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An American Death

January 18, 2011 , , , , , ,

There are few things in life which cause more obsession, fear, and angst than the contemplation of one’s own inevitable death, although for myself I can not even begin to fathom why this is, at least in regards to developing a neurosis. Anthropologists and Sociologists have long known that one is capable of learning a vast amount about any society throughout human history by analyzing their cultural attitudes towards death along with their treatment of the dead themselves. And when engaged with the contemplation of the human history of funerary custom it becomes rather intriguing to single out the most recent addition to this history–this thanatotic province being the modern American funeral. It is within the bounds of this region where one journalist’s influence is felt with plenary force, and I am alluding of course to Jessica Mitford and here seminal expose on the American funeral industry, The American Way of Death (1963).

What makes this book so indispensable to the philosopher and/or psychologist is to be found in the way in which it sheds light on the rather bizarre world of the American undertaker. Yet the economist also gains insight from this inquiry due to the way in which it forces Radical Capitalist America to face an unwanted truth about its existence. This verity is still to be found in the way in which not only is every working and middle-class individual exploited by the system for their labor value throughout their life but also that their maximum surplus value is squeezed out at the time of death through the economic shake down that is the modern American funeral. It has to be noticed that when it comes to Capital’s insatiable suck-dry of Labor, we all are useful till the very last drop.

While I was mulling over some ideas to write about, a commercial on the television suddenly caught my attention. Now normally I would not even have a TV on in the background while doing anything remotely literary (I find that music is more appropriate for this activity) but I was in the living room where it happened to be already on. This being the situation, as I was going over some notes the advertisement caught my ear due its rather irregular and random intent. It was a commercial for a cemetery here in the Bay Area. I am quite sure that this was the first time in my life (or at least that I can recall) that I witnessed such marketing. The salesman’s voice soothingly entreated the living to consider all the wonderful and luxurious choices available for the interment of their future carcass. Now I ask you, where else but America could one see this kind of marketing ploy? As it happens it is only within America where you can witness such a crass display of beseechment. It was upon witnessing this scenario which got me thinking that a discussion of Ms Mitford’s book would provide some intrigue for an article, yet it quickly became obvious that such an inquiry is always worth engaging with, no matter the literary need.

It is hard now to imagine that it was not until 1963 that anyone thought it worth the time to give the practices of the funeral industry a second look. As Ms Mitford explains in the beginning of this book, she felt that the fact that she was English and not American is what spurred her curiosity and ability to investigate the flagrant variances in the American funeral as compared to anywhere else in the world as well as the fact that her husband worked as a lawyer for trade unions whose members’ benefits were being fleeced by funeral racketeers. This is where much of the statistical data presented in her expose originates from. It is also of interest to note that she correctly cited that America was the first society and culture to adopt the practice and fetish of preserving the dead since the time of the Ancient Egyptians.

Highlighting all of these sociological differences and distinctions of the American funeral (embalming, open casket ceremonies, ever more elaborate coffins and crypts, etc) would have been enough for any investigative journalist to have garnered praise. But what she actually accomplished goes far beyond these anthropological interests. She brought to the fore the hither to unexamined practices of the undertakers, cemetery owners and florists of America who were and still are engaged in methods designed to exploit human grief for maximum profit. This new awareness is what made this book such a sensation in the nineteen sixties—the book had six re-printings in its first year of publication alone—and is what also continues to make this book necessary reading for every American.

If you will now pardon a slight yet still relevant digression, in my critique of American Capitalism, I have always found it effective to focus on Funeral and Health Insurance industry practices in order to better illustrate to people the inherent unethical nature of capitalism. It would have to be a rather callous or even sociopathic individual who would even attempt to deny that using human grief and sickness as a means for pecuniary advancement is unforgivably specious and contemptible to say the least. But these are still very tenable practices within the aegis of capitalism; the acquisition of surplus value trumps all such considerations. And our ruling and political elites continue to let their own cupidity trump any such moral consideration as well.

After such coruscate journalism into the inequities of American Capitalism Ms Mitford would have been guaranteed to receive unending adulation (not that she would have ever needed it) but she still managed to go one step further in her investigations. She showed that the undertaker arose to his new more involved role in human society by mandating the process of embalming. In her book there is a rather infamous chapter entitled The Story of Service. It is here where Ms Mitford goes into exacting detail of the outlandish process of embalming. All of her research proved unequivocally that this process has no antiseptic value or is helpful or needed for the extinguishing of mephitic aromas; negating the common justifications given by morticians to exemplify embalmings’ utility. It is from reading this chapter in particular where most people come to the conclusion that it is cremation that they wish for their own corpses and yet even here she shows that cremation is not a repose from the funeral racketeer.

In describing this American fetish for preserving the flesh after death, Ms Mitford utilizing such wonderfully ironic aptitude tells us that, “Alas, poor Yorick! How surprised he would be to see how his counterpart of today is whisked off to a funeral parlor and is in short order sprayed, sliced, pierced, pickled, trussed, trimmed, creamed, waxed, painted, rouged and neatly dressed–transformed from a common corpse into a Beautiful Memory Picture. This process is known in the trade as embalming and restorative art, and is so universally employed in the United States and Canada that the funeral director does it routinely, without consulting corpse or kin.” (pg. 54 1964 edition)

Even the very title of this book is brilliant as it plays on our nationalistic maxim of the American Way of Life as being the epitome of civilization. If there is an American way of life that is enviable to other societies (and I do not deny that there is some truth to this assertion) then I suppose that there is some logic to a desired and enviable American way of death as well. Yet, the fact that there is still so much extant secrecy and dubious motive in this industry is a reality that continues to beg for our sharp cultural criticism. A possible answer to the final analysis of this behavior could be that the American material obsession with corporeality is rather idiosyncratic and to be expected from any culture which fetishizes money and status and their attainment so gratuitously.

Now I of course know and can easily concede that capitalism is still the best method for spurring innovation and also offers the best potential means for individual social advancement. But what has been well known and evinced since the time of Adam Smith and David Ricardo let alone Karl Marx is that concomitant with these social benefits, capitalism still tends towards monopoly when completely unfettered and also operates the most pristinely while residing within a moral vacuum under authoritarian invigilation (one can very easily verify this assertion with the Chinese government). We can never abjure this axiom and then tout our society as an exemplar of social justice and equality. In fact, currently Wall St. and its denizens and overlords provide a staggering amount of evidence to the contrary. We also can not even begin to find an antidote for these social contradictions and inequities unless we are able to admit to their very existence, a rather elementary point to make, wouldn’t you say? Yet do you see any sign of this acknowledgement amongst our so-called elites? As long as this remains the status quo, it will always be worth investigating and critiquing the American way of death. And in doing so, you will also see and feel the same need for ethical advertence when considering the American Way of Life.

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Reblogged this on The Heterodox and commented:

Death and Capitalism revisited


August 13, 2015

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