The Indomitable Jessica Mitford

Articles by and about the muckraking journalist make clear that her name is synonymous with far more than cheap funerals

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 Mitford

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.’”

In another famous Atlantic piece, Mitford confronted the phony faculty of the Famous Writers School, a correspondence-course racket that promised fame and literary success to aspiring writers. Upon interviewing the fifteen figureheads who appeared on the school’s marketing materials—writers of genuine literary accomplishment and renown who had allowed their names and images to be appropriated—she found that none were willing to take responsibility either for the quality of the instruction or for the deceptive advertising practices. Some incredulously insisted that the advertising wasn’t predatory because most people couldn’t be naïve enough to have fallen for it. Another frankly conceded that the program was pointless because, he said, “‘Of course, somebody with a real gift for writing wouldn’t have to be taught to write.’”

At the end of the piece, she imagined how the school might grade her article:

“Good work, Miss Mitford. The Oakland widow’s problem was well thought through. But characterization is weak. You could have made your script more believable had you chosen a group of shift-eyed hucksters out to make a buck, one step ahead of the sheriff, instead of these fifteen eminently successful and solidly respectable writers, who are well liked and admired by the American viewing public…. Your grade is D-.”

In her next article, “My Short and Happy Life as a Distinguished Professor,” she described her experience when, as a famous writer herself, she was invited to join the faculty of a large state university in California to teach “Techniques of Muckraking.” Before her appointment, Mitford had never attended a day of school; entering academia gave her the opportunity to experience firsthand (and to comment on) the oppressive bureaucracy of state-run higher education. She got an unpleasant surprise when the administration demanded that she (like all other employees) swear an oath of allegiance to the State of California and submit to fingerprinting. When she refused, the university delivered an ultimatum: comply or be fired. Having fallen in love both with her students and with teaching, Mitford begrudgingly agreed to take the oath, but not to be fingerprinted. As a result, the university decided to replace her in the middle of the semester. Mitford spread the word of her firing to fellow faculty members and to her students, who held passionate rallies. Even the football team offered to serve as her bodyguards. Her position was eventually restored after a triumphant day in court, and Mitford resumed proudly passing her wisdom along to the next generation of hellraisers and muckrakers.

Carrying the torch in 1998, Atlantic managing editor Cullen Murphy applauded the revision and reprinting that year of Mitford’s seminal work, The American Way of Death, arguing that its encore was long overdue. Since the book’s original publication in 1963, funerals, he pointed out, had become increasingly personalized, do-it-yourself, and gimmicky. And funeral-industry corporations had grown exponentially, offering more services and acquiring more assets like cemeteries and crematoria. Wrote Murphy:

To a degree that The American Way of Death did not anticipate, the funeral industry has become like any other, with corporate conglomerates swallowing up independent operators in a quest for streamlined efficiency, growing market share, and, as one funeral-industry analyst describes it, “an assured customer base.” Those who follow the funeral industry point out that the very same demographic reality that gave us the Pepsi generation in the 1960s and thirtysomething in the 1980s is about to usher in what has been called the Golden Era of Death.

A few years later, Caitlin Flanagan, another Atlantic personality, likewise saluted Mitford, in a scathing article about the wedding industry. Flanagan’s “The Wedding Merchants” (February 2001), suggested that today’s couples tend to buy into the seductive (and increasingly expensive) symbols of marital bliss while somehow managing to miss the point. In pointing an accusing finger at the wedding industry, Flanagan took a page out of Mitford’s book:

Couples are constantly getting blind-sided by the professionals, never imagining the pressure that vendors would put on them to consider various trifles absolutely essential. Just as the morticians whom Jessica Mitford described in The American Way of Death (1963) preyed on the grief and guilt of mourners, so do the wedding merchants capitalize on the emotional vulnerability and social anxiety that afflict people planning a formal wedding. If you love her, shouldn’t you spend two month’s salary on the diamond she’s going to wear forever?

As Murphy’s and Flanagan’s respective nods to Mitford suggest, the name Mitford has become synonymous not only with cheap funerals but also with an entire approach to journalism—one that seems ever more relevant to a contemporary culture in which important milestones are routinely marked by conspicuous consumption. As Flanagan noted in 2001, “Nowadays every aspect of a formal wedding has become so intensely merchandized as to render its original design and purpose unrecognizable.” This seems to hold true for more and more major life events. And as our society sets out to redesign and repurpose traditions on an ever-grander and more materialistic scale, one can only hope that such developments will not pass without comment by a new generation of journalists—wittingly, and sometimes even unwittingly, taking their cue from the indomitable Jessica Mitford.