The Public Interest

Whatever happened to the American way of death?

Richard T. Gill

Spring 1996

A FEW decades ago, we knew perfectly well what to make of the American way of death. It was overly sentimentalized, highly commercialized, and, above all, excessively expensive. We knew all this because our British friends, both visitors and expatriates, had told us so. The first major assault was Evelyn Waugh’s 1948 novel, The Loved One. The next was Jessica Mitfords 1963 best-seller, The American Way of Death (which is now being revised by its author). Mitford, like Waugh, did have some fun with the barbarities of the American funeral establishment, but her tone and purpose were far more serious than his. Her quarry was precisely “the vast majority of ethical undertakers.” And it was the very definition of “ethical” in the undertaking business that she found deeply offensive.

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