In England, the name Mitford is no doubt associated in most people’s minds with my sister Nancy’s novels and biographies. In America, like it or not (and I am not sure all the Mitfords will like it), our name has suddenly become synonymous with cheap funerals.
Jessica “Decca” Mitford, whose letters will be published this month in a collection edited by Peter Sussman, was a refugee of the British aristocracy. She chose a different path from most of her high society sisters—a life of radical activism, cultural exploration, and the not-terribly-glamorous profession of muckraking. As a newcomer to the United States, Mitford’s invaluable outside perspective enabled her to make incisive observations about the country, and she homed right in on America’s penchant for turning nearly everything into a commodity. Her letters, writes Christopher Hitchens in a review of the forthcoming collection, “confirm ... that [among her equally famous sisters] it was Decca, exiled and intransigent, who was the exceptional one.”
A number of Mitford’s best-known writings first appeared in The Atlantic. Her most famous work, The American Way of Death, was excerpted in the Atlantic in 1963. The piece, titled “The Undertakers’ Racket,” caused a stir by revealing the scandalous profit margin that morticians had been enjoying. At the time, Mitford pointed out, it cost only about 40 cents to embalm a body, a peculiarly American tradition that Mitford showed to be more gruesome than necessary for the good of the public health. But one would never guess how inexpensive the process was from the exorbitant rates that the bereaved were being charged. “There was a time,” Mitford wote, “when the undertaker’s tasks were clear-cut and rather obvious, and when he billed his patrons accordingly.” But by the time she began to investigate the industry, funeral directors had begun characterizing their work as “grief therapy” and persuading their emotionally vulnerable patrons to lavish the most expensive and high-status funeral wares on their deceased loved ones:
Because of the nature of funerals, the buyer is in quite a different position from one who is, for example, in the market for a car…. It would be an unusual person who would examine the various offerings and then inquire around about the relative advantages of the Monaco casket by merit and the Valley Forge by Boyertown.
She concluded her article by noting that a number of groups had formed in recent years in reaction against the gouging of the funeral industry. Referring to themselves as “Funeral Societies” or “Memorial Associations,” they helped citizens plan ahead of time for “simple, dignified funerals” and aided those who preferred cremation or to donate their bodies to medical schools. But the funeral industry, Mitford observed, did not take kindly to their efforts. “These mild folk,” she wrote, “might be dismayed by the way they are described in the funeral trade press:... ‘Alien to every principle of the American way of life.’”