July 11, 2007

Thoughts Occasioned by Mitford

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In The American Way of Death Revisited, Jessica Mitford quickly gets to the heart of the matter. The funeral business in America is predicated on the highly dubious assertions (made only by funeral directors, and never to their customers) that seeing the body of the dear departed restored through the magic of embalming to something of a lifelike, even robust state, is a crucial element of the grieving and coming to terms with death. In order to make this last supposedly comforting image memorable, every element must be choreographed, stage managed -- and expensive.

As I've read the book, a few questions and thoughts have occured to me:

1) Why is it that much of the best American journalism, whether it's Upton Sinclair or I.F. Stone or Jessica Mitford or George Seldes, happens outside of mainstream journalism? (And why was the most successful muckraking text ever, in terms of social impact -- Upton Sinclair's work The Jungle, a novel rather than a lengthy newspaper series?)

2). Why isn't Jessica Mitford more celebrated? This puzzles me somewhat -- I vaguely knew who she was, but she's far less well known than, say, Rachel Carson. Having read a bit of both, I think that's a shame -- Mitford's work has a certain revelry to it that makes it far more engaging than Carson.

3). If I die (I've decided to be optimistic about it; I also vaguely suspect that should I ever buy another lotto ticket, I'll win, and any day now the IRS will decide that it no longer needs me to pay taxes), I want to cremated, and have my ashes scattered -- preferably on the head of someone I don't like.

4). I think some of the best journalism takes an approach analagous to that of cultural anthropologists. Mitford examines in great detail the narratives offered by funeral home directors, their trade magazines, their seminars and sales manuals, examining in great detail how the industry views itself and its customers. These passages can often be the most revealing things in the book.

I owe a few people emails and some comment responses -- I'll get caught up tomorrow (I promise). In the meantime, I wish you all could join me at the bar below...

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Posted by Ideofact at July 11, 2007 11:49 PM
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