The Posthumous Mitford

In the darkly comedic and endearing style that was hers and hers only, Decca (as Jessica Mitford was known from childhood) once joked that an update of her classic, “The American Way of Death,” should be called “Death Warmed Over.” But it was not to be. Her sudden death from lung cancer two years ago left her manuscript in the hands of a committee of well-intentioned but manifestly less-talented “death-care” watchdogs and wannabes — Jessica-come-latelys — who may have shared her bias but who lacked her style.

“The American Way of Death Revisited,” an old read come round again, fails to engage or outrage, incite or excite the way the original did 35 years ago. What is tendered as new and improved turns out to be dull and redundant: These grief-disabled, guilt-ridden, morbidly curious Americans still are burying and burning their dead with ceremony, symbol and expense, and it still costs too much.

Of course, it never had as much to do with death — in the eternal question sense of the word — as with dollars. It was the business, and in particular, the American way of business that mostly bothered her — that market-driven, mid-century, Ma and Pa capitalism, whereby folks were free to make a million and likewise free to starve; where the haves and have-nots were divided, not in the mannerly British style, by class and caste, but by black and white.

Born in 1917, the daughter of fascist English aristocrats and sibling to a pair of Nazi sisters, Jessica rebelled by becoming what another sister (neither fascist nor Nazi), the novelist Nancy Mitford, called “a ballroom communist” — someone who can endure both the free clinic with the other needy mothers and the island in the Hebrides she inherits; the type who tips well but likes to shoplift. You know, an enigma.

Newly wed to her cousin, Esmond Romilly, a nephew of Churchill, she ran off in 1937 to fight the forces of evil in Spain. Her father disowned her. After their first daughter, Julia, died of scarlet fever, they moved to America. Esmond was killed in action during World War II, leaving her with an infant daughter, Constancia, and a government job with the Office of Price Administration (OPA) — “as close to the frontline of the war against Fascism as anything in Washington,” she wrote in her autobiography, “A Fine Old Conflict.” “The office was responsible for establishing rent control, price control and rationing policy, writing detailed regulations . . . and promulgating them in the Field . . . OPA’s term for the rest of the country.”

At OPA she met Bob Treuhaft, an enforcement attorney whose job it was to ban all driving except for business reasons. He’d written the regs on pleasure driving. Both were from that school that holds “they govern best that govern everything.” The attraction was immediate. That he was handsome, brilliant Jewish and from the Bronx and well left of the ordinary New Dealers — and that her father vigorously would disapprove — made the match all the more dear. They married, settled in California, joined the Communist Party. He worked for the trade unions. She had sons, first Nicholas, then Benjamin. When Nicholas was 10, he was killed when a bus hit him on his bicycle. Soon after Decca began what she called her “frontal assault on one of the seamier manifestations of American capitalism.”

This was not fighting the Fascists and the Nazis and the forces of evil writ large, of course, but “the undertakers were an easy target,” and as she wrote further, “The American Way of Death” allowed her to “give full rein to my subversive nature.” Whatever its pedigree, that first version of the book sold 100,000 copies in the first five weeks and became the center of a media storm that changed utterly the way in which Americans dealt with their dead. The cremation rate rose from 3 percent to 22 percent in the next three decades. The Federal Trade Commission, a postwar cousin of the OPA, promulgated a funeral rule to open the market to competition and outlaw “package deals” and other abuses, and to broaden the range of available options and information about matters mortuary. Folks were encouraged by Decca’s pronouncements to make their arrangements in advance when heads were cool so those funeral directors couldn’t take advantage of grief and guilt.

Thirty-five years later, in this revisited edition, Decca’s committee of authors is outraged over the marketing of cremation products and services, the tacky and often abusive competitive scams for pre-need dollars and the “bottom-line” mentality of the global acquisition corporations, SCI and Loewen, that are buying up family-owned funeral homes all over the planet.

But for all the carping, they fail to recognize that cremation, and competition and cost-efficiency are lessons the marketplace learned from Jessica. Pre-need is a tune that she first hummed, and SCI is nothing but the eventual big-business first cousin of big-government FTC. Indeed, the “death-care” reality we currently occupy, with cemeteries calling in the middle of dinner to sell you everything but the “memorial” kitchen sink and pre-need “counselors” going door-to-door to keep you from “being a burden to your children,” where a death in the family is regarded essentially as a series of consumer choices, was largely shaped by the remarkable success of “The American Way of Death.” The market has been “Mitfordized,” and now, per her instructions, custom has been replaced by convenience, discounts means cost-efficiency.

Which is exactly why this new, if not entirely improved, version of the old read seems dated — the numbing drone of numbers in a world that knows the numbers all to well. Thanks to Decca, we all know more than we ever wanted to know about the money and the math of funerals. It’s the meaning of death that still vexes us, and Decca was and remains, sadly, silent on this.

A writer who offers two books called “The American Way of Death” and never mentions the names of her two children who died can be called quirky or eccentric or private or brave. But a woman who writes two volumes of autobiography and never discusses these facts of her life can only be called silent, sad and silent. After all the blathering and good-humored banter, she whistles by the graveyard but never goes in.

The American way of death for Decca was to do the math, not the mourning. “She preferred,” as the Independent said in her obituary, “never to speak of it.” As if the mention of these hurts might unleash those difficult, untidy, terribly American feelings she would not allow herself and disapproved of in others. Prices were not the only things she labored to control.

But if you’re after prices, here they are. The wake that ran under $1,000 in 1963 runs nearly $5,000 nowadays. The book that cost five bucks back then costs 25 today.

Go figure.

Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, July 26, 1998; Page C07

The Posthumous Mitford