling out for forgiveness or eating his own excrement.
Horatio Nelson, whose end occurred at the moment of his greatest triumph, is actually bet-ter thanatological material than Napoleon despite all the latter’s undoubted achievements. He simply lived too long and suffered what amounts to a seedy seaside retirement in drastically reduced circumstances.
In these narrative terms, the smiling Loved One in his worm- and judgment-proof casket is just another Hollywood happy ending.
So, too, are the euphemisms of the obituary writers. Barley calls them
master[s] of the unexpressed criticism. The ill-tempered and opinionated dead “do not suffer fools gladly.” The narrow minded are “focused” and “dedicated.” Sluts “give generously of themselves” and dirty old men become “gay old dogs.” The dead are recreated in a language of exclusively positive sugar-frosted nuances so as to be “made over,” sometimes becoming virtually unrecognizable.
In the world of obituaries everyone is equally worthy, even those of whom all we really want to say is, in the words of an American comic, “Never speak nuttin’ but good of the dead. He’s dead. Good.”
Grave Matters is a world tour of death, sharply written and full of lively anecdotes. Nigel Barley is suspicious of anthropologists who have theories to prove and seems content merely to show that the solemnity of Western funerals is as specialized and odd in its way as, say, the horsing around and ribaldry of the Betsileo of Madagascar or the Gogo of Tanzania. To his cool anthropologist’s gaze they are all equally amusing and equally daft, and he is a witty enough writer to prove his point.
Because Lynch is a poet as well as an undertaker I had hoped that The Undertaking might convey how it really feels to live and work each day with the dead. But it doesn’t happen. The image Lynch creates for himself is gruff, bluff, and commonsensical: a good son—he writes with feeling about the death of his parents—and a reluctantly good father, a man who liked his drink too much and gave it up, a jolly chap who has a way with words. Talking of bards and their ways, he writes that “a good laugh, a good cry, a good bowel movement are all the same fellow [sic] to those who otherwise spend their days rummaging in the word horde for something to say.” Those who spend their days rummaging in the word horde are not as uncommon as Lynch believes, although not many of them are likely to be, as he describes himself, “a past president of the Chamber of Commerce and a Rotarian in good standing,” and none at all that I know of also rummage among the dead.
A poet’s attentive, pared-down insights into that eerie occupation, like Holub’s into the science of immunology, would have been worth having. Lynch, unfortunately, seems to prefer something more high-flown and closer to the platitudes of Dr. Eaton of Forest Lawn: “If the past is a province the aged revisit and the future is one that the child dreams, birth and death are the oceans that bound them.” But maybe Lynch needs his sonority precisely because he is a poet. Without rhetoric to protect him, the dismal trade might be intolerable.
When La Rochefoucauld wrote, “Death and the sun are not to be looked at steadily,” death was a far more commonplace spectacle than it is now. Public executions were like funfairs—apprentices were given the day off to see them—the homeless died in the streets and the Paris morgue, where corpses were displayed like waxworks in Madame Tussaud’s Museum, remained a famous tourist attraction until it closed in the 1920s.
No doubt a good deal of morbid or sadistic pleasure was involved in all this, but the contemplation of death was also a necessary discipline of the religious life. After the dying John Donne had, as his friends said, “preached his own funeral sermon,” in St. Paul’s, he had his portrait drawn—wrapped in his shroud, eyes closed, ready for the grave—then stood the picture by his bed, not as a “memory picture” for his friends but in order to meditate upon his own mortality.4
We are more squeamish about these matters now, and the death most of us contemplate is more final, less merciful, more like the one Tadeusz Rozewicz wrote about in his poem “Proofs”:
Death will not correct
a single line of verse
she is no proof-reader
she is no sympathetic
a bad metaphor is immortal
a shoddy poet who has died
is a shoddy dead poet
a bore bores after death
a fool keeps up his foolish chatter
from beyond the grave
In these stern circumstances, Jessica 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.
September 24, 1998
“Half in Love with Easeful Death,” quoted in D.J. Enright’s brilliantly selected The Oxford Book of Death (Oxford University Press, 1983), pp. 144-145. ↩
Walt Disney himself chose to have his body deep-frozen, not, presumably, in what used to be called “the fervent expectation of the resurrection,” but in the equally fervent hope that scientists might some day discover a way of resurrecting the dead before the Day of Judgment. See Barley, p. 107. ↩
Needless to say, Mitford’s take on this story is more beady-eyed. “Dr.” Thomas Holmes “was the first to popularize the idea of preserving the dead on a mass scale, and the first American to get rich from this novel occupation. Holmes developed a passionate interest in cadavers early in life and when the Civil War started, he saw his great opportunity. He rushed to the front and started embalming like mad, charging the families of the dead soldiers $100 for his labors. Some four years and 4,028 embalmed soldiers later (his own figure), Holmes returned to Brooklyn a rich man.” ↩
According to Barley, the Torajans of Sulawesi still bundle their dead “in vast amounts of absorbent cloth to soak up the juices of putrefaction,” then keep them around the house until they are ready for the next stage of the funeral. An old granny he saw had been waiting three years for her burial and was used as a handy shelf for his host’s alphabetically arranged collection of cassettes. ↩