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"The American Way of Death"

In 1963 Jessica Mitford’s witty unveiling of the American funeral industry, “The American Way of Death” catapulted the predations of the American funeral industry into prominence - quite a feat when you consider the issue had to compete with Vietnam war, the Cuban missile crisis, the space race and the civil rights revolution.

Mitford’s account of dysfunction in the American system are, like the revelations in Death Without Debt’s case studies, scarcely believable, both in the detail (her chapter on embalming reads like a Gothic horror tale) and the overview;  through nearly 300 pages she adds up the evidence that the “traditional” funeral is almost entirely a product of the profit motive.

The gross comercialisation of death may have originated in the United States but like Coke and tooth decay, has spread around the globe.  It's the usual story of human vulnerability meeting business opportunity.

​In the United States the funeral industry makes most of its money off coffins and embalming.  Here the industry's effective monopoly on completing the compulsory death paperwork is the key to their lucrative business plan. 

​In New Zealand, in 1963, cremation was rare.  Paperwork requirements brought in that year required a second doctor to sign off the Cause of Death Certificate.  As cremation became more popular, and medical profession abdicated on its responsibility, pre-disposal paperwork became more and more lucrative for the industry.  Nowadays, undertakers enjoy almost complete compliance from doctors, who can be relied on to refer virtually all bereaved families to them to get the paperwork done.

Although Kiwis are slowly waking up to the unnecessarily high cost of funerals, and the cultural cost of handing the process across to the business community, most of us are still trapped in the system by the paperwork, which makes it hard to escape.  Until doctors start doing the paperwork for families and friends, the D.I.Y. funeral movement will remain the domain of a small minority of well-resourced people.

In the end, Mitford’s tell-all wasn’t enough.  Consumer protections brought in as a result of Mitford’s book (and the work of other advocates) soon slipped as the the funeral industry flexed its muscle.  By 1996 things had got so bad Mitford had to update her book to make up for lost ground.  "The American Way of Death" is still the gold standard in understanding how we are all, funeral directors and public alike, the victims of the commercialisation of death. 

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