Rest in Peace: A Cultural History of Death and the Funeral Home in Twentieth-Century America

By Gary Laderman | Go to book overview

3
GOOD GRIEF! JESSICA MITFORD MAKES
THE NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER LIST

Then the door was open and the wind appeared,
The candle blew then disappeared,
The curtains flew then he appeared….
Don't fear the Reaper …

“Dont Fear the Reaper,” Blue Oyster Cult, 1974


An Easy Target

The year 1963 was not good for the public image of funeral directors in America. A half-century of public scrutiny, skewering, and scepticism did not prepare undertakers for the fallout of Jessica Mitford's The American Way of Death. This book, contained just the right mixture of social criti- cism, witty satire, and scandalous exposure to make it a bona fide cultural sensation. Funeral directors had believed the ceremonies for President Kennedy would drown out the charges of corruption and abuse swirling in the media in the final months of 1963, but The American Way of Death did not disappear from public consciousness. Instead, it continued to serve as a lightening rod for public denouncements of the entire industry in the weeks, indeed the decades, after its release.

Her arguments resonated with a significant segment of the American population who had become quite familiar with the figure of the funeral director—as both a real person operating a local funeral home and, per- haps more importantly for public perceptions, as an entertaining stereo- type haunting the American imagination. Mitford's book exploited popu- lar American obsessions with death, money, and scandal, and reinforced clear cultural trends in the evolution of a funeral director stereotype. Despite desperate attempts to sway the public with heartfelt national cam- paigns, the funeral industry never would be able to alter the national image of the undertaker. For Mitford and many others, the undertaker turned funeral director turned mortician was easily cast in the role of heartless profiteer, confidence man, and social pariah. In the face of this stinging popular indictment, funeral directors fought to maintain their

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