In August 1963, “The American Way of Death” by Jessica Mitford sold out its first printing on its publication date and topped The New York Times best-seller list for weeks.
Inspired by her husband, Robert Treuhaft, a radical Jewish labor lawyer who was an unnamed co-author of the book, Mitford brought a sparkling British wit to her investigation of the American funeral industry. She focused on such practices as embalming bodies for viewing in ornate, expensive caskets, demonstrating how funeral industry profits had become dependent on these items — and on the inducement of bereaved families, at their most vulnerable, to pay for them.
Mitford’s (and Treuhaft’s) book struck a responsive chord among millions of Americans, prompted new Federal Trade Commission regulations and gave a significant boost to what is known as the funeral consumer movement.
Fifty years later, what can we learn from “The American Way of Death” as we consider our current Jewish choices for responding to life’s final chapter? How have funeral consumer issues been influenced by both religious and secular Jews, and how has the Forward itself figured in the mix?
According to the Babylonian Talmud, the earliest Jewish funeral consumer advocates were rabbis. Confronting the excesses of their time, they noted that “the poor were shamed” by practices that highlighted socioeconomic inequalities in death. These included viewing the faces of the deceased rich while covering the famine-disfigured faces of the deceased poor, and displaying the deceased rich on an ornamented couch while the deceased poor were brought out for burial on a plain bier.
“At first, burial of the dead was for their relatives more difficult than their death [because of the expense], to the point at which relatives would leave their dead and flee,” as the Talmud describes it. The rabbis decreed that the faces of all deceased should be covered, and that all should be brought out on a plain bier — “for the honor of the poor.” One prominent rabbi left instructions that he be buried in the least expensive shrouds, which also became the ritual standard for centuries.
Notwithstanding these and related reforms for simplicity and equality in death, what evolved as the chevra kadisha, the sacred burial fellowship, was rejected by growing numbers of Jews from the Emancipation onward, along with other institutional forms of traditional Judaism.