Wednesday, December 11, 2013


In 1963, investigative journalist Jessica Mitford, youngest of the amazing brood of literary siblings that includes my beloved "U and Non-U" Nancy, published a tartly observed expose of the American funeral industry that opened a lot of eyes and angered a lot of undertaker funeral director grief therapists and made her a hero to the kind of flinty-eyed, savvy observers and consumers of American culture that I would most like to be myself.

At that time, The American Way of Death focused mostly on the racket of coffin casket sales and marketing and the budding collusion between undertakers and florists and other providers of goods and services used in disposing of honoring the dead during the apex of American civilization. The coming of giant funeral home conglomerates, industrial-scale mausoleum development and aggressive "pre-need" marketing was hinted at but still, in the 1960s, still all just potential. For this newer edition, published in 1998, The American Way of Death Revisited took on those developments with just as jaundiced, as funny, as tartly observed glee as the original work, and while yes, it disgusted me in many ways, it also made me laugh the way Paul "Dumbing of America" Fussell makes me laugh: bitterly but heartily.

I haven't had direct experience with this industry as yet, but sooner or later I will, and I'm already mad at the kind of crap they're going to try to pull. Suggesting, for instance, that cremation is disrespectful but that if I must I still have to buy a casket to cremate someone in (not true). Insisting that the body is required by to be embalmed as a public safety measure (not true). Intimating that I'm a bad, cold, unfeeling person if I don't shell out for embalming and for a big fancy satin lined casket and an open casket funeral so everybody can look at the deceased one last time looking better than he or she ever did in life (!) and a for vault to go over the casket and protect it from the elements and by the way it's really more tasteful to buy a bronze plaque to go over the hole in the ground where you stash the meat than to have a headstone made by a monumental mason. Because the bronze plaque manufacturers are our sort but those headstone people are really not the thing, you know. And don't even talk about scattering ashes, horrors!

By the way, as Mitford confirms (I had long suspected it but never been sure) embalming isn't really preservation at all; it's pretty much just an exercise in human taxidermy, its aim to make the corpse look good for that open casket funeral; its effects start to go to crap almost before the earth hits the coffin lid internment. You're paying to have your loved one (wink at Evelyn Waugh fans) stuffed and mounted like an elk head for display so that your friends and family can admire the taxidermist's embalmer's handiwork* so they'll choose him or her when it's their turn to let someone go.

 But I'm only scratching the surface of what's disinterred here. The Death Industry has, we learn, lobbyists every bit as powerful and persuasive as Wall Street, and they've skewed so many laws and codes in that industry's favor that it's hard to tell what the consumer's rights still even are. I'm sure it's only gotten worse since 1998. I'm waiting for pre-need funeral ads to start showing up in the margins of my Gmail. And the grief therapist marketing spam. And...

And it's all such a horrible mess, really, because the majority of Americans seem to think a big showy expensive open casket funeral is traditional and only decent and anyone who doesn't opt for this must be an unfeeling jerk who hated his deceased; i.e., the marketing has been successful as hell. So now the "conventions" the Death Industry pretty much invented to squeeze more money out of the recently bereaved (preying on their emotional vulnerability unconscionably) really are what's expected. Only the very strong and stubborn are coming out of the experience with their fleeces intact, I suspect.

But, you know, you can't take it with you. Whatever your culture's funeral customs.

*It's impossible not to think of John Waters' gleeful turn as a funeral director in My Name Is Earl, he of the "living tableau." And yes, Six Feet Under too, of course. But I think Waters did it way better. Because John Waters. Der.

1 comment:

  1. Hey!, When are you doing Putting the Blog in Balrog XV: Return of the King Book VI: Chapters 5-9?


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