One envelope simply had the address, "Jessica Treuhaft, Cheap Funerals, Oakland"
Decca: Bob suggested that I write an article about the funeral industry based on some of the stuff in the trade magazines; attitudes of the clergy, and so on. I wrote a piece called, "Saint Peter Don't You Call Me" that was turned down by practically every magazine you can name. It finally found a home in Frontier, which is a small, Southern California, liberal-demo magazine with a tiny circulation, maybe 2,000. That was in November, 1958.
Keeping a close eye on Ron Hast, publisher of "Mortuary Management"
The couple worked on the project together from beginning to end
central role in researching and writing the American Way of Death cannot be overemphasized. The couple worked on the project together from beginning to end, he visiting institutions and leading library research and she conducting interviews with their targets. "During the whole research for The American Way of Death," Bob says simply, "[Decca] never went into a funeral parlor." In the introduction, Decca credited her husband with all but the actual writing, saying the book could well be bylined "by Robert Treuhaft, as told to Jessica Mitford."
The chapter describing the embalming process in detail was a particular feat of joint effort and writing skill, as Decca had to describe gory details of a process she herself never witnessed.
"That chapter was based on material that I had put together by going to the embalming college in San Francisco," Bob explains. "I had watched embalming take place there, and I had studied the embalming texts, things that she wouldn't dream of doing. She just hated the whole idea.
"Embalming is a gruesome practice," he continues. "They cut open the stomach -- well, the whole interior space -- and it's very much like gutting a chicken or fish. They pull out the innards, wash them, put them in a plastic bag, put it back in, and then sew up the body again, just like the chickens you get.
"Anybody who saw that happen would never in a million years permit anyone they had any feeling for be embalmed."
Decca's written description of the embalming process was far less graphic, yet still made her prospective publishers squeamish:
"To return to Mr. Jones, the blood is drained out through the veins and replaced by embalming fluid pumped in through the arteries. As noted in The Principles and Practices of Embalming, 'every operator has a favorite injection and drainage point.' ...There are various choices of embalming fluid. If Flextone is used, it will produce a 'mild, flexible rigidity. The skin retains a velvety softness, the tissues are rubbery and pliable. Ideal for women and children.'"
"I mean, who wants to read about funerals and funeral reform?"
Decca: I cast the whole description in mortuary jargon -- I found out there were certain okay and not-okay words published from time to time in magazines like Mortuary Management. For instance, you don't talk of the corpse or the body -- you have to refer to the person by name, like Mister Jones -- so instead of, "Mister Jones laid out on the embalming slab," I've got him "reposing in the preparation room."
The Making of a Muckracker
All Rights Reserved.
Contact email@example.com for permission to reproduce.