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BOOKS & THE CULTURE Digging for Gold in Dust and Ashes A “Hon” Takes on the Undertakers BY JAMES SLEDD THE AMERICAN WAY OF DEATH REVISITED. By Jessica Mitford. Alfred A. Knopf. 296 pages. $25.00. s the British Empire died, its produced a spectacular repre sentative in the Honorable Jessica Mitford, fifth daugh ter of the Fascist baron, Redesdale, an intensely disagreeable veteran of the Boer War. Lady Redesdale could boast in her diary of having tea with Hitler, whose gentle manners she admired. Two of her daughters, Diana and Unity, also became eminent Hitlerians. When Unity bedisjointed family noses by proclaiming herself a Communist. In March, 1937, the nineteen-year-old Hon \(her own nickname with Edmond Romilly, Winston Churchill’s nephew, who had come back to England to recuperate after fighting \(“like a War. That outraging if not outrageous elopement was only the beginning of a carefully outrageous career. By the 1960s, further strange, surprising adventures \(the saddest being Edmond Duchess of Devonshire’s sister as the wife of a Jewish labor lawyer in Oakland, California. Bob Treuhaft, then like his wife an ex-Communist, was distressed by the ability of undertakers to gobble up the entire death benefit of struggling workers. To frustrate the vultures, he organized the nonprofit Bay Area Funeral Society, whose earnest middle-class members would contract with a local deathsman to provide them with cheap, simple funerals. Characteristically, Jessica Mitford made fun of the earnest eggheads, but when Treuhaft brought home copies of the Jessica Mi tf ord at Sunset Ted Streshinsky Mausoleum, El Cerrito deathsmen’s trade magazines \(e.g., Casket she saw the opportunity to exercise her gift for ridicule. Already a published writer \(Daughters and Rebels, witty, bizarre, explosive, sardonic expos, The American Way of Death, sat atop The New York Times best-seller list for weeks; membership zoomed in non-profit funeral and memorial societies; and Mitford \(with the U-folk’s strong regard for non-U doltons” of money from the book that she and Treuhaft had written. A second edition, somewhat revised, appeared in 1978. For some years, it even seemed that the stung deathsmen would have to cry, Oh grave, where is our victory? Mitford, who died in 1996, still lived to see that the deathsmen are as ingenious in spotting suckers as P.T. Barnum and that big money beats good sense in the game of “democracy and free markets.” Cremation, which Mitford favored as a cheap getaway, has been made expensive; government regulation has been lobbied down; and multinational corporations, grim reapers harvesting scores of individual “funeral homes” and cemeteries, now claim annual revenues in the hundreds of millions. The story’s no real surprise. Bidnis-oriented deathsmen and associates in uncaring health care have found gold in dust and ashes, in the flesh and its ailments; and dust’s path to dust remains a costly tollroad. When rapacious HMOs have got their victims fouled up beyond all repair victims fall into the hands of the hospice industry, which herds them expensively into the shearers’ camp of the deathsmen, who remove the last remaining fleece. It was such disappointing developments as the rise of the city of Houston’s Service Corporation International, the most gigantic of the funeral industry’s young giants, that prompted the updated version of The American Way of Death. Solid Bob Treuhaft kept a last promise to Mitford, and finished the book after she died. The American Way of Death Revisited is physically a handsome volume, its dust jacket graced by one of the great comic pho-, tographs of all time. The photograph shows Mitford seated in quiet elegance in the Sunset Mausoleum, El Cerrito, where long rows of boxed corpses, stacked seven-high from floor to skylight, await the Resurrection. The twice-revised text itself, with additions, excisions, and re-ordering of chapters since 1963, is a bit shaggy, but remains inexhaustibly amusing and ultimately very practical, both a beginner’s guide to inexpensive dying and a rare transmogrification of the macabre into the comic. Mitford’s “Introduction” and first chapter give the history of the project. Chapter 1 also records her hilarious 1995 experience as “a featured speaker at a two-day Funeral Service Seminar” in where else? Marin OCTOBER 23, 1998 28 THE TEXAS OBSERVER