There is no doubt that in its time, Jessica Mitford’s The American Way of Death Revisited (Vintage Books, 2000) changed how the funeral industry does business in this country much the same way that Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (See Sharp Press, 2003) changed the meat-packing industry in Chicago. Mitford, with diligence, grace, and humor, opened
eyes. The irony is that the book was
almost dead before it saw the light of publication. Houghton Mifflin, as Mitford recounts in the
Introduction, thought the book too graphic, especially the details of the
embalming process which happen to be the most interesting pages. Luckily, Robert Gottlieb of Simon &
Schuster stepped in to publish the original edition back in 1963.
The book spawned legislation to regulate the funeral industry, and put undertakers, mortuary workers, funeral directors, or whatever name they go by these days, on notice. These groups responded with negative ad campaigns aimed at Mitford and her work, and they soon found ways to circumvent and dilute the legislative mandate to treat grieving Americans with fairness and ethical consideration.
Anyone who has planned a funeral for a loved one knows the funeral industry is full of sharks. A good man, or woman, is definitely hard to find in the charnel house. I remember when I planned my mother’s funeral a few years ago, I was forced to mediate a feud between the mortuary and the hospital where she died. Over a perceived insult, the mortuary refused to pick up my mother’s body. When, after two to three phone calls to each party, I threatened to borrow my father’s truck and get her myself, the mortuary acquiesced. I was relieved. Then I demanded they waive the fee. They did, but I’m sure they tacked it on elsewhere in the final bill, a common practice according to Mitford. In her research, the funeral industry always gets its money somehow. They specialize in preying on those going through the worst time of their lives.
Mitford takes pains to tell the reader not only what happens behind the mortuary door, but also the math involved. It’s all about huge mark-ups, unexplained fees, dubious insistence that embalming and other accoutrements are “legally required,” and downright immoral and deceptive behavior. Funeral directors bet on the fact that those locked in grief will not shop around, but it is indeed what one must do to combat this scourge. Mitford ends the book by saying, “Remember, above all, that many funeral homes have a ‘no-walk’ policy, which means simply that if and when you start to walk out, the price will come down, down, down until a level acceptable to you is reached.”
The book is well-written and informative, a classic in nonfiction literature. In its current incarnation as an updated edition, (hence the “Revisited” tag) the original is not greatly improved upon. The book still serves the purpose to remind consumers to question everything and let the buyer beware.
In Michelle Williams’ book, Down Among The Dead Men (Soft SkullPress, 2010), she focuses on her work in a hospital mortuary in
. This is a different system from Gloucestershire,
in that Williams preps the bodies for autopsy and release to funeral directors
accompanied, often, by the coroner. In a
natural death, the hospital mortuary drains fluids, examines organs, and
restores the body for burial, unlike in the U.S.
where mortuary workers independent of the hospital perform this function. If a body requires an autopsy for court or
law enforcement, the coroner comes to the hospital morgue and performs the
procedure. There is no separate autopsy
at a medical examiner’s office.
Williams’ stories cover the spectrum of death from natural to criminal homicide. She tells some interesting tales to be sure, however, when she strays off into her own drinking and family life, the pace of the book slows. Her storytelling ability is competent, if not spellbinding. The reader should be warned that a strong stomach is a necessity for some of the more graphic cases she describes.
Both books take us behind the scenes of the greatest mystery of human existence, that “undiscovered country” from where no one returns. Some prefer not to look on death before the moment. Others want a hint, even if there is a line we may never cross until the time our heart ceases to beat, the light dies, and we are gone. For we, the living, at least for now, there is a choice.