Recommanding The American Way Of Death, by Jessica Mitford

This is an old book, but a wonderful one. I find the Mitford Sisters fascinating, one Anarchist, one Socialist, one married to Mosley, the founder of the British Union of Fascists… There are few things that are boring about them. Jessica Mitford is the Socialist one, who eloped to the Spain during the revolution to marry her cousin. Later, she moved to the U.S. and took up investigative journalism. The first version of this book was published in 1963, but it has been revisited since then in 1978 and 1995. It is a fascinating inquiry into the ‘deathcare industry’. It is a book about capitalism and its extension into death, through the creation of a whole industry where none was. The economics of it are quite fascinating, but this book is also bizarre and hilarious.

Mitford’s reason to write this book is simple: while she was fighting to raise the indemnities perceived by workers’ families in case of death, she realised that undertakers simply raised the price of their funeral package when they gained any increase, leaving the family just as much in need as before they won this raise. It is a book with an immediate political message, which outraged funeral companies, according to which people should not be guilted into paying for funerals they can barely afford, abused into paying fees for ‘services’ while they are in shock, that cemetries should truly be run on a non-profit basis and so on. It is a simple message that has more to do with common sense and decency than Marxism, though, and there is nothing preachy about this book. In many ways what is wrong with capitalism becomes much more apparent when dealing with a sensitive subject such as death.

Its subject-matter makes it riveting, but the singular voice of Jessica Mitford makes it delightful as well, and I cannot think of anyone who would not enjoy it. Even the squeamish among us will be delighted to know they are given to page number to refer to if they wish to avoid the gory details of what ’embalming’ actually entails.

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