Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Summer Reading List: The American Way of Death Revisited

I've had three good friends lose immediate family members this summer. Watching them grieve and not being able to do much but offer a chance to talk or a few canned phrases has been hard. What's also hard to watch is the way in which the funeral industry takes advantage of the grieving. In one friend's case, advertisements were presented alongside the live stream of her sister's memorial service.

Jessica Mitford died before live streaming funeral services became routine, but after reading her book The American Way of Death Revisited, I can imagine her take on the matter. Mitford explores how funeral directors often tell families that embalming is legally required when that is the case in only very certain, very rare circumstances. When the federal government took steps to ban that practice, cemeteries--often owned by the same three corporations that own most funeral homes--began to require embalming.

Using trade publications, interviews with funeral directors and consumers, and her own research, Mitford explores the ways in which funerals in the US differ from most other post-industrial nations in terms of cost, focus on the body, and terminology. If this all sounds a little depressing, I have to say that this book was surprisingly un-morbid. In fact, the section that describes exactly how the embalming process works has been anthologized in several writing textbooks.

Mitford doesn't gloss over the abuses of an industry that consistently takes advantage of families who are grieving or people thinking that by paying ahead they're saving their family money (the family still usually gets a bill that includes adjustments for increased fees). This book is very honest and, at times, very funny.

Because teenagers as a general rule like to question the status quo, I think many high school students would like this book. It could be very instructive for a creative nonfiction writing. A teacher could also use it as a literature circle pick paired with other books that look at how industries often take advantage of consumers (The Jungle seems like a logical choice). If nothing else, the unusual subject matter could be a great way to hook a reluctant reader.

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