Jessica Mitford Drops a Bomb

Jessica Mitford1963 saw the publication of Jessica Mitford‘s book, The American Way of Death. Her charges of corruption and abuse in the funeral industry were not drowned out, as many funeral directors had hoped, by the unanimity of grief surrounding the ceremonies for President Kennedy later in the year. The book was full of social criticism, wit, satire, and exposure of scandal — enough writing skill to make it a bona fide cultural phenomenon. Long after its appearance, the book continued to incite public denouncements of the industry.

The funeral director was already a familiar figure to a significant segment of the American population, both as a real person who undertook funeral ceremonies and as a cultural stereotype. Mitford’s book exploited the fascination with death, money, and scandal, and served to develop the already present mythos of the funeral director that existed in the American imagination. The funeral industry would campaign desperately to change the stereotype of the heartless profiteer, con man, and social misfit; but the industry would meet with little success.¬†Funeral directors fought to maintain an image of themselves as indispensable public servants.

They tried desperately to convince the public of the gravity of their work, in campaign after campaign. But they couldn’t succeed in controlling the destiny of their public image. The stereotyped funeral director appeared in novels, on the stage, on the radio and in movies, and he completely contradicted the image funeral industry personnel were trying to sell to the public.

Funeral directors had to respond to the denunciations by finding a public relations strategy that would endear them to the people who mattered: friends, neighbors, and other community members who lived close by their funeral homes. They needed to maintain the funeral as a healing ceremony for the living and humanize their own role, so many took on the additional function — one that was avoided by early pioneers — that of grief specialist. They got involved, in other words, in the soon-to-be-thriving field of the psychology of death. Grief therapy gave funeral specialists a rationale which supported the logic of the way funerals, and especially embalming, were done.

According to Gary Laderman in Rest in Peace: A Cultural History of Death and the Funeral Home in Twentieth Century America, the accusations in Mitford’s book were not aimed at pockets of illegal activity, but at the “average undertaker.” Mitford portrays individuals as overblown buffoons with no concept of the reality of the American consumer. She uses textual evidence produced within the industry, a huge amount of anecdotal evidence, including her own observations of the funeral industry in San Francisco, material evidence, and statistical evidence. She uses this evidence to show that the funeral director is profit-driven and deceitful. Not the few, but the majority. She says she is interested in the “ethical” undertaker, who adheres to a prevailing code of morality developed over the decades by undertakers in this country. She finds individual cases to be most incriminating, but she really was writing about an industry-wide phenomenon.

Laderman writes about the reflection on the “average undertaker” that had been a preoccupation since the turn of the twentieth century, which had yielded often humorous stereotypes of the people involved with the disposal of the dead. Stereotypes don’t come from nowhere, Laderman says. They arise at specific times in specific contexts. He compares the stereotype of the funeral director with stereotypes of blacks, Jews, Catholics or the poor. They find a place in the public imagination because of suspicion and rage toward outsiders.

The stereotypes may not have affected the daily lives of undertakers, but they negated public relations efforts to control their image in the wake of Mitford’s book.

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