Muckraking and consumer protection: The legacy of Jessica Mitford

Perform a quick Internet search for funeral costs and you will likely be presented with a pricing checklist from the Federal Trade Commission, which gives average prices for caskets, funeral director services, and cremations. Glance a bit further down the list and you will be inundated with pages entitled, “How to save on funeral costs,” “Ten things your funeral director might not be telling you,” or “How to avoid high funeral costs.” Funerals are an expensive business. A funeral is one of the biggest purchases a family will make after a house, a college education, or a car.1 So who looks after the consumers in this sensitive and lucrative business?

The Finances of Funerals

Enter Jessica Mitford. You can’t inquire into the death care industry for long without running across Mitford’s name. In 1963, she published the book, The American Way of Death, an exposé on the excesses of the death care industry that became an instant bestseller.2 The publisher initially printed 20,000 copies and every single copy sold on the first day that the book was released.3 In the decades since, readers have purchased millions of copies of the book and it remains one of the most well-known and widely read books on the industry. Mitford was a muckraker and she was out to expose what she called the “huge, macabre, and expensive practical joke on the American public.”4

Mitford’s husband, Robert Treuhaft, encouraged her to write the book. He worked as a union lawyer representing longshoremen in San Francisco, and Treuhaft was suspicious of funeral homes that he thought charged exploitative fees that too often matched the death benefit paid to widows by the union. He founded the Bay Area Funeral Society in order to provide affordable funerals to union families and then spent a year away from his practice researching The American Way of Death with Mitford.5

The American Way of Death Book Cover

The American Way of Death was an instant bestseller. It continues to be a popular book on the death care industry more than fifty years after its publication.

What Mitford recounted was a commodification of death, a transition from funerals as simple family affairs to more elaborate ceremonies involving expensive metal caskets, embalming and cosmetic treatments of bodies, and a confusing price structure that exploited the fact that most people are only involved in planning a few funerals in their lifetime. In her book, she recounted hilarious and tragic descriptions of shoes designed to fit feet with rigor mortis, florists pressuring newspapers to delete, “please omit flowers” from obituary notices, and a description of embalming filled with gallows humor.

Mitford often turned to industry publications to bolster her argument that funeral homes sought to exploit grief for profit. She opened one chapter of her book with the following quote from the National Funeral Service Journal:

A funeral is…an occasion when feelings of guilt and remorse are satisfied to a large extent by the purchase of a fine funeral. It seems highly probable that the most satisfactory funeral service for the average family is one in which the cost has necessitated some degree of sacrifice. This permits the survivors to atone for any real or fancied neglect of the deceased prior to his death.6

The Funeral Rule

Her work helped generate the momentum for reform of the death care industry that eventually produced “the funeral rule,” first enacted by the Federal Trade Commision (FTC) during the Reagan administration.7 FTC investigations began the year after the publication of The American Way of Death and found “many serious abuses of consumers by large numbers of the nation’s 22,000 funeral homes.” They identified an “urgent need…for remedial action.”8 However, it was not implemented until 1981, in part because of strong industry opposition. It requires funeral homes to offer written price lists to anyone who asks, to sell items and services individually, and to not require unnecessary services like embalming. The rule, however, allows funeral homes to charge a “basic service fee” for handling a body, no matter what arrangements are ultimately made. This fee typically costs more than $2000.

Through the 1980’s and early 1990’s, the FTC estimated that less than 50 percent of funeral homes complied with the rule. In the mid 1990’s the agency started sending undercover shoppers to funeral homes to ask for price information. The fines and negative publicity associated with violations appeared to increase compliance. By 1999, the Government Accountability Office reported that compliance with the rule had become “very high.”9 Mitford was skeptical about the benefits of the funeral rule and she cited it as a key reason for completing an updated version of her book, entitled, The American Way of Death Revisited, which was published two years after her death in 1998.10 Mitford’s influence on the death care industry is striking. Her book was first published in 1963 publication and the FTC opened their investigation the following year. Further FTC action was initiated in 1998, the same year that the revised edition of her book was published.

Significant concerns about the death care industry remain. The Funeral Rule, while effective, only regulates a narrow part of the industry. The fact that few people arrange many funerals in their lives mean that most consumers are uneducated about what the Funeral Rule does protect.11 The sheer number of articles and essays investigating the economics and ethics of the death care industry suggest that many people remain suspicious. At the same time, increased cremation rates and less interest in elaborate funerals will place more economic pressure on both funeral homes and cemeteries. This story is far from complete.

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  1. Bess Lovejoy, “Fond Farewells,” Lapham’s Quarterly 6, no. 4 (Fall 2013): 215–21. 

  2. Jessica Mitford, The American Way of Death (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1963). 

  3. Lovejoy, “Fond Farewells.” 

  4. Mitford, The American Way of Death, ebook. 

  5. Paul Lewis, “Robert Treuhaft, 89, Lawyer Who Inspired Funeral Exposé,” The New York Times, December 2, 2001, sec. U.S., http://www.nytimes.com/2001/12/02/us/robert-treuhaft-89-lawyer-who-inspired-funeral-expose.html. 

  6. Mitford, The American Way of Death, ebook. 

  7. “Funeral Costs and Pricing Checklist” (Federal Trace Commission, July 2012), http://www.consumer.ftc.gov/articles/0301-funeral-costs-and-pricing-checklist. 

  8. Steven W. Kopp and Elyria Kemp, “The Death Care Industry: A Review of Regulatory and Consumer Issues,” Journal of Consumer Affairs 41, no. 1 (June 1, 2007): 157, doi:10.1111/j.1745-6606.2006.00072.x. 

  9. Ibid., 160. 

  10. Jessica Mitford, The American Way of Death Revisited (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998). 

  11. “An Expensive Way to Go,” Economist, January 4, 1997.