The American Way of Death

I wrote a reconsideration of Jessica Mitford’s The American Way of Death for Lapham’s Quarterly’s new Death issue. Below, the cover of the first edition of The American Way of Death in 1963. Subtle design, right?


Mitford’s book wasn’t what I expected. I was anticipating a cultural analysis of America’s relationship with death, but the book is actually an economic exposé. The “American Way” isn’t a reference to thoughts and feelings so much as habit and techniques of buying and selling. Mitford was a strong critic of capitalism, and I have a feeling that her political motivations for writing the book have become somewhat, ahem, buried for readers of my generation.

Mitford never expected for her reputation to become so linked to funerals, and in fact, after reading many of her letters, I came to the conclusion that she didn’t care about the book as much as later, more overtly political work. But she certainly did love the mortuary magazines she used in her research (selections apparently papered her downstairs bathroom). I wanted to see what kind of material she was looking at, so I took a trip to the New York Public Library a few weeks ago and snapped pictures of a few choice ads from old copies of Mortuary Management. This one seemed especially ill-advised:

Cigarette embalming fluid

I have a feeling Mitford would have appreciated that ad, and perhaps the slightly disturbing Christmas card from the same issue:

Christmas card

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