Albion Monitor /Features


The Making of a Classic

by Laura McCreery and Jeff Elliott

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.

Well, prodded by Bob, the funeral society ordered 10,000 reprints and they distributed them far and wide. A consequence of this was an invitation by Casper Weinberger, who later became famous in a Republican administration. But in those days, he was a San Francisco Republican with his own weekly TV program called, "Profile Bay Area." He invited me to be on to speak about the Bay Area Funeral Society, along with a Unitarian minister on my side, two funeral directors, who I think were also college professors at the school of Mortuary Science in San Francisco. Their names were Mr. Sly and Mr. Grimm. We went on this program and it proved to be wildly comic, as you can imagine.

Terrance O'Flattery, who was then television critic of the San Francisco Chronicle, did a piece about it in his column -- saying this had generated more letters to his column than any public event since "The Bad Seed" was produced at a local Junior High School.

It turned out that Roul Tunley, a staff writer on the Saturday Evening Post, came through San Francisco on his way back from Japan. He read the column and decided this would make a good article for the Saturday Evening Post. so he came round to our house and I gave him all our back copies of Mortuary Management, Casket and Sunnyside, just to show him what a rich goldmine of stuff there was to write about and so although I was very inactive in the Funeral Society -- I was working on civil rights at the moment. Roul Tunley portrayed me as a little Oakland housewife leading the rebellion to undermine the funeral directors, or 'bier barons,' as he called them and to topple the high cost of dying see. The reaction of the readers was simply astonishing. The Post said more letters have come in about this article than about anyother in the whole magazine's history. He said it seemed to have touched a sensitive nerve. Bob got a letter at his office from the Oakland Postmaster saying we have hundreds of letters here addressed to Jessica Treuhaft, Oakland which gives no address or street number so we had them delivered to Bob's office and one envelope simply had the address, 'Jessica Treuhaft, Cheap Funerals, Oakland.' We thought this spate of letters shows enough public interest to warrant writing a book about it. I wrote immediately to Roul Tunley urging him to expand it into a book, giving him free access to all the stuff we had but he wrote back that he was too busy on other things, and why don't you do it. So Bob and I discussed this, and I said, "Why don't you take off from work to work with me full-time?" *

Decca and Ron Hast
Keeping a close eye on Ron Hast, publisher of "Mortuary Management"

The couple worked on the project together from beginning to end

Bob Treuhaft's 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."

All this was very amusing, but the publishers hated it. I got a letter back by return post from [the British publisher] saying, "this joke is going much too far; we don't want to publish it, and suggest you give it up. I can't imagine any publisher wanting it." That was exactly what he said in the letter. It was graven on me soul, I can promise you.

Everyone said nevermind, the American publisher will know much more about how it is in the U.S. So then I got the same sort of letter from Houghton Mifflin. Saying -- this is a quote from the letter -- "We think you make your book harder to sell by going to too much length into too gooey detail about the process of embalming."

This was really devastating news. As embalming is almost always the fate of most Americans, and is the economic basis of the funeral industry, and as practiced on a mass-scale is a uniquely American custom, it was unthinkable to omit a description of it. We actually considered finishing the book, mimeographing it, and selling it to anybody who wanted a copy. It didn't seem that too many people wanted to read it, anyhow. I mean, who wants to read about funerals and funeral reform? You wouldn't imagine that anyone, aside from the aforementioned Unitarians and eggheads [in the Funeral and Memorial Societies] had the slightest interest in this whole thing.

However, rather than having to mimeograph it, my then-agent turned it around and sold it to Robert Gottleib, a brilliant young editor at Simon & Schuster. About 28 years old, a boy wonder of publishing in those days, he loved the embalming chapter and made all the arrangements to go straight ahead with the book.

But months before it was published, the funeral industry became aware of the work in progress. It wasn't long before the trade press rounded on me in full force; there was a new menace on the horizon, the menace of Jessica Mitford.

Headlines began to appear in all the undertaker's journals: "Jessica Mitford Plans Anti-Funeral Book," and "Mitford Day Grows Closer. When Mortuary Management began referring to me as "Jessica," without a last name, I felt rather proud that I had reached that special pinnacle of fame, where the first name only is sufficient identification -- everybody knows who O.J. is, everybody knows who Zsa Zsa is.

Then there was an article in Mortuary Management titled, "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Book?" The then-editor said there was little to fear, because books about the profession never enjoy large sales -- and he knew this because his dad once wrote a book about the funeral service, and took an ad in the Saturday Evening Post, and it only sold 300 copies.

Well, Bob and I were inclined to agree with that estimate -- we didn't expect much of a readership. But not so Bob Gottlieb. A few months before publication, he rang up to say the printing of the first edition would be 7,500. It sounded huge to me. Later he rang up and said it was increased to 15,000. On the eve of publication, he said it was set at 20,000.

The reason that they had set it so high for that sort of book was, as Gottlieb told me, when a book is being published, several months before hand, book salesmen from all across the country meet. Each publisher gets up and shows the jacket of the book and speaks for about three minutes about his particular books. So a firm like Simon and Schuster might have fifty books published in that publishing season. Usually, according to Gottlieb, they will sit there and listen to them. But when they described the American Way of Death, they applauded. He said they've not done that before. He asked them why. It was because so many of them had suffered themselves in arranging funerals for their own parents or relations that they thought it would be a great success. That's why he ordered such a huge printing.

However on publication day, which was in August, 1963, the book went totally out of stock. The first printing sold out. To me, naturally, this was nothing short of thrilling. The reviewers not only lavished praise but they also got the joke. They said it was bizzare and fantastic, a wry account of the funeral business, and that kind of thing. The New York Times said, "savagely witty, well documented exposé ." The book zoomed to number one on the New York Times Best Seller List, where it stayed for several months.

...Then came a real vinidcation for me when a textbook for college students arrived entitled "The Essential Prose." And there, tucked between Plato and Sir Thomas Browne, was my very description of embalming, upon which my book almost floundered. And furthermore, in the last four years alone, some fifty college textbooks have chosen the selfsame passage for their anthologies. *

The Making of a Muckracker

Albion Monitor October 9, 1995 (

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