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No funeral frills for critic of death industry

The Truly Loved One, Jessica Mitford, died Tuesday morning. A wit, a rebel, a charmer, a hell-raiser and a great muckraking journalist, she had _ as she put it herself a few days before she died _ "a good run." The understatement is deliciously Decca.

Shortly before her death, her good friend Doug Foster wrote a loving letter to her. "A bit over the top, isn't it?" she inquired, peering at him over her glasses.

"Well, given the circumstances . . . " said Doug.

"One must never write over the top," said Decca.

Decca Mitford was chiefly known to the world for her extraordinary life and her semi-immortal panning of the funeral industry in The American Way of Death. chiefly known to her friends and family as a darling. Since she loathed mawkishness, let's move briskly on to some of the great stories.

Toward the end of her life, she was reworking The American Way of Death, in pursuit of which she came to Houston to visit the Funeral Museum. It is a multimedia museum. When we got to the section on embalming, we settled on a bench to listen to a short documentary. "The art of embalming was invented by the ancient Egyptians," announced the narrator. Decca said quietly, "Now there was a culture where they let the funeral directors get completely out of control."

Mitford's classic expose of how the funeral industry uses grief and guilt to rip off mourning relatives had the happiest of endings for a journalist. Her book forced the government to do something about it. In 1975, the Federal Trade Commission ruled that mortuaries must give consumers detailed price lists, even over the telephone. In Houston, Mitford was hot on the trail of the story of the concentration of ownership in what the funeral industry _ with its ghastly penchant for euphemism so memorably pilloried by Mitford _ now calls the "death-services industry." Service Corp. International of Houston is now the Exxon of the field.

Mitford's expose made her such a target of the "death-services industry" that its trade publications, such as Casket & Sunnyside, referred to her simply as "Jessica." Her husband, Bob Truehaft, said after her death: "Although she was considered a muckraker and a fearless investigator, she never carried any bitterness toward anyone."

But how she would have relished the New York Times missing the joke: In its obituary of Mitford, the paper solemnly informed its readers: "Late in life, she was asked what sort of funeral she wanted. An elaborate one, she replied, with "six black horses with plumes and one of those marvelous jobs of embalming that take 20 years off.' She added that she wanted "streets to be blocked off, dignitaries to declaim sobbingly over the flower-smothered bier, proclamations to be issued _ that sort of thing.'

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Of course, she got such a deal on her cremation: $475, no embalming, no frills. Truehaft, a labor lawyer, was so angered at seeing his poor clients spend their modest savings on funerals that he helped found the nonprofit Bay Area Funeral Society to arrange low-cost, dignified burials and cremations.

Other targets of Mitford's superb investigative journalism were prisons, obstetricians, hospitals and the Famous Writers School. For those who have ever wondered about her technique in getting people to open up and tell her the most amazing things, it must be said that she was both a beauty and a charmer. She had huge blue eyes and an impossibly posh accent; she was the very definition of a "sympathetic listener," and, despite her lifelong rebellion against privilege and snobbery, she was also a lady.

Others can tell you more about the amazing Mitford clan than I. Her eldest sister was the novelist Nancy Mitford, her sister Diana married a leading British fascist, another fell in love with Adolf Hitler and shot herself over him, and another became a duchess. Jessica became a Communist with the hopeless idealism that people had during the Spanish Civil War. She left the party in the 1950s but remained a radical all her life. No wonder she had such a fabulous sense of humor _ it's not easy to be a radical when your sister is a duchess.

One story she loved to tell in Texas went back to her days in Washington, when she was a young widow with a baby daughter living with Cliff and Virginia Durr. She filled her duty letters to her mother, Lady Redesdale, with whom she had little in common, with social chitchat, and once she wrote that she had enjoyed having tea with Lady Bird Johnson. Her mother wrote back, "I have checked Debrett's and can find no mention of this Lady Bird-Johnson."

Molly Ivins is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

Creators Syndicate

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