Mistress of Death: ‘The American Way of Death’ or The Book that Changed Everything

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mitfordIf you’ve read about or been involved with the business of death anytime since the 1960’s, chances are you’ve heard the name of a tiny British woman who stirred up a wealth of trouble: Jessica Mitford.  In 1963, Miford’s book The American Way of Death blew open the seemingly scandalous practices of funeral homes and the funeral directors that practiced them. Massive profit gouging organizations were brought to light, and Mitford was considered to be the scourge of an industry that had until then had been trusted to regulate its own practices. In 1998, Mitford revised her book for the “modern” times with The American Way of Death: Revisited.

In The American Way of Death, Mitford exposed the unethical practices of refusing to show grieving families all their options, extra charges added to the final bill and how much people who had purchased pre-need packages had been taken advantage of. In The American Way of Death: Revisited Mitford showed that even after the Better Business Bureau and Federal Trade Commission had stepped in to regulate, funeral directors (now undertakers) were now coming up with more creative ways to make a dollar. She examined British practices vs. American practices and explored how when American companies began to take over British funeral homes how quickly the cost of a funeral went up. A funeral that had before been considered ostentatious at 300 British Pounds, was now upwards of 800.

Mitford does also express that not all funeral directors and members of the field are out to just make a buck. Many truly do care about their communities, your loved ones and making sure that the process is as easy on your family as possible. She created a revolution that cautioned against just signing on the dotted line while crying your eyes out, and encouraged the grievers not to be forced into an expensive package when a simple cremation would do.  She encouraged readers to be smart and cautious, that their loved ones would not want those in mourning to be taken advantage of. Writers like Caitlin Doughty (Smoke Gets In Your Eyes) have been inspired by Mitford’s desire to protect the consumer and educate those who know little about death until it is upon them.

We all age. We all die. We all will experience loss. It is better to be prepared with the knowledge of what awaits than to be surprised and overwhelmed.

The American Way of Death: Revisited is still in print from Vintage Books, a Division of Random House Inc.

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