The Mitford name probably doesn't register with Americans not in the funeral business, but British readers should find it familiar. (The Mitfords came from minor nobility and famously split into pro-Fascist and pro-Communist camps in the mid-1930s. My wife read this book on the family which she thought entertaining. There's also a BBC Miniseries loosely based on Love in a Cold Climate and its companion — and thus, the sisters — which I enjoyed despite my ignorance of them.) That's a pity, because Jessica Mitford is very fun to read. When criticized by Evelyn Waugh that her book lacked a stated attitude toward death, she quipped, "I'm against it."
While her personal philosophy about death might be amorphous, her attitude toward the American funeral industry is unmistakably acid. Mitford outlines how, with limited clientele and irregular business (you only die once), morticians are obliged to wring every last dollar out of each customer. If you are a union or government employee, or veteran, with a publicly known death benefit, the charges for your funeral will invariably match the amount your family will receive.
Coffins are marked up anywhere from 300-3000%, and arrayed in showrooms so as to induce purchasers to buy higher. Discount coffins are painted in repulsive or inappropriate colors and kept in a second room, obliging the customer to deliberately ask if there are more coffins to see and thus voicing aloud their "cheap" attitude toward dead loved ones.
Mitford wryly contains her disgust, instead tearing open the holes in the opposition's defenses. Almost every justification for these exploitations rests on self-interested homilies based on false data, appeals to non-history or indifference. When her book first appeared, morticians denounced her as a communist for her criticism of "free enterprise" and her alleged assaults on "American tradition" and "religion." These assertions are bunk.
Jewish burial traditions call for people to be deposited in the plainest coffins or a shroud, then put in the ground. It's considered inappropriate to flaunt the standing of the dead: we are all equal in mortality. Christian tradition is similarly ascetic: the body is dust, a vessel for the soul. Religion not only doesn't include thousand-dollar coffins, giant monuments and painted, embalmed bodies, it mandates the opposite. Much the same is the case with American tradition. The embalmed corpse tarted with makeup and the "Cadillac" coffin are 20th century inventions. There is nothing necessary about them.
Mitford delights in pointing out the hypocrisies underlying that last fact. Morticians spent years explaining that embalming was a vital aspect of the traditional funeral, but the only significant tradition that predates it is the ancient Egyptians'. Early Christians rejected these practices to avoid pagan trappings and because of that "dust" thing. The sales pitch for embalming for much of the 20th century involved either the insinuation or bald lie that public-health regulation mandated embalming, because it destroyed all disease and bacteria. It doesn't. The funeral industry itself acknowledged this in the 1980s when embalmers refused to work on AIDS-infected bodies — surely a potential epidemic in which, if those assertions were true, would make its application only more vital. When sued for discrimination, they just charged extra for handling dead people who'd had AIDS. Another fee.
In a gesture that may remind some of the current rhetoric about health care, the charges of "atheistic communism" and "slippery-slope socialism" were leveled at the Nixon and Ford White Houses after (staunch anti-communist) Nixon ordered the Federal Trade Commission to regulate funeral home abuses. These same stories about public safety, tradition and religion were destroyed by expert testimony.
There were and are funeral directors who are credits to their community — counselors to those in need and representatives of a trust in preservation of local history — but it was clear where the abuses came from: those who wanted to egregiously exploit those blinded by grief and ignorant of their purchase. What was clear to both the commission and Mitford is that the exploiters are not outliers. They represent much more of the norm.
Lobbying groups paid by funeral directors watered down the proposed FTC regulations. Worse, as a government regulatory agency often tasked by an executive branch ideologically disinterested in government regulation, it's toothless on this issue. What remains is a system where the uninformed and unempowered are at the mercy of agencies that take advantage of collusive pricing, economies of scale, hidden ownership connections, psychology and the overwhelming novelty of the funeral-shopping experience to wring unreasonable profits from those who have no need — until that moment — to know better and a tiny span of time to make a decision.
Mitford makes the book enjoyable with lively asides and devastating observations and damning research. She has gruesomely fascinating set-pieces and laugh-out-loud wit. But her topic hasn't got a lot of feel-good moments. How could it? The book deserves to be read for the quality of its insight and prose. If for nothing else, it should be read because these are lessons most of us would prefer to learn the easy way. In the midst of grief at the loss of a loved one is no time to discover the ugly acquisitiveness of a flawed and historically deceitful system. Forewarned is forearmed, even if the subject is rather grim.
At the very least, buy the book for a list of American funeral homes dedicated to low-cost final services.