It is not surprising that death has always been a target for comedians and satirists.  After all, dying is the ultimate prat fall, an ungainly reminder to others that their time is coming.  When Leo Tolstoy wanted to have a good laugh at the expense of the Russian middle class, he naturally chose a funeral for his setting.  His story “The Death of Ivan Ilych,” one of the starkest evocations of mortality in fiction, begins with mockery.  Ivan Ilych, a judge of middling distinction and enormous vanity, has died.  At the news, his colleagues in the judiciary immediately begin calculating how his demise will affect them.  What realignments and promotions will follow?  At the same time, these good gentlemen “could not help thinking . . . that they would now have to fulfill the very tiresome demands of propriety by attending the funeral service and paying a visit of condolence to the widow.”  At the wake in Ilych’s home, these fellows bumble about not knowing what they are supposed to do in front of the coffin.  Should they bless themselves or bow?  Or is it both at once?  Of one thing, however, they are all certain: As the narrator explains, “the death of a near acquaintance aroused, as usual, in all who heard of it the complacent feeling that, ‘It is he who is dead and not I.’”

The television comic Jackie Gleason used to paint a cruder—some would say more congenial—version of Tolstoy’s portrait of death’s comedy with a story of an Irish wake held at home.  It seems that, before he died, Frank told his wife, Eileen, that he wanted a wake that would please his family and friends.  When the time comes, Eileen fully honors her husband’s wishes.  She furnishes his wake with ample food and drink.  From the first night, it’s a success.  By the second night, it’s a lively party; by the third, a roaring one.  Happy to see this, Eileen decides to keep the wake going.  But toward the end of the fourth night, she begins to worry.  How much longer can she delay putting Frank in the ground?  In a quandary, she approaches Frank’s best friend, Pat, to ask his advice.  Pat puts down his tumbler of Bushmills and says, “Ah, sure, Eileen, and Frank was as good a man as ever walked God’s earth.  And since you’re asking my opinion of the matter, I’ll tell you.  I’m thinking you should have him stuffed and keep the party going.”

I suspect Gleason got the idea for this joke from a tradition of lively funerals that had not quite died out among the Irish, both here and in the old country.  The Irish, like the ancient Greeks, made a point of celebrating at funerals.  Games and dancing used to be the rule in earlier days.  And, of course, drink was necessary to keep the mourners’ energy up.  So spirited were these funeral parties that guests sometimes could not refrain from including the corpse in the fun, hoisting him from his coffin to join them for a reel or two.

Then there’s the legend that comes down to us from 1899 in Armagh, Northern Ireland.  There lived a certain George McCartney, the grandfather for whom I am named, who was known to have livened up a wake or two.  At one, however, his high spirits turned regrettably mischievous.  An aged farmer had died and was being waked in his barn.  Arriving well before the scheduled hour of 7:00 P.M., George and his friends prepared a surprise for the evening.  When the guests began to walk in a half-hour later, George rose from his seat and walked with reverent slowness toward the back of the barn as if he intended to greet them.  As he did so, he pulled the slender rope he had tied around his waist under his jacket, a rope whose other end he and his friends had earlier tossed over one of the barn’s rafters and tied underneath the corpse’s armpits.  In the darkened barn, the nearly invisible rope created an unnerving spectacle.  The corpse began to sit up in his coffin, his head thoughtfully turned to look out at his visitors.  Within seconds, the would-be mourners were fleeing into the night.  This being the kind of prank one does not want to boast about in one’s own village, George booked passage to Canada the following year, where he began to tell and retell his anecdote of the wake to great effect through the seven decades preceding his own American funeral, a much more proper affair.

Fortunately, we in modern America have been spared such mockery and impropriety.  Under the tutelage of capitalist entrepreneurs, funerals and wakes have been thoroughly professionalized and domesticated.  They no longer take place in the family parlor where anything might happen.  They have been relocated to the circumspect calm of the neighborhood funeral parlor, which often turns out to be a part of a chain of such establishments owned by a respectable franchising corporation with immense political clout.  The Houston-based Service Corporation International is one such company.  This firm, known officially as “the world’s largest death care company,” and unofficially as the McDonald’s of death, has flourished by virtue of its kindliness to the Bush family, who helped them put down some nasty allegations of grave recycling in the late 1990’s.  Besides, recycling is a good thing, right?

Back inside the funeral home, an attentive funeral director keeps his clientele solemnly in line.  No Bushmills, not even a Guinness, on the premises to threaten the occasion’s dignity as the loved one is wafted whisperingly out of this world on rafts of malodorous lilies and daffodils.  Like Tolstoy’s middle-class Russians, we have surrendered to institutional respectability, going in fear of violating death’s official rules.  How has this happened?

In a word, we have been bullied.  By the 1920’s, morticians had come to realize they could squeeze much more profit from their customers if they called themselves funeral directors rather than undertakers, the more descriptively apt term for their trade.  Their new title conferred an air of professional respectability.  Once they became the officials of death, few of their grief-distracted customers were willing to question their practices.  The directors could now lift from their clients’ shoulders the unseemly burden of bargaining about caskets, floral arrangements, and burial plots.  Who wanted to haggle while their loved one was still cooling on the mortuary slab?  Who wanted it bruited about that he or she was a heartless bastard unwilling to fork over whatever it cost to see a wife or husband, mother or father sealed into a steel-plated, damp-proof casket, perpetually defended against both the elements and the maggots?  Thrift would never do on such an occasion.  To decline even the most extravagant attention to the dearly departed would hardly advance one’s social prestige.  Better to shut up and pay.

This ludicrously one-sided business dynamic between the self-proclaimed death experts and their customers had gone largely unchallenged through the first half of the 20th century.  Then, in 1963, an eccentric English émigré wrote a scathing attack on the industry.  Jessica Mitford, aristocrat and communist, wrote The American Way of Death and immediately found herself a celebrity.  Her book—equal parts exposé and satire—was an instant best-seller.  She was interviewed on television and radio, and debated by funeral-industry spokesmen nationwide.  CBS ran an hour-long documentary of American funeral practices based on her book.  Newspapers and magazines could not stop writing about her.  Mitford had lanced a festering boil.  Americans had long sensed their friendly mortician was cheating them but lacked the certain knowledge to articulate their suspicions.  Mitford armed them with the facts.

It all started when her labor-lawyer husband, Robert Treuhaft, discovered that, before taking the deceased into their parlors, funeral directors routinely asked to see the terms of their life-insurance policies.  Once they found out the amount of coverage, they priced their services accordingly, more for larger settlements, less for smaller, but always painfully substantial.  Furthermore, the costlier services were often no different from the cheaper.  In her book, Mitford cites as one of her primary exhibits the case of the 1947 mine disaster that killed 111 men in Centralia, Illinois.  It “proved a bonanza for the undertakers of that community,” she dryly observes and then quotes the United Mineworkers Journal’s angry account.  “The Centralia undertakers moved in like ghouls . . . [Their] unconscionable greed . . . literally followed the victims to their graves and mulcted the surviving dependents of sizable sums from the Welfare Fund death gratuity and state compensation they received.”

Mitford points out that one wife was induced to pay $645 for a bronze metallic casket—that’s $5,978 adjusted for inflation—while another was convinced her husband needed a gray metal model priced at $835 ($7,739), despite it being of cheaper construction.  The cost difference, Mitford argues, was almost unquestionably dictated by the funeral director’s knowledge of the insurance money each family had received.

Mitford’s indignation at such practices is reinforced by her satiric wit.  She sets up her account of the Centralia scandal by quoting from a fulsomely self-serving article from the National Funeral Service Journal, a publication not meant to be seen by anyone other than industry insiders.

A funeral is not an occasion for a display of cheapness.  It is, in fact, an opportunity for the display of a status symbol which, by bolstering family pride, does much to assuage grief.  A funeral is also 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.

One wonders how much those metal caskets bolstered the pride of the miners’ families.  Were they status symbols enough?

Under a patina of professional respectability, the advice to undertakers in trade journals such as this one is remarkably cynical.  The writer is quite clear that the bereaved’s remorse is the mortician’s opportunity.  The “degree of sacrifice” a survivor is willing to make will escalate relative to how relieved he is at a loved one’s departure.  The greater the relief, the more expensively elaborate the public show of grief will need to be.  It is this simple calculus of guilt that is so rewarding to the funeral industry.

And what does this “degree of sacrifice” purchase?  First, a suitable casket, the most expensive and most profitable product among a mortician’s wares.  Funeral directors routinely try to sell solid-metal coffins sealed with rubber gaskets.  Although their materials and construction are not really more costly than, say, a mahogany model, they command a higher price since they are supposed to keep the loved one as fresh as the day his formaldehyded carcass was buried.  Putting aside the inanity of wishing to protect a corpse from rotting, the claim that any container can do so is wholly spurious.  Mitford interviewed Dr. Jesse Carr, chief of pathology at San Francisco General Hospital, and discovered that, far from defending the body from rot, a sealed casket promotes the attack of anaerobic bacteria that cause the loved one to putrefy rather than decay.  The results, Dr. Carr reported, are “pretty horrible.”  Carr’s aesthetic point was that, upon exhumation, corpses buried in a plain wood coffin will look considerably better than those sealed into their own gooey putrefaction.  For even superior cosmetic results, he advised burying the dead in nothing more than a shroud.  On the metaphysical question of a corpse’s own wishes, Dr. Carr was silent.  Morticians, however, have been loud on the subject of caskets.  They have lobbied—with only partial success, thankfully—to keep the law such that caskets can only be sold to morticians, who then mark them up from 400 to 700 percent.  They also insist that corpses scheduled to be fed to the crematorium’s flames must be housed in caskets—preferably in metal ones!  The wonder of it is that, even after Mitford’s book came out, Americans have continued to submit to such fantastic “customs.”

Mitford also goes after embalming, which is nearly universal in America but generally not practiced in the rest of the world.  It is another moneymaker, sold to Americans on the pretext of the necessity of sanitation and aesthetics.  Again, not true.  Unless a corpse is going to be on display for an inordinately long time, it will not noticeably decay nor will it pose any health issue at all.  As Dr. Carr informed Mitford, “There are several advantages to being dead.  You don’t excrete, inhale, exhale, or perspire.”  In short, unless a person dies of a communicable disease, his corpse is not a hazard.  Embalming is not for the benefit of the deceased or the survivors.  “The purpose of embalming,” Mitford explains, “is to make the corpse presentable for viewing in a suitably costly container.”

Mitford is similarly severe with cemetery owners, who, she alleges convincingly, are generally practicing a nonprofit racket.  They induce public officials to support their public-spirited campaigns to purchase land priced well below its market value.  Then they divide this land into as many plots as possible.  In some instances, they forego footpaths to maximize their profits, forcing visitors to trample over countless gravesites to get to their loved one’s underground residence.  Once the land is divvied up, the cemetery’s sales people market the hell out of the newly minted eternal resting places, often selling them on a “pre-need” basis to geezers in the surrounding communities.  When all is said and done, half the money stays with the cemetery’s nonprofit finances, and the other half goes into a dummy corporation known only to the cemetery’s public-spirited investors.

Although Mitford never tips her communist hand, there can be little doubt that she found the funeral industry an especially piquant example of predatory capitalism—a business that has an enviably uninformed clientele.  Its customers approach their transactions without much stomach for making price comparisons.  Except for those tough-minded enough to have made judicious arrangements well beforehand, funeral purchasers are forced to enter their contracts trusting to the honesty of the purveyor.  All the conditions of the typical funeral mock the touted advantages of the free market.  I have no doubt that Mitford meant her exposé to cast doubt on other capitalist enterprises as well.  But even socialists might pause at Mitford’s suggested alternatives to the inherently unfair marketplace of death service.  She recommends that either the government take care of our funeral needs or we participate in self-financed funeral societies, groups of like-minded individuals sick unto death of the funeral industry’s extortionate practices.  Although the governmental alternative might diminish some of the unspeakable vulgarity of many American funerals, I doubt whether, in the long run, it would reduce their final cost.  The individual funeral might seem cheaper in such a system, but our ingenious public servants would doubtless use our deaths as they do our lives to siphon unimaginable billions into their coffers.  Think of where your Social Security funds are going.  They are not in a lockbox under the Capitol, as some of our legislators liked to claim a few years ago.  The funeral society sounds like a nice idea for free-floating Unitarians and nonbelievers, but others will probably think of such organizations as redundant to the offices performed by their churches.  Of course, it would be nice if our religious leaders stepped up and intervened more than they do.  Mitford comments on this, pointing out, in particular defense of the clergy, the obstacles they encounter.  Funeral directors do all they can to keep them away from their dealings with clients.  Wherever possible, the shrewd morticians try to eliminate church altogether, calling their own establishments “chapels” and offering their own secular services for the dead.  Mitford applauds the hardier among the clergy who resist this tendency, especially those who speak out against the excesses of the funeral trade, but she regrets that we do not hear more voices of sanity.  This seems a fair assessment of our current situation—and surprising also, coming from a communist.

Indeed, Mitford’s book helped to change some of the practices of America’s funeral industry.  It took ten years from its publication date, but the Federal Trade Commission finally instituted the Funeral Rule, which requires morticians to issue an itemized cost list of their services so that customers can pick and choose what they want and can afford.  It also stipulates that the customer has the right to buy a casket from an independent supplier.  The funeral director can no longer suggest that embalming is mandated by law.  As is the nature of things in our land, however, the industry immediately began lobbying to weaken these regulations, often with success.  Elsewhere, it simply ignored them.  This is why Mitford, right up to her death in 1996, was working on an updated version of her book

Surely, it is quixotic of me to make the following suggestion, but, reading Mitford, I could not help wondering if we would not be better off if we returned to waking our dead at home.  There are far too many officials directing our lives as it is.  Must we allow funeral directors to usher us officially from the stage once we have played our final scene?  And overcharge us unconscionably, while they’re at it?  Of course, few are prepared to handle a corpse at home, but perhaps it would be possible to hire less intrusive professionals to come and assist with such preparations as necessary.  Then, we could reclaim our right to see our dead into the next world as we and they would prefer.  We would decently toast our loved ones with Bushmills or Guinness at our leisure.  And, in the softly dimming light, they might, on occasion, even sit up to wink a last adieu.