7.30.2014

The American Way of Death Revisited by Jessica Mitford



Once upon a time, straight out of college, I almost took a job in funeral sales. I'm glad I steered clear of that lucrative career path.  The money would've been great, but not at the expense of all that absurd psychological manipulation and sales shenanigans I'd of had to have conned the bereaved with, every day, 9-5.

"Wouldn't your loved one have wanted to be buried in this gold embossed coffin?  I understand he was a man of modest means, and made great personal sacrifices for you and your family, doesn't he now deserve the best now for his eternal rest?"

What shysters, just a small step removed from their sleazy, used car salespeople, next of kin. I wouldn't be caught dead working in the funeral industry, preying upon people's raw emotional weakness in their greatest -- and gravest -- time of need.  What a disgusting, self-serving industry the funeral business became in the twentieth century in the U.S.A., and remains so, even now, despite occasional promises of reform that have arisen in reaction to persistent whistle blowers like Jessica Mitford, whose American Way of Death elicited a similar (though smaller scaled) legislative response that The Jungle did for the meat packing industry.

Jessica Mitford wrote a wonderful, smart, and snarky exposé on the closed culture and shady sales tactics of these embalming-crazed bastards -- or "memorial counselors" -- as their business cards allege they are today, who don't bat an eye inside their posh offices insisting that embalming is "required by law" when in fact no such laws requiring the dead have to be embalmed exist on the books or have ever existed.  This lie has been so ingrained in U.S. culture, as Mitford observes, that these memorial counselors don't even ask the bereaved if they want "the deceased" to be embalmed; they just assume you do unless you say you don't.  And if you don't want embalming, but rather, refrigeration, the average memorial counselor will proclaim, because of health reasons, that "the law requires it."  But the law doesn't -- and never has -- required it.  It's a lie.

But as Mitford pointed out, if you're not an attorney or legal expert, and in your vulnerable condition (you may still be in shock), having just lost a loved one, you're probably not going to argue with them that it isn't the law, but will take their good word for it; because, after all, they're the experts right?, they're the authorities on the matter, and you automatically accept their authority unconsciously.  They're dressed in their Sunday best and their speech even sounds, the way they talk, if they're smooth at it, sympathetic.  Like they care about you.  Certainly they wouldn't dream of taking advantage of you at a horrible time like this!

But they do.  They have.  And will continue to do so.  They've been screwing all of us over, in fact, for almost one hundred years: first our great-grandparents, then our grandparents, then our parents, and now us, doing so when we're at our lowest, screwing us over with flowery lies.  How many poor people that the funeral industry has purported to serve have only been made poorer by exorbitant, debt-inducing price tags for services that are often unnecessary to begin with, such as embalming or air-tight coffins?  Bless Jessica Mitford for exposing the industry's collective ruthlessness and unprofessional practices throughout the last thirty-plus years of her life.

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