A coworker stopped by my desk earlier today and got a glimpse of this week’s newly finished read: Jessica Mitford’s The American Way of Death Revisited. “Oh you know,” I said sheepishly, surreptitiously trying to stuff the book under some papers. “Just some light summer reading.”
Indeed, it is appropriately Kira that I spent most of July 4 alternating between watching A&E’s Hoarders, peeking at the haphazard and totally dangerous fireworks being set off by my neighbors and finishing up a book about our country’s determination to profit off of our respective unavoidable deaths. Yay capitalism! Yay America!
The American Way of Death may sound familiar to you detail-oriented readers: I mentioned it a few weeks ago in my review of Mary Roach’s Packing for Mars. See, I first bought this book back in college after reading Roach’s Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers and despite what at the time seemed like a suddenly insatiable need to learn more about the topics raised in Roach’s book (embalming, decomposition, grave-robbing…you know, the usual), I seem to have given up on The American Way of Death around July 2007, just 100 pages shy of finishing. The book then survived one apartment move and multiple bedroom reconfigurations before I discovered it this weekend. (“Casket price gouging and funereal regulatory intervention? Sounds like Independence Day reading to me!”)
(Side note: If July 2007 seems mighty specific, it’s because I found a typed-up To Do list bookmarking my page, written shortly after I was hired full-time at Crain’s. It includes things like “Ask HR: With what frequency do company contributions get made to savings plans?” and “To read: The Wall Street Journal Guide to Money and Investing.” I’ve been giving myself retroactive props for what seems like very thorough job preparation. I mean, I definitely at least bought the WSJ book.)
Perhaps unsurprisingly, The American Way of Death is a tad depressing. Not because dying is depressing—I’m the first to tell my immortality-minded friends that I plan to be on my way out by around age 80—but because I’d like to believe that everything post-death (in the funeral sense, not the afterlife sense) is about laying a loved one to rest with dignity, not squeezing unsuspecting mourners out of every penny they might be duped into spending on a $3,000 wood box.
Unfortunately, as Mitford outlines exhaustively, this isn’t always the case. Funerals are a for-profit business, guided by the same bottom-line focus that shapes our entire capitalistic economy. Sure, the average funeral director’s goal is, generally speaking, to make a customer happy by providing the best possible service during what is typically a rough time, but so is a drug company’s goal to “make a customer well,” or a retailer’s goal to “save a customer money.” Really, everyone’s goal is to not only be in the black, but to be more and more in the black each year.
Mitford’s book is dated now (the first version came out in 1963; “Revisited” is a 1998 update) but touches on many themes that haven’t changed, or have been exacerbated in recent years. Funeral homes making up for money lost on increasingly popular cremations by adding other fees and hidden charges, clergy members being pushed out of the proceedings lest they suggest a family go with a “modestly priced” casket, lobbying groups fighting the Federal Trade Commission’s already-weak efforts to regulate the industry. All I know is it’s a good thing I’m donating my body to science.
It’s not that I’m surprised at how grand-scale funereal issues are—after all, everyone dies—but rather at how infrequently I’ve heard about them. And why wouldn’t that be case? People deal with funeral arrangements on average once every 14 years; it’s far more practical for consumer advocacy groups to spend their time (and money) fighting Walmart than battling Service Corporation International which, by the way, made $126 million in profits last year.
But consumer advocates should care. After all, gun jokes aside, we don’t go to Walmart to dispose of our loved ones. Moreover, we expect Walmart to be hawking goods. What’s surprising about Mitford’s book—and what I think makes it timeless—is how much of that expectation, that skepticism, doesn’t transcend industry; how we’ll fight over a 50-cent coupon for our Val-U Pack of socks, but will buy in unquestioningly on the idea that embalming is necessary (it isn’t), or that picking out a grave plot in person is legally required (it’s not.)
The obvious question is: Should we have to be skeptical? Should we not be able to trust the intentions of funeral home proprietors?
This isn’t limited to death; we are a country that makes bazillions of dollars (approximate figure) on life and the preservation thereof. How different might our health care debate have been if there didn’t ultimately remain a need to keep certain companies—drug makers, insurers—not just financially viable, but profitable? Not just profitable but more profitable every year?
Just this week, the New York attorney general announced an expanding probe into life insurance companies. See, the onus is currently on beneficiaries of life-insurance policies to tell insurers of their claims (i.e. when the policy-holder dies). Well surprise, surprise, if you forget to call MetLife and let them know grandpa died, they’re not itching to remind you. In the age of databases—databases insurers seem perfectly capable of consulting to cut off retirement-income checks when someone kicks the bucket—should you really have to hound a national conglomerate for your payout?
Apparently, in America, the answer is yes, you should. But only after you’ve shelled out $1,525 for “basic funeral services;” $255 for “transfer of remains from the funeral home;” $370 for “embalming” or $375 for “no embalming, refrigeration;” $215 for “dressing, cosmetics, casketing;” $290 for “use of facilities for viewing;” $315 for “use of facilities for funeral ceremony;” $235 for the hearse, $85 for the “flower car;” and $2,000 for a casket. And that’s in 1998.
The American Way of Death is for pessimists. Not because Mitford has any sort of bias in her writing—the book is nothing if not full of facts, figures, quotes from experts and disheartening excerpts from trade publications—but because it’s the pessimistic among us who know nothing in this country exists unless it can line someone’s pockets.
Mitford doesn’t mean to suggest that the funeral industry is corrupt, per se, and she makes a decent effort to remind us that there are a lot of people out there just trying to make a decent living, or for whom funeral direction is more calling than cash cow. Rather, she highlights what we should already know: It’s an industry, and industries are designed to emphasize the profitable over the practical. So pat your clients on the back, hand them a box of tissues and then direct them to the nearest package deal (excluding casket cost, of course.)
No, it doesn’t surprise me that sometimes in America, the pockets being lined belong to those who theoretically have your best interests at heart. It just disappoints me. So when I die at the ripe old age of 80, it goes without saying that I’ll be doing my own makeup.
TITLE: The American Way of Death Revisited
AUTHOR: Jessica Mitford
PAGES: 274 (in paperback)
ALSO WROTE: Hons and Rebels, A Fine Old Conflict
SORTA LIKE: Stiff meets Fast-Food Nation
FIRST LINE: “When funeral directors have taxed me—which they have, and not infrequently—with being beastly about them in my book, I can affirm in good conscience that there is hardly an unkind word about them.”