Thursday, July 17, 2008

Reader's Diary #377- Jessica Mitford: The American Way of Death Revisited

It used to bother me to see Bibles for sale. Though-- especially at that time-- I wasn't a religious man, something about it didn't seem right. Were the Gideons the only ones that understood that if you want more followers, charging the prospective converts probably isn't the wisest idea. Of course, I was naive at the time. The Bible business isn't all about hooking non-believers, nor is it a unique industry to be profiting from peoples' beliefs.

But there's something especially sinister about the way the funeral business does it. Jessica Mitford first wrote about this in 1963. Before her death in 1996, she'd decided to revisit the topic and see how things have changed, for better or for worse. For worse. Much worse.

I wasn't shocked by Mitford's findings (us cynics rarely get shocked). I was appalled though. There's something very immoral about someone taking advantage of another when they're not in the emotional state of mind to make the best judgements.

One of the most common defences? It's tradition. It's what people expect, and even need, when a loved one passes away. But just as gift-giving is a tradition of Christmas, funerals have also gotten carried away with big business. There's a clothing line for dead people, for God sakes. People are spending small fortunes on caskets... for cremations!

It's a whole business based on pseudos: pseudo-psychology (claiming people are psychologically comforted from seeing their loved ones "preserved" in a satin-lined casket), pseudo-science (claiming corpses avoid decay and are somehow more sanitary when they are embalmed), and pseudo-religion (most clergy are opposed to the expensive spectacles). Unfortunately, they've managed not only to convince some of their own that what they're doing is right, but a small portion of the public is starting to accept their practices as the norm; a costly, but necessary, duty to prove how much they care.

But it's not all angst. Mitford's approach is quite funny at times and her wit is matched occasionally by absurd anecdotes (a favourite tells the story of an undertaker who tried to convince someone to buy a longer casket, then saying that he supposed he could cut off the feet to make the body fit).

I also quite enjoyed hearing about the way the funeral industry has tried (usually successfully) to change the lexicon of their livelihood; to put on a more pleasant (read: marketable) spin. Undertakers are funeral directors, coffins are caskets, morgues are preparation rooms and so on. It reminded me of the George Carlin quote, "Thanks to the fear of death in this country I won’t have to die— I’ll pass away."

As a revisited book, I was expecting the old book with a bunch of footnotes. Not so. Everything seems based on new interviews, new articles, and so forth.

Finally, Mitford offers a glimmer of hope, a cheap light at the end of the tunnel: she supplies contacts to a load of organizations that provide, or at the very least help find, affordable funerals. And in case you're wondering-- though this wasn't in the book-- Mitford's own funeral cost a mere $533.31. What a bargain!

The Soundtrack:
1. Body Movin'- The Beastie Boys
2. At My Funeral- Crash Test Dummies
3. We Wish You'd Bury The Missus- The Cryptkeeper
4. Going Underground- The Jam
5. Don't Pay The Ferryman- Chris de Burgh


Chrisbookarama said...

Sounds creepy yet interesting.

I've read Loyalists and Layabouts for the Canadian Challenge. The review is on the blog.

Remi said...

I like the way Utah Phillips did it. He made sure there was no embalming fluid used and, to hasten his return to the earth, that he be buried in a plain pine box.

My mother's parents bucked the trend somewhat as well. No funeral, no memorial service, no fanfare. Buried next to the son who died before them. They had it drawn up in their wills.

As for the Mitfords, I keep meaning to pick up the book of their letters - what a strange family.

Barbara Bruederlin said...

I think I would like to read this book. I have always considered elaborate weddings and funerals to be unnecessary and wasteful. Burlap sack under a tree for me, please.

Anonymous said...

Gideons the only ones that understood that if you want more followers, charging the prospective converts probably isn't the wisest idea.

In Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land, the hybrid religion/magic/technology brought by Michael Valentine Smith from Mars has some stages that require adherents to pay, under the assumption that people usually put a higher value on what they pay for than what they don't. The specifics of the reasoning escape me at the moment.

John Mutford said...

Chris: Mitford manages to take strip away the creepy factor... well, except for the embalming chapter.

Remi: It's nice that their will was respected. Mitford shows how that is often not the case. Even Kennedy's requests weren't met (though to be fair, his list was found too late).

Barbara: A burlap wedding dress? Sounds fine to me.

Jake: Sometimes it seems that people are only interested in particular items when they are way overpriced, so I can see where he's coming from.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like a very interesting book. You might want to try reading Grave Matters, which is a book about human burial with a green twist.

John Mutford said...

Lesley: Thanks for the recommendation. I also have Mary Roach's Stiff which I was going to read right after, but didn't want it to turn into "The Summer of Death."