When published in 1963, Jessica Mitford’s wittily scathing exposé of the funeral industry, The American Way of Death, instantly aggravated funeral directors far and wide due to its descriptions of inflated prices, its stories of morally dubious business practices, and its bestseller status. Mitford died of cancer 33 years later, her illness arriving just as she was busy working on an updated edition of the book for which she had understandably been very keen to interview Robert Waltrip, founder and CEO of Service Corporation International, a huge, sprawling network of funeral homes which had been gobbling up small businesses since arriving on the scene when the book’s first edition appeared. Despite a meeting being arranged, Waltrip ultimately managed to avoid her; instead, SCI’s lawyers demanded to see the manuscript prior to publication. Mitford declined.
A day after Mitford’s death, in accordance with her wishes, the following letter was sent to Waltrip. The final bill for Jessica Mitford’s 1996 funeral was $475. The American Way of Death Revisited was published two years later.
I am the research assistant for Jessica Mitford’s revision of The American Way of Death. Although Jessica would have loved to have met you, and had gone to great lengths to do so last year, destiny took you and your entire staff away on business that day. Alas, we landed high and dry in Houston without even a chance to say howdy. Although we got a free tour of your funeral museum, it just wasn’t the same.
As you have probably read in The New York Times today, Ms. Mitford has “passed away.” Prior to her death, she and I discussed her final arrangements. I think you would be delighted to know that you were in her thoughts.
Ms. Mitford was not a big fan of prepaying, or “preneed" as it is termed in the industry jargon. But the bill did seem to be of concern to her. She made a final request of me that brings me to the purpose of this letter.
Ms. Mitford feels that you should pay the bill. In her own words “after all, look at all the fame I’ve brought them!”
Enclosed you will find the statement of funeral goods and services selected.
I’m sure you will appreciate her frugality. I think you will particularly like the price of $15.45 for the cremation container. While looking through SCI’s price lists while we were in Texas, we couldn’t find a cremation container for under a couple of hundred! Think of what it would have cost you if she had dropped in Houston!
Karen J. Leonard
This letter can be found in the book, Decca: The Letters of Jessica Mitford, which I strongly recommend. This newsletter is free to read, but you can support it by becoming a paying subscriber, for which you will receive additional ‘members-only’ emails. Or you could gift a subscription to someone else. Or you could donate. Or you could simply share the newsletter with friends/enemies. Options are below, all of which help. Thanks x