Under the wide and starry sky,
Dig the grave and let me lie.—Robert Louis Stevenson, 1887
In September 1963, a month after the publication of The American Way of Death, Jessica Mitford wrote a letter to her mother-in-law: “Book news. I’ll have to do this staccato style, as there’s so much…60,000 copies now in print…will be number-four best-seller in next Sunday’s Times…huge spread in both Life and Time…reviews are pouring in from all over, not a bad one in the lot so far…masses and masses of letters, and all good…Everyone is saying it’s a revolution in burial customs. Can’t wait to get back to the revolution (in living customs).”
Jessica was the lone leftist among the six Mitford sisters born to Lord and Lady Redesdale, who kept newspapers humming throughout the early twentieth century. Nancy, the eldest, was a well-known novelist; Diana, an icy beauty, married the leader of the British fascists, Sir Oswald Mosley; Unity, fond of poetry and spectacle, made friends with Adolf Hitler and shot herself when Britain and Germany went to war; Deborah became the duchess of Devonshire. As for Jessica, at nineteen she eloped with her second cousin Esmond Romilly (Winston Churchill’s nephew) to fight in the Spanish Civil War.
Though Jessica wrote ten books, mostly memoir and muckraking nonfiction, The American Way of Death is her most famous, and probably the best-known book about death published in the twentieth century. The entire first print run of twenty thousand copies sold out the day the book was released, and it stayed on bestseller lists for six weeks. It’s still routinely assigned in classrooms as an example of crisp prose, biting satire, and a fearless approach to a difficult subject. Mitford’s acerbic humor helped bring death out of the shadows, where it had been hiding since the end of the Victorian era. She got the public talking about the subject in a way it hadn’t for decades, since the mass casualties of the First World War brought an end to communal public mourning, and death became taboo.
Under the wide and starry sky,
Dig the grave and let me lie.—Robert Louis Stevenson, 1887
When The American Way of Death was published in 1963, a typical funeral in the United States involved thorough embalming, a spackling of cosmetics, and hundreds of dollars of flowers heaped upon an open casket. The whole affair was likely to cost over a thousand dollars, at a time when the median annual income in the country was just $5,600. A funeral was often one of the largest single expenditures a family made, after a house and car, yet morticians justified the hefty price tag by claiming the ceremony offered almost magical curative powers. They placed particularly great stock in providing the bereaved with a reassuring last image of the deceased, known in the industry as a “memory picture.” In the trade literature of the time, this image was seen as a balm to grief, a means of facing up to the finality of death without countenancing the disquieting signs of decomposition. The cost—Americans spent $1.6 billion on funerals in 1960—was also said to be a natural result of consumer desires, particularly the much-trumpeted postwar American desire to have the best of everything.
Mitford didn’t buy it. In a brisk three hundred pages, she used The American Way of Death to expose what she called a “huge, macabre, and expensive practical joke on the American public.” If the funeral parlors of midcentury America tried to project an image of comfortable domesticity, Mitford took us into the late-night fights in the kitchen, the humiliating grooming rituals in the bathroom, the strange boxes in the basement. She showed us the blueprints of the house, the cracks in the foundation.
She did so with literary style: her signature trick involved a liberal dose of quotes from industry publications, which she used to reveal their hollow buffoonery, leavened with cultural allusions. In the opening chapter, she wrote:
So that this too, too solid flesh might not melt, we are offered “solid copper—a quality casket which offers superb value to the client seeking long-lasting protection” or “the Colonial Classic Beauty—18 gauge, lead-coated steel, seamless top, lap-jointed welded-body construction.”…Not every casket need have a silver lining, for one may choose between “more than sixty color-matched shades, magnificent and unique masterpieces” by the Cheney casket-lining people. Shrouds no longer exist. Instead, you may patronize a grave-wear couturière who promises “handmade original fashions—styles from the best in life for the last memory—dresses, men’s suits, negligees, accessories.” For the final, perfect grooming: “Nature-Glo, the ultimate in cosmetic embalming.” And where have we heard that phrase “peace-of-mind protection” before? No matter. In funeral advertising, it is applied to the Wilbert Burial Vault, with its three-eighths-inch precast asphalt inner liner plus extra-thick, reinforced concrete—all this “guaranteed by Good Housekeeping.”
Mitford was certain that grieving Americans were being conned into buying expensive funerals they didn’t need and couldn’t afford. Drawing not only on trade magazines for quotes but also on industry representatives, she detailed the selling techniques used to extract maximum cash from the bereaved. These ranged from placing higher-priced coffins on the right side of the “Casket Selection Room” (most of us are right-handed and thus drawn to the right), to a “free and easy attitude to the law” about embalming and burials. To illustrate the latter, she called up local undertakers with a fake story about an aged aunt, explaining that the family wanted a cremation without ceremony or coffin. All of the undertakers whom Mitford phoned replied—erroneously—that cremation without a coffin was illegal in California. “In that case, perhaps we could take the body straight to the crematorium in our station wagon?” Mitford asked. “Madam,” one undertaker replied after a shocked silence, “the average lady has neither the facilities nor the inclination to be hauling dead bodies around!”
Many of her investigations also involved getting funeral personnel to answer uncomfortable questions. Is an unembalmed corpse a menace to public health? (Yes, said the morticians, despite an absence of evidence.) Are those expensive cement vaults really necessary? (They are required by law to keep the ground from caving in, said the cemetery salesman, at least until Jessica asked him to put it in writing.) Mitford also described attempts by the industry to keep the “nosy clergy” out of the funeral-planning process, since they tended to discourage excess spending. She reserved special vitriol for “grief therapy,” an ill-defined psychological healing undertakers supposedly provide. And just as offensive to her was the idea that elaborate American funerals were buttressed by tradition, when all evidence suggested otherwise. She also took aim at nonprofit cemeteries, which were often anything but, and the “pre-need” sales campaigns that kept cemeteries expanding rapidly even as death rates declined. In the last of the thirteen chapters, she provided a short guide to setting up low-cost, cooperative memorial societies, her solution for “beating the funeral racket.”
Mitford was drawn into the subject of funerals by her second husband, Robert Treuhaft. Like his wife, Treuhaft had deeply disappointed his family by becoming an advocate for the dispossessed. When not working with Mitford at the wartime Office of Price Administration, Treuhaft worked as a lawyer defending blue-collar union workers and civil-rights causes. Representing the unions, Treuhaft had noticed that funeral directors had a knack for presenting bills that precisely matched the death benefit provided by each union, meaning that an allowance designed to support the family of the deceased often ended up six feet deep. The experience prompted him to help start the Bay Area Funeral Society, providing low-cost funerals for its members, who joined in droves. The success led Treuhaft to suggest that his wife, licking her wounds after the rejection of her first memoir, write an article about funeral societies.
Vanitas, by Jan Lievens, c. 1640.
At first the idea struck her as odd. “Why pick on the wretched undertakers?” she asked. “Are we not robbed ten times more by the pharmaceutical industry, the car manufacturers, the landlord?” But the magazines Treuhaft brought home changed her mind. Concept: The Journal of Creative Ideas for Cemeteries was a favorite, alongside Casket & Sunnyside and Mortuary Management. The fantasy world displayed on their pages—at once antiseptic and baroque, fantastically inventive and richly euphemistic—kept her enthralled. They showcased ads for novelties like “Futurama, the casket styled for the future” and the “True Companion Crypt,” where “husband and wife may truly be together forever.” For a wit like Mitford, the unintentional humor was irresistible, and she shared choice bits with others in her family. “Glad you liked the Prac. Bur. Foot,” she wrote to her sister Deborah about the Practical Burial Footwear company, which made special shoes that were easier to put on the stiff or swollen feet of the dead. “Yes, there are some other fascinators: such as…The Final Touch That Means So Much—it’s mood-setting casket hardware.”
While her talent and muckraking techniques could have skewered any number of industries (and eventually did), the absurdity of selling caskets like they were Cadillacs highlighted for Mitford everything that was wrong with postwar consumer capitalism. “It is true that advertising has become madder and more outlandish over the years,” she wrote to her editor at Houghton Mifflin, “and the Practical Burial Footwear people are only doing for their own product what other advertisers do for theirs. But the fact this practical footwear is destined for the dead is what exposes something rather terrifying about their whole outlook.” Though Mitford and Treuhaft had left the Communist Party in 1958—by which point they felt that “the locomotive of history had roared off without us”—her motivation for writing the book was largely political. As a Marxist, she felt that capitalism alienated people from their true desires, and extravagant funerals were a perfect example.
Credited as such or not, the book was a joint effort. Treuhaft had a head for paperwork and figures, which his wife abhorred. Mitford instead delighted in visiting cemeteries and funeral homes dressed in widow’s weeds to ask her awkward questions. At times, two voices seem present in the text—long dull sections on dollar amounts and government regulations alternate with passages of sparkling wit. One writer who noticed the dual voices was fellow Brit Evelyn Waugh, who remarked upon the peculiar style in letters to Nancy Mitford, with whom he maintained a long correspondence. (Waugh also gave the book a positive review in the London Times, although he noted that Jessica lacked a “plainly stated attitude to death.” She is said to have responded to Nancy, “Tell him…of course I’m against it!”)
In 1948, Waugh had published The Loved One, his brilliant satire of the notoriously over-the-top Los Angeles cemetery Forest Lawn. In The American Way of Death, Mitford also lavished a whole chapter on Forest Lawn, describing its megalomaniac founder (“the Dreamer”), the graves arranged among huge reproductions of classic art, and the periodic blasts from the cemetery-wide loudspeaker system reminding guests to visit the gift shop. This Disneyfied grotesquerie was the apotheosis of American mourning, its constellation of shell companies the apex of American capitalism. But for Waugh, Forest Lawn—called “Whispering Glades” in The Loved One—was the setting for a doomed love triangle meant to illustrate Anglo-American cultural misunderstandings. Such misunderstandings are on display the moment the book’s British hero walks into Whispering Glades:
Dennis passed through, and opening the door marked inquiries found himself in a raftered banqueting hall…A young lady rose from a group of her fellows to welcome him, one of that new race of exquisite, amiable, efficient young ladies whom he had met everywhere in the United States. She wore a white smock, and over her sharply supported left breast were embroidered the words mortuary hostess.
“Can I help you in any way?”
“I came to arrange about a funeral.”
“Is it for yourself?”
“Certainly not. Do I look so moribund?”
“Do I look as if I were about to die?”
“Why, no. Only many of our friends like to make Before Need Arrangements.”
Moments later, the hostess asks Dennis:
“What had you in mind? Embalmment of course, and after that incineration or not, according to taste…Normal disposal is by inhumement, entombment, inurnment, or immurement, but many people just lately prefer insarcophasgusment. That is very individual. The casket is placed inside a sealed sarcophagus, marble or bronze, and rests permanently above ground in a niche in the mausoleum, with or without a personal stained-glass window above. That, of course, is for those for whom price is not a primary consideration.”
Mitford and Waugh’s books can sit comfortably side by side, with Waugh as the fiction and Mitford as the fact. But while Waugh’s comic tale spares no one, except perhaps the baffled Brit, Mitford holds the American public basically blameless for the decadence of their funeral culture.
Mitford didn’t think her book would fly off the shelves, but her publishers suspected they were sitting on a bombshell. They also anticipated lawsuits or attacks on her political past, both options they relished because of the potential for headlines. (Indeed, upon publication, Forest Lawn threatened a lawsuit—it never materialized.) But for most of the millions of Americans who bought The American Way of Death, heard Mitford on dozens of radio and TV appearances, read follow-up investigations in local newspapers, or watched an hour-long CBS special report on “The Great American Funeral,” controversy didn’t matter. The public inundated her with letters supporting the book and asking for more information about how to start their own memorial societies. There were congressional investigations and, later, new laws designed to protect consumers. Spending on funerals dropped: Casket & Sunnyside reported that the cost of funerals went down 30 percent in some areas, while Mortuary Management quoted a group of morticians who said their average sale had dropped at least a hundred dollars. Funeral-home advertising began to emphasize simplicity and dignity, and even Forest Lawn took out large ads in the Los Angeles Times that read, “Are funeral costs too high? Not at Forest Lawn.”
Film still from Looking for Alfred, directed by Johan Grimonprez, 2005. © Courtesy of zap-o-matik/Film & Video Umbrella/Sean Kelly Gallery.
The book arrived at a time when the taboo on death was just starting to ease. For much of the early twentieth century, death was spoken of in hushed voices, when it was spoken of at all. Numerous scholars have since discussed the cloaking of death in the Western world, its transition from a ubiquitous and semipublic event to something shameful and hidden, best left to medical experts and technical specialists (like the new professional class of funeral directors). Rising industrialization and urbanization in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries helped push the graveyard out of town, and these shifts coincided with the rise of a new reserve, in which displays of strong emotion, such as grief, were unseemly.
But during the 1950s, the landscape changed. In 1955, Geoffrey Gorer’s fascinating essay “The Pornography of Death,” argued that proscriptions around death had replaced the Victorian taboo against sex. In 1959, psychologist Herman Feifel came out with The Meaning of Death, a collection of essays often credited with singlehandedly establishing death, dying, and bereavement as legitimate areas for study. Yet neither Feifel nor Gorer made their way to American dinner tables. It was Mitford who got ordinary people talking. The American Way of Death made its way into soap operas, newspaper cartoons, and even the cover of Good Housekeeping. (An extract appeared in a 1964 issue alongside such articles as “Coming, a New Kind of Refrigerator” and “How Well Can Carpets Take It?”) Her take-charge, do-it-yourself message helped liberate Americans from the rigid rules and roles they were eager to cast off, as they were beginning to do in so many other areas of life.
That doesn’t mean The American Way of Death encouraged Americans to rethink their cultural relationship with death, exactly. The book is a narrowly conceived exposé, a screed against expensive funerals and the men who sell them, not an analysis of how or why funerals got that way. It’s interesting to contrast Mitford’s book with the seminal death texts of the past, such as the two in the fifteenth century that were both called The Art of Dying, or the Tibetan and Egyptian books of the dead. Those works helped individuals prepare for death by prescribing a series of attitudes and rituals designed to ensure a good death and a better afterlife. Such rituals helped people grapple with death’s great challenge to the self; they made death mean. By contrast, Mitford’s book is a Consumer Reports of death. Instead of prayers and meditations, she offers tips on the best way to get a cheap casket (just keep asking the salesman; it’s often out in the garage).
Mitford espoused a modernist perspective that first surfaced after World War II, in which the best way to deal with death was soberly and sensibly, to pick up the pieces as soon as possible and get on with things. In the early part of the twentieth century, Freud had written about the necessity of overcoming grief by detaching the ego from the deceased. No more wallowing like a Victorian widow wearing black crepe for years—for the Anglo-American intelligentsia, mourning became unfashionable. The carnage of the First World War—37 million killed—had brought an end to lavish and public Victorian mourning, which became all but impossible with so many fathers and sons gone.
But the consumer capitalism that flourished in the wake of World War II made funerals ornate once again, this time with a more pleasant color palate: instead of black crepe there was peach taffeta; instead of black gun carriages there were pastel Cadillac hearses. Funeral goods were sold by advertising their permanence and durability, qualities that became particularly attractive to a society that had just suffered through another war. For Americans enjoying the postwar boom, the type of casket you chose became an important social signifier, just like your car or the neighborhood where you lived—the final purchase was the final farewell.
So where does Jessica Mitford leave us? As seemingly bizarre and costly as the midcentury funeral was, it served a purpose, uniting communities along prescribed steps in agreed-upon rituals. The American Way of Death helped Americans establish a sense of control over their spending on funerals, but it didn’t examine larger questions about the meaning of the death ritual. Despite the work of psychiatrists such as Elisabeth Kübler-Ross (whose first major work, On Death and Dying, came out in 1969), many of us are still without good guides to death. We lack a script that tells us what to do when the time comes for someone we love—or for us.
But we are spending less on funerals, at least by some measures. According to the National Funeral Directors Association, in 2009 (the most recent year for which statistics were available) the cost of a regular adult funeral ceremony was $6,560, exclusive of cemetery, vault, monument, obituary, or flower charges. That’s compared to an average median income of $49,777 for the same year. In 1960, the average ceremony cost $708, when average income was $5,600.
That’s in part because more of us are choosing cremation, which Mitford advocated as preferable to traditional burial—it’s cheaper, for one. At the time The American Way of Death was published, about 3 percent of dead Americans were cremated. The figure is now about 43 percent, and projected to hit 50 by 2017. Cremation suits twenty-first-century lifestyles: ashes are highly portable, and the options for dealing with cremated remains are endless—they can now become a diamond, a painting, or a reef; they can go into space or to the bottom of the sea. But consumers are facing pressures to purchase “traditional” funerals with all the frills even when cremation is involved, and they are increasingly being served by multinational funeral conglomerates notorious for upselling. Mitford described these challenges in an updated version of her book, The American Way of Death Revisited, published in 1998, two years after her own death.
George Taylor’s Epitaph: Death Giving George Taylor a Cross Buttock, by William Hogarth, c. 1750. One of several drawings done by Hogarth for the tomb of George “The Barber” Taylor, a boxer. Yale Center for British Art.
Critics often charged that Mitford was antiritual, somehow uniquely immune to the comforts ceremony can provide. Yet, in the middle of preparing for the release of The American Way of Death, her mother died at the age of eighty-three. Although their relationship had often been strained, Mitford hung on her sisters’ descriptions of the funeral in England and thanked them profusely for sending flowers on her behalf. Describing the irony of the situation in a letter to her sister Nancy, she wrote:
The realness [of the flowers] you noted was probably the point. Here, the flowers are a complete racket, not the least of which is the fact the florists deliberately send old, dead, done-for ones, because they count on the fact the mourners are not likely to come round and complain. The other point is the fearful standardization imposed, not by custom or the desire for burial with formality, but by the undertakers, who rule the roost as far as all plans for funerals.
Her larger point, then, was less about the funeral trappings one chooses than the motivations for doing so. In a 1965 review of Gorer’s Death, Grief, and Mourning, she described his nostalgia for elaborate English mourning customs. But, Mitford asks, were the customs themselves important—or was it the reaction of friends and superiors who provided comfort and social support? “From my own observation,” she writes, “individual reactions to a death in the family are as varied as human nature itself—and so are ideas of appropriate expressions of mourning. The latter can range all the way from elaborately ritualized religious services to throwing a bash in memory of the deceased.” Freedom of choice, flexibility, and “above all, ordinary human kindness” were the prescriptions she offered for dealing with death.
Her friends agreed. When Mitford herself died on July 22, 1996, she was cremated in accordance with her wishes. But her loved ones planned a last joke in keeping with her spirit. During her life, Mitford had occasionally been asked what kind of funeral she wanted. She was fond of replying that she wanted “six black horses with plumes” and “one of those marvelous jobs of embalming that take twenty years off.” (Funeral magazines reprinted the joke, perhaps not quite getting it.) Mischievous friends planning her California memorial service arranged for the black horses and a driver wearing a top hat to pull an antique hearse filled with Mitford memorabilia through the streets of downtown San Francisco. The hearse was followed by a mortuary band playing such favorites as “Amazing Grace,” “When the Saints Come Marching In,” and, appropriately, “The Internationale.”