The Good Funeral Awards

Jessica Mitford’s The American Way of Death Revisited

5 March, 2011

It took me just over two months, but I’ve finished Jessica Mitford’s The American Way of Death Revisited

It’s a complete hatchet job on American undertakers and cemeteries. It’s also a hugely entertaining introduction into the issues and practices of the industry. I also run the UK Business Book Festival, and it’s a pity she’s not still alive, because it’s actually one of the most illuminating sales books I’ve ever read. She would have made a brilliant speaker describing how a trade can go about controlling and manipulating the market.

Mitford lists all the tricks: how they conceal the cheapest caskets, how they let customers assume that embalming is a legal requirement, how they add on the charges, how they lobby politicians to escape legislation that would expose their sharp practices and how they exploit well-meaning people who decide to pay for their funerals in advance.

On the other hand, you start to feel sympathy for the poor funeral directors because Mitford seems to have a very aristocratic English disdain of anyone making any money.

It’s rather like catfood, are you selling to the cats or the owners? The undertakers take vulnerable people and upsell to them on the principle that the style in which you give your loved ones a send-off is something the deceased would be sensitive to.

She quotes from trade journals where they explain how to deal with nosy clergymen who might persuade grieving relatives not to bother with an expensive casked for their loved ones. Mitford has a brilliant style and she’s a great investigative journalist. Her withering sense of humour kept me going through the minutiae of the ‘dismal trade’. From listening to interviews with Alan Ball, the creator of Six Feet Under, this book was one of the inspirations for the series.