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The American Way of Death Hardcover – January 15, 1972

16 customer reviews

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Hardcover, January 15, 1972

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Editorial Reviews Review

Before the turn of the century, the American funeral was simple "to the point of starkness," says Jessica Mitford, the acclaimed muckraking journalist who published this investigation of the country's funeral business in 1963. That the country went on to develop a tendency for gross overspending on funerals Mitford puts down to the greed and ingenuity of undertakers, whom she regards as salesmen guilty of pressuring families into agreeing to their excessive standards for burial. Mitford, who died recently, delivers facts and criticism in a forthright and humorous manner. She would certainly appreciate that her assessment of the American way of death endures after her own passing. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


A splendidly uninhibited account of American funeral practices . . .The people of the modern funeral industry . . . are certain to jump out of their skins at this calm, deadly, unsparing recital of their follies and abuses. -- New York Times Book Review --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster; 2 edition (January 15, 1972)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0671213059
  • ISBN-13: 978-0671213053
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (16 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #8,809,481 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

11 of 12 people found the following review helpful By on March 29, 1998
Format: Hardcover
Jessica Mitford leaves no headstone unturned in this exploration of the American funeral industry. Not only is it interesting as a study of funeral practices, but it also offers insights into business psychology, marketing, and sociology. Mitford's style is piercing and humorous (the chapter about emblaming often made me laugh out loud) while remaining very respectful of the deceased and their loved ones. Classics are never out of date -- and The American Way of Death is a classic.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Justin M. Teerlinck on November 26, 2005
Format: Hardcover
Mitford is an able observer who chronciles the psychological vampirism and crass profiteering of the funeral industries in America. The observationed recorded in this book in 1963 are still true today in 2005. Recently my own state was forced to pass a law barring cemetaries from "graveside solicitations"--the disgusting practice of trying to drum up business from vulnerable people in mourning while they are visiting the grave of a loved one. That such depolrable practices even require state intervention speaks volumes about the depth of pitiless greed that motivates this industry. Also implied in this premise is the fact that the funeral industry goes largely unscrutinized due to the American public's reticience in openly addressing matters of death and dying. This flaw in our culture has given the funeral industry enormous power to charge fees that are grossly disproportionate to the services they render. In addition, this industry has suceeded in fooling the public to believe that embalming is environmentally safe, and necessary for hiegenic reasons or able to preserve corpses indefinately.

I know first hand the revelations in this book are not out of date. As part of a death studies class I went to a local funeral home on a tour. The undertakers openly bragged about manipulating their clients and their price list clearly showed that their least expensive funeral service (without cremation)would cost nearly the same as two year's worth of college courses!

Probably the most fascinating insight to result from this book is how little our culture has changed since then, how Americans still seem to be ignorant of funeral industry sales tactics and how the industry of the dead still results in exploitation of the living.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By M. Reynard VINE VOICE on July 30, 2010
Format: Mass Market Paperback
What an interesting book. Mitford takes the time to explain the funeral industry and some of the general problems with it. While it probably is highly controversial (especially if you're in the business) it does make some very good points. While there probably are honest people in the trade there are probably dishonest too (like any other profession) and sadly this can effect a lot of people. My own experiences with funerals have been largely reflective of the bad so I am a tad biased as well.

In this book the most attention Mitford gives is to the cost of the funeral. Mind now that Mitford wrote this book in the 60's so obviously figures have changed, but the premise is still sound. Only now you just need to add about 10,000 to the total figure for a funeral. She explores the sky high prices on services, coffins, flowers, and other items associated with a funeral.

Next she moves on to the odd way Americans have of making a funeral be open casket with the body to view by anyone as it is embalmed and dressed up for the occasion. I have always thought this was strange and somewhat disgusting and was surprised to learn that the United States is largely the only practitioner of this concept (this might have changed since the 60's). This concept she writes about also includes the fancy accessories a corpse can have like special mattresses in a coffin, special shoes, and other such items. My thought is, what on earth for? A corpse will not get a bad back or arches! That may seem disrespectful but to me it just seems silly.

She also visits the new concept of cemeteries and how not only their name has become something fancy (Restful Meadows, etc.) but you can now have a garden plot for your loved one or a special crypt overlooking the sea.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By JMack VINE VOICE on September 14, 2011
Format: Mass Market Paperback
Even before reading this book, I had personal objections to the American funeral rituals. Even in circumstances that involve religion, the theme seems to move toward empty pagan rituals. Jessica Mitford put into the words the absurdity and exorbant cost of dying. Though the book is approximately forty years old, the basic premise still applies even with old data.

By the admission of one funeral director quoted in the book, the funeral industry is an unchecked racket. The grieving are sold unnecessarily expensive coffins and unnecessary services with a sales pitch that is downright exploitative. While circumstances have changed since the original publication of this book, people still are asking "Can I afford to die?". Some of the more disturbing passages include the choreographed casket selection room, the renaming of certain facets of the business, trying to minimize the impact of clergy, the cosmetics for an open casket, and the campaign to prohibit the "omit flowers" line in obituaries.

Mitford acknowledges that not all funeral directors are swindlers. In fact, this book was part of a movement that spurred changes. Her storytelling is enlightening, humorous, and graphically honest. It is also a reminder that business requires scrutiny from the American people.
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