Jessica Mitford is Snarkier Than I–The American Way of Death Revisited

american way of deathSince we became homeowners, C.J. and I have taken to burying our pets in the garden and planting rose bushes over their graves.  Because we have been in our house a long time, we now have a very beautiful garden.  In fact, if I’m really honest, I’d like my ashes to be buried in my garden when the time comes.

This is a legal practice in every state but California, where we live.  Years ago, the California funeral industry gave enough money to enough state legislators to pass a law making it illegal to bury human remains, bodies and ashes, on land not officially designated for that purpose.  However, while it’s illegal, no one has ever been arrested, fined or prosecuted for burying human ashes on their own property.  But not  many people in the funeral business will tell you this, unless you really press the issue.

As Jessica Mitford says in her still pertinent book The American Way of Death Revisited, it’s not something the cemeteries  “took lying down.”

I’ve known about this book most of my life. It’s one of the very few that is regularly held up as a book that really did change society.  After its first publication in 1961, Americans began to seriously change the way they looked at funerals and cemetaries.  The enormous sums of money spent on both by many people who couldn’t afford the expense shifted to less expensive things like cremation and memorial services without the presence of a body in a casket.  While I think there has been a dramatic shift in burial practices since 1961, the funeral industry fought back, pushing pricier items, insisting on the purchase of expensive urns along with niches in attractie settings for example.  Charging for the use of a viewing room at rates that would pay for expensive hotel suites.  Fees for filing out paperwork that the family could do themselves in a few minutes.

So, in 1996, Jessica Mitford felt her book needed updating.  The American Way of Death Revisited is the result.

First of all, the book is highly a highly entertaining read.  Do not be afraid of the subject matter.  Ms. Mitford brings a very dry, can I say British, wit to the material that often had me smiling while I read.  In spite of the fun I was having reading the book The American Way of Death Revisited also forced me to confront my own beliefs and attitudes towards the subject; something I did not expect.  I already favored cremation. I was already ambivalent about open caskets.  I favored pre-planning.  I  opposed opulence as unnecessary.  But, honestly.  I had no idea.

I was genuinely surprised to find out that The Neptune Society is basically a fake.  What I thought was  a not for profit group devoted to helping people save money in a time of extreme stress turns out to be a “society” in name only.  It’s really a for-profit company dedicated to making money off of people’s desire to be cremated instead of buried.  You may think you’re saving money, but there’s still plenty of ways for groups like The Neptune Society to get into your wallet.

Take that $5000 dollar niche in The Chapel of the Chimes that I used to want.  I really had to rethink that one after reading Jessica Mitford.  Now that I think about it, that really is a lot of money to sit on a shelf, even if it is on a shelf in a wonderful building designed by Julia Morgan and urns are shaped like books.

Add to that all the other costs, many of which are not itemized but  come as part of a  “general service” charge instead.  These can include a 45 dollar fee to open and close the niche where the urn is kept.  That’s a hefty tip for any doorman.

I could go on. Ms. Mitford does go on, but she does so with a combined sense of moral outrage and humor that keeps her material from overwhelming the reader.  And, in her final chapter she provides alternatives for those of us who would really just like to keep things simple and private.

So my funeral plans have changed.  Keep my ashes in a simple box until you put them in the ground.  Then plant something that will flower or fruit, something that you will enjoy for many years to come.  No is going to come after you.

4 thoughts on “Jessica Mitford is Snarkier Than I–The American Way of Death Revisited

  1. I really enjoyed Jessica Mitford’s autobiography, and I’ve always meant to read this book. I’ve heard about how it changed the funeral industry, which in my opinions could still use some reforms . I will make sure to get this on my list before the TBR challenge kicks in.

  2. I’ve not read Revisited but loved the original, so I must follow this up. Have you read Waugh’s The Loved One – a satire on the LA film/funeral industries? I find Waugh rather hard going but if you’ve read the Mitford it is an interesting match-up.

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