Forty-five years before Jessica Mitford’s exposè of the funeral industry, Paul Blanshard found out just how expensive dying can be.
AMONG certain ancient tribes it was the custom to throw upon the funeral pyre the clothing, jewelry, and money belonging to the deceased. Occasionally a widow or a slave was thrown in for good measure. We in the United States do nothing so foolish. We merely throw into the grave annually several hundred million dollars. We throw it in in the form of bronze caskets, flowers, stone cases, silk paddings, gold handles, and mausoleums.
The corpse does not know the difference. Most of the American people if asked indi-vidually whether or not they wanted an ostentatious funeral would reply that they cared nothing whatever about what happened to their bodies after death. Yet the extravagant funeral is always with us. In fact, the United States has the most extravagant funeral practices in all history and they seem to be getting more costly every year. The prodi-gious waste and suffering wrought by our funeral customs are set forth in a study re-cently published by Putnams* and written by John C. Gebhart after a thorough investi-gation which was financed by the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company. Consumers of caskets ought to study this book — and, in this particular, every citizen is an ultimate consumer. Mr. Gebhart follows up and completes the research begun by earlier writers including Quincy L. Dowd and Frederick Hoffman.
A funeral could be had in the United States before the Civil War for $25. Gebhart prints the bill of a Boston funeral in 1829 for $8. A funeral today for a Boston citizen of the same class would probably cost $400. Between the $8 bill and the $400 bill there is the difference of a century, face veils, limousines, professional pall-bearers, metal caskets, cast-stone vaults, chapel palms, newspaper notices, and morticians. But the greatest of these is the mortician. One cannot study the development of American funeral customs without being forced to the conclusion that the mortician is the bird of prey in the whole funeral system. He is a very suave bird whose claws are concealed by the reverential padding and plumage that surround the grim economics of death.
Not that the mortician is a fiend. He is an American business man operating in a field where the normal safeguards of competitive commerce break down. His customers are numb with grief or confused by inexperience. By tradition they cannot resort to the co-quetry of the bargain counter; they cannot shop for cheaper caskets. They deliver them-selves to the undertaker as to a friend, or the friend of a friend or a man who has a nice voice, or is a member of the Elks, or a deacon in the same church. One of the reasons why the casket customer gives himself so unquestioningly into the hands of the morti-cian is that there is no accepted and well-advertised bargain counter to which he can go. The funeral industry is like the retail trade of this country before the rise of the great department store and the chain nickelorium. Every city is cursed with too many corner undertakers who are expensive and inefficient, and there are too few competitive con-solidations of morticians who practice mass production.