Most companies get criticized at some point, but funeral businesses are somewhat unique in coming under fire merely for existing. This is especially true in the U.S., home of some of the most plentiful, and most celebrated, works of funeral criticism.
As I mentioned last week, funeral prices have been questioned for millennia, but that isn’t the primary topic today.
Even She Who Shall Not Be Named did not focus solely on prices. Professor of religion Stephen Prothero believes that her contemptuous book mainly found the American funeral gauche, rather than overpriced: the modern funeral director a priest of “sham ceremonies” conducting a “tacky parade of the fake” on “a boulevard to bad taste.”1
Undoubtedly, in her cursed monstrosity, She seemed to signal that the American Way of Death might not have seemed so strange if She had not been accustomed to the English Way of Death.
She could not get over, for instance, the American funeral trade journals which—horror—actually advertised products in such a manner as to vie for a reader’s attention. Lifting text aimed at convincing a funeral director of the effectiveness of a certain feature, and framing it as though meant for public consumption, is good for an initial chuckle. “Nature-Glo—the ultimate in cosmetic embalming…” yuk yuk yuk.2
The HBO series “Six Feet Under” borrowed the joke, running faux television commercials for products for the embalming room or elsewhere in a mortuary. After a few episodes the conceit disappeared from the program. It probably would have been better if She Who Shall Not Be Named had not run with it throughout her book, because it does become tiresome for the reader. Obviously, in her mind, the tackiness was simply too rich to let go of.
Her smirking did not end at the funeral home. She also found immense mirth in the cemetery features used to attract buyers to certain sections: “Whispering Pines, Everlasting Love, Kindly Light and Babyland.”3
With all her devilish ingenuity, however, one finds it hard to believe she would not have seen the necessity for a business to attempt to sell its products in order to survive. Because of the simple economics of having to sell a space once and then care for it forever, cemetery managers are—as one longtime industry consultant wrote—“flirting with bankruptcy” if they are not running an active sales program.4 This is not a philosophical statement but an economic fact. (The number of failing small cemeteries in the U.S. should prove ample evidence of the fact, but that is a story for another day.)
Surely, in compiling her atrocious screed, which included an analytical, albeit one-sided, investigation of the cemetery business model5, She would have understood that a cemetery or funeral home that fails to make money will no longer be around to take care of the community’s needs. What would happen then?
I don’t think any objective observer would accuse She Who Shall Not Be Named of having been interested in helping people responsible for running cemeteries or funeral homes to stay in business. Professor Prothero was correct in noting her aversion to burials in bad taste, but I think it is also clear that She would have been perfectly happy to see government policies that would have caused most American funeral businesses to fail, leaving public institutions to take their places.
As She made clear in a later interview, She was a committed Communist, presumably in favor of collectivist solutions across the board, but particularly in the field that was governed more closely by municipalities in her home country. Also, she said that she could trace her interest in funeral reform to stories of widows and children being ripped off by undertakers, who always seemed to devise funeral bills that would consume the entirety of whatever death benefit a deceased breadwinner had accrued.6
Small wonder that, despite writing important books on other issues throughout her life, She would spend much, if not most, of her career as a public speaker advocating for the memorial society movement based on funeral cooperatives. She truly believed the people needed to be protected from the undertakers.
As the sociologist Tony Walters has explained, the funeral processes in different parts of the Western world evolved into different business models for reasons based somewhat in tradition and ideology, but in large measure because of historical circumstances. In Sweden, the religious institutions developed control over much of the funeral system; in France, municipalities took most responsibility; in Germany, municipalities and churches split the domains; in England, the funeral directors are independent and the crematories municipally-owned (and all aspects much simpler than in America); and in the U.S. most of the system is privately-owned, and almost all of it run on a commercial, business basis.7
Transferring American funeral, burial, or cremation control to public authorities was not a new idea in 1963, having been popularized throughout the 1920s by writers such as Quincy Dowd in 19218, John Gebhart in 19279, and Paul Blanshard in 192810. It was a decade when funeral home practices in the U.S. were coming under scrutiny, and certain historical developments in Europe had not reached full fruition.
The best-selling infamy of 1963 did not lead to a government takeover of the funeral business nor a particularly explosive growth in funeral cooperatives, although in ensuing years there was a modest increase in the latter. A series of government investigations culminated 20 years later in federal regulations designed to protect consumers.
She Who Shall Not Be Named’s chief legacies to the contemporary U.S. death system are the rules that give consumers more information before having to make a funeral purchase, and a still-growing “funeral underground” of consumer advocate organizations and alternative providers offering more options at the time of death. In a sense, funerals have become somewhat more “tasteful” because less complex (and less expensive) ceremonies are commonplace—although whether simplicity is going to become the dominant ceremonial style is still open to question.
Also—and this is just an anecdotal observation on my part—there seems to be an assumption among some consumer advocates that almost any profit earned by funeral homes or cemeteries is unjustified, an illogical attitude among otherwise intelligent people, which I think stems from their enchantment by the wicked notions She notoriously promulgated.
Funeral prices, as shown in the post linked above, increased a lot through 2017. The supposed advantages that undertakers hold over their customers at the time of death, which motivated the vile muckraker’s odious endeavor, arguably remain. And there are other areas where funeral directors and cemetery managers leave themselves open to criticism, all of which will be covered in future posts.
Stephen R. Prothero, Purified by Fire: A History of Cremation in America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), 181, 178–79↩
Jessica Mitford, The American Way of Death (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1963), 16↩
J. C Redden, The Best and the Rest of Redden’s Rules of Thumb: Almost 200 Money-Saving, Money-Making Tips for the Cemetery/Mortuary Industry (New York: Lincoln-Bradley Publishing Group, 1993), 33↩
Mitford, The American Way of Death, 123–47↩
Christopher Hitchens, “Jessica Mitford Interviewed by Christopher Hitchens” (New York Public Library, 1988), https://www.nypl.org/audiovideo/jessica-mitford-interviewed-christopher-hitchens↩
Quincy L. Dowd, Funeral Management and Costs: A World-Survey of Burial and Cremation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1921), http://archive.org/details/funeralmanagemen00dowdrich↩
Paul Blanshard, “It Costs Money to Die,” The Nation 127 (December 1928): 682–86, https://www.thenation.com/article/it-costs-money-die/↩