The Undertaker's Racket

Jessica Mitford's curiosity about undertakers was "whetted by the funeral trade magazines which opened up for me the bizarre world of the 'average' American funeral, far more curious than the death customs of ancient days or remote tribes. Further investigation convinced me that the fall implications of the funeral industry are undreamt of by the average American, even in his nightmares." Her book, The American Way of Death, will be published this summer by Simon & Schuster.

In 1960, Americans spent, according to the only available government estimate, $1.6 billion on funerals, setting thereby a new national and world record. The $1.6 billion is, as we shall see, only a portion of what was actually spent on what the death industry calls "the care and memorialization of the dead." Even this partial figure, if averaged out among the number of deaths, would amount to the astonishing sum of $942 for the funeral of every man, woman, child, and stillborn babe who died in the United States in 1960. This is a record unmatched in any previous age or civilization.

The $1.6 billion figure that is given for our national burial bill is furnished by the U.S. Department of Commerce census of business under the heading "personal expenditure for death expense." Since it includes personal expenditures only, it does not include burial expenditures by cities and counties and by private and public institutions for the burial of indigents, welfare recipients, and persons confined in public institutions, nor does it include burial expenditures by the armed forces for military personnel. How much do these public expenditures amount to annually? Nobody knows, for there is no centrally maintained source of information. The burial of indigents, for example, is a matter of city or county concern. There is a wildly disparate variation in costs and procedures. Some counties contract with funeral directors for casket, service, and burial for as little as $70; some pay as much as $300 for casket and service alone.

Another substantial item of funeral expense which is not included in the Department of Commerce figure is the cost of shipping the dead by train or plane. These charges must be considerable; one in ten of all the dead is shipped elsewhere for burial. Train fare for a corpse is double the cost of a single first-class ticket for a live passenger. The standard rate for air shipment of human remains is two and one half times the rate for other air freight; the average transcontinental fare for a dead body is $255.78.

Funeral flowers are not included in the Department of Commerce figures. These account for a good bit more than half of the dollar volume of all sales by retail florists in the United States.

Last, the Department of Commerce statistics leave out of account entirely the very considerable amounts spent each year by Americans who in increasing numbers buy graves and mausoleum crypts for future occupancy. This mushrooming business, running into hundreds of millions of dollars annually, is known in cemetery parlance as "pre-need" selling.

It would be a conservative guess that these extras, if added to the Commerce Department's base figure of $1.6 billion, would bring the nation's burial bill to well over $2 billion. A little over three fourths of all funerals are what the industry calls "regular adult funerals." The remainder are limited-service funerals for infants and limited-fee funerals for indigents and servicemen, handled by contract with government agencies. The Department of Commerce figure averages out to $1160 for each regular adult funeral. The more realistic figure of $2 billion yields a nationwide average of $1450 for the disposition of the mortal remains of an adult American.

Funeral people, confronted with the charge that they are responsible for the staggering cost of dying, loudly protest their innocence; how can it be their fault, if fault it be, they say. It is up to the individual family to decide how much to spend on a funeral, and if more is spent by Americans on death than is spent for conservation of natural resources, for fire or police protection; if funeral expenditures exceed personal expenditures for higher education, that's only because funeral buyers are exercising their inalienable right to spend their money as they choose.

"How much should a funeral cost?" says Wilbur Krieger, managing director of the National Selected Morticians. "That's like asking how much should I pay for a house or how much for a car. You can buy at all prices." Most funeral advertising stresses the same thought: "The decision of how much to spend for a funeral always rests with the family."

Very occasionally, somebody within the industry will spill the beans. Such a one was W. W. Chambers, self-styled "slab-happy" mortician of Washington, D. C., who has built up a million-dollar mortuary empire. "It's the most highly specialized racket in the world," he declared, testifying before a congressional committee in 1947. "It has no standard prices; whatever can be charged and gotten away with is the guiding rule. My competitors don't like my habit of advertising prices in black and white, because they'd rather keep the right to charge six different prices for the same funeral to six different people, according to what they can pay. Why, some of these bums charge a family $90 to bury a poor little baby in a casket that costs only $4.50." Scoffing at the suggestion that an undertaker is a "professional man," Chambers said any good plumber could learn how to embalm in sixty days. He added that he could embalm a human body for forty cents and an elephant for $1.50.

Foreigners are astonished to learn that almost all Americans are embalmed and publicly displayed after death. The practice is unheard of outside the United States and Canada. As Alfred Fellows, an English jurist, wrote in The Law of Burial, "A public exhibition of an embalmed body, as that of Lenin in Moscow, would pre­sumably be dealt with as a revolting spectacle and therefore a public nuisance."

I asked a London undertaker if he had ever conducted an open-casket funeral, in which the mourners file by to look at the embalmed corpse. He answered that such a thing would be considered so absolutely weird, so contrary to good taste and proper behavior, so shocking to the sensibilities of all concerned that he thinks it could never become a practice in England. The overwhelming majority of English of all classes, he said, settle for a simple wooden coffin and a small gathering (six or seven is average) of the immediate family at the funeral service. Cremation is sharply on the increase there, and in 90 percent of cases the ashes do not wind up in an elaborate urn housed in a niche in some columbarium, but are scattered over the countryside or in a garden.

Why has embalming become a routine feature of American funerals, and how has it been sold to the American public?

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