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The American Way of Death Revisited by Jessica Mitford

By FyreHaar | Books | April 20, 2010 |

By FyreHaar | Books | April 20, 2010 |

Gleefully sarcastic muckraking exposé of the American funeral industrial complex.

I have read books that scared me, made me laugh or made me cry. This is the only book I have ever read that gave me a panic attack.

This book opened my eyes to the very real and horrifying idea that my death is viewed by an industry as an opportunity to milk every last possible penny from my grieving family. I recommend that every person read this book and act to protect their interests and the interests of their family now by writing a burial plan and giving it to their next of kin. For the record, I want to be an organ donor and/or be donated to science.

First published in 1963 and revisited in 1996, this book delves deep into the funeral industrial complex. Mitford exposes the dirty little secret of the American funeral establishment. Funeral directors and professionals prey on the emotionally distraught state of the recently bereaved to make money. They have fought for more than a century to create and preserve a market for their products and services that are practically useless. The basic strategy of the industry is to impress upon the consumer that the amount you spend on funeral expenses is in direct proportion to how much you loved the decedent and how much guilt or remorse you can expunge through the memorialization process.

Mitford goes into detail on the marketing of caskets and funerals at insane markups and the strategies employed to sell the highest priced casket possible. Embalming exists in the American funeral system to sell caskets. What is the point of a $25,000 cast bronze, hermetically sealing casket if the body inside of it isn’t good-looking? The embalming process is explained in detail, as is the fact that many funeral professionals will flat out lie about the law in order to force consumers to pay for services that are not required. Embalming is not required by law in the vast majority of cases in the US.

The funeral industry lobbies vigorously for state and federal laws to force people to adhere to their vision of what a funeral should be, which includes their profit margin. For the most part they have failed in this and where they have succeeded the resultant laws are not necessarily enforced or enforceable. In California it is illegal to scatter human ashes anywhere but on specially designated land, which is owned and operated by funeral professionals. Finding a law enforcement officer who is going to enforce that law is a wild goose chase but it makes for good marketing copy for crematoria. Oh yes, when cremation initially started to become popular the funeral industry fought against it. Once they saw that its growing market share could not be reversed they simply worked to bring the crematoria into the fold and started making cremation as expensive as possible. They are now burrowing their way into the UK, trying to make funerals there just as expensive as funerals in the US and Canada.

Funeral professionals even go head to head with the clergy. Ministers of every denomination have come forward to denounce the practice of the modern American funeral as excessive. Funeral directors have fought back by insisting that the clergy do not know as much about what a grieving family needs as funeral professionals and that they should butt out. After the book was initially published in 1963, there was significant reform of the funeral industry (later gutted by lobbying) and a more grassroots movement to educate and organize consumers. Several funeral societies sprang up around the country, of course followed by for-profit funeral vendors naming themselves as “Societies” of some sort or the other (The Neptune Society anyone? A for-profit enterprise that has been fined multiple times for the mishandling of remains and money).

The 1996 revision goes into detail about the funerals of Franklin Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and Robert Kennedy. Even for those men, especially FDR who had written funeral instructions, almost all of their wishes in terms of casket choice and embalming as well as the memorial services were violated by the funeral professionals called in to serve their families. Both JFK and RFK had read the original “The American Way of Death” in 1963 and had expressed their distress at the state of the industry. Even so, for both funerals the family and the government were defrauded and upsold by implacable funeral directors. If those men couldn’t get the funerals they wanted, what hope do the rest of us have?

I have first-hand experience with the death care industry. To say this book hit close to home would be an understatement. It would be more accurate to say that it stabbed me in the heart. With every chapter that I read I felt an increasing rage at an industry that has built itself on the exploitation of the bereaved. My anger was diffused as I remembered that, thankfully, my family was spared almost every one of the depredations that Mitford details. I feel great about my experience with the disposition of my mother’s remains but I am enraged over the plight of every family whose deceased member was not as forward thinking and iron willed as mine was.

Before I finished reading the book, I googled the cemetery where my mother is buried. It is involved in financial scandal. The owners are currently under federal indictment for running a Ponzi scheme based around the sale of pre-need burials, using the proceeds of current sales to pay out old claims. The old claims that are being paid out now do not cover the cost of the funeral services and consumers who thought they were covered are being asked to pay more. If that is not the case, ethical funeral providers are being forced to take huge losses. They are honoring the burial insurance policies taken out years ago and the policies do not cover the cost of the services. Because our acquisition was at-need none of those irregularities touch on my experience. I am now questioning whether the monies paid to be put in trust for the perpetual preservation of the cemetery are actually in trust or went to pay for the owner’s private jet. To quote the Funerals Consumer Alliance, “It always pays to pre-plan your funeral. It almost never pays to pre-pay for it.”

More info here: Funeral Consumer Alliance

This review is part of the Cannonball Read series. For more of FyreHaar’s reviews, check out the blog, Fire & Sonic.

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