In 1960, Americans spent 1.6 billion dollars on funerals. This is slightly more than the estimated cost of providing books, tuition, and living expenses for the 3.6 million students enrolled in colleges and graduate schools during that year. And it is this phenomenal expenditure which Jessica Mitford examines in The American Way of Death.
Her findings are not favorable to morticians. In a relaxed anecdotal style, Miss Mitford draws a harsh picture of unscrupulous undertakers, victimizing simple, grief-confused Americans. She points out the petty racketeering, shady legislation, and help from newspapers and florists which contribute to the situation. Her essential approach is economic; she tends to feel that for Americans, death's sting is mainly transmitted through the pocketbook. Her arguments are phrased in dollars and cents, and her case, though effectively put, is peculiarly lopsided.
This book is rather similar to Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, another crusading volume. Miss Mitford does not write as well as Miss Carson, but she manages to put forth the same kind of well organized, highly emotional appeal. No one can read either book without becoming concerned, and perhaps a little angry. But there is a fundamental distinction between these two books: Miss Carson has the courage to criticize the American public as well as the pesticides industry. Miss Mitford confines her attack to the undertakers and their abettors.
Miss Mitford emphasizes that morticians take advantage of bereaved friends and relatives. This is undoubtedly true, but people have arranged funerals, both in America and else-where, for a long time, without allowing morticians to take advantage of them. What is peculiar about Americans which makes them so vulnerable?
Unfortunately, this is a question she hardly considers at all, although one might expect it to be a central question about The American Way of Death. Miss Mitford is content to delineate a scandal, with only the most cursory attempts to explain its presence in our society.
A Disregarded Question
She states several reasons why the buyer in a funeral transaction is confused and gullible: he wants to do the right thing (but doesn't know exactly what the right thing is); he has had no experience in such a purchase before; he is barred by circumstances and convention from "shopping around"; he is ignorant of the law.
Now this is all true. But why is it true? Americans are an experienced and generally tough-minded group of consumers, and yet in a funeral parlor, they are pliable and naive.
Probably the reason for such astonishing behavior rests with the way Americans die, and our attitudes toward death. Not only have Americans had little experience in buying a coffin and a service, they have had little experience with death at all. In our modern, urbanized society, death, like birth, usually takes place in a hospital. It has become an unnatural, isolated occurrence. Friends and relatives visit the dying person during visiting hours; they are informed of the final event after it has happened. Their contact with death, their actual experience with it, is minimal.
Americans often live to be fairly old before anyone emotionally or geographically close to them dies. Many people of college age have never seen a dead person. Grandparents live in remote parts of the country, and infant mortality has been hugely reduced by medical advances.
In these circumstances, the death of a close relative becomes a highly unusual and shocking circumstance. Confusion and disorientation are the natural results of such inexperience. Furthermore, these feelings tend to be heightened by certain of our attitudes toward death.
Changing medical practices have altered our ideas about death as much as they have altered the actual patterns of death itself. In an era of lengthening lifespan and medical wonders, death may take on connotations of failure. Whose failure, or what kind of failure, is not at all clear, but the essence of the feeling is there. As Jerome Bruner puts it, "Death today has become somehow impersonal and unnecessary, perhaps like a fatal vitamin deficiency that might have been prevented or at least delayed."
Death today is uncommon, occurring in isolation from generally one of two causes--accidents, or what we consider some kind of probability error, an unlucky break which leaves the victim with incurable cancer. Although no American expects to live forever, an element of fatalistic thinking which marked men's attitudes in the past has disappeared in America. The inevitability of death is underplayed; however, this may be part of a larger attitude toward disbelief in the inevitability of anything--we have geared ourselves to a rapidly changing, technological en-environment in which literally any-can happen.
Certainly, American attitudes toward death are complex, and the manner of dying is just a partial reason for these attitudes. Miss Mitford has chosen to disregard the problem, to deny the perceptiveness of the undertakers while she decries their sales pitch. Some readers may find her own singleminded emphasis on money just as distasteful as the embalming practices she describes. But because her appeal is essentially emotional--and Americans are always emotional about money--her book will have impact, and produce results.
"A new mythology, essential to the twentieth-century American funeral rite has grown up--or rather has been built up step by step--to justify the peculiar customs surrounding the disposal of our dead... Gradually, almost imperceptibly, over the years the funeral men have constructed their own grotesque cloud-cuckooland where the trappings of Gracious Living are transformed, as in a nightmare, into the trappings of Gracious Dying... The emphasis is one the same desirable qualities that we have all been schooled to look for in our daily search for excellence: comfort, durability, beauty, craftsmanship." From THE AMERICAN WAY OF DEATH.