Riding Bikes with the Mitford Sisters, Six Feet Under.

The training wheels came off at the cemetery. That sounds incredibly macabre,  like a snippet […]

Josh Retterer / 7.14.17

The training wheels came off at the cemetery.

That sounds incredibly macabre,  like a snippet from an Edward Gorey book, but the reality is much more prosaic. With the cemetery a couple houses down from where I grew up on a busy state route, it was the safest place to learn to ride.

My great-grandfather, grandfather, most of my great-uncles, as well as my father and his siblings all helped take care of the cemetery at some point in their lives. One of my first summer jobs was helping my great uncle mow around the gravestones. The cemetery wasn’t a scary place to me; it was simply part of life. It served as the setting for games of hide and seek, as well as where we said goodbye to family.

Fun times!

Robert Jenson,  in his terrific book, Story and Promise, says something remarkable:

Death is, perhaps surprisingly, the one exclusively social event that happens to us. Since all experience is interpretation, and therefore involves memory, only you will experience my death and only we will experience yours.

Let’s take the wayback machine into the late 90s. I remember listening to an NPR rebroadcast of the CBC’s long running program, As It Happens. What was memorable was the subject of their interview. Jessica Mitford. The daughter of an aristocratic family and member of the infamous Mitford sisters, Jessica was well known for being an investigative journalist. Muckraker was often the term used to describe her, but from my experience, there needs to be muck in existence for it to be raked. Seriously though, you need to check out her family. To quote a movie-adapted Robert Heinlein, “Would you like to know more?”

The work Jessica is probably most famous for is her book, The American Way of Death. Written in 1963, it was updated and revised by Mitford shortly before her own death in 1996. It was a scathing attack, exposing abuses that seemed rife within the funeral home industry. An eye-opening and entertaining read, Jessica pulls no punches in exposing the way people were often taken advantage of at a time they are at their most vulnerable: while grieving.

A great example of this is a story Jessica tells in a 1987 interview with Tom Boyd, about her friend Howard:

He had been arranging the funeral for his mother. Like most people in such circumstances, he was in a sort of fog of unhappiness and uncertainty as what to do. He chose the casket, and the undertaker then said, “Now you must choose the lining for the casket.” He showed two swatches of material that seemed to be identical in color and everything else. Howard said, “What’s the difference?” The undertaker said, “Well, you see this one is pure silk, and of course it is more expensive. This is rayon, and it’s cheaper, but we do find it is a lot more irritating to the skin.”

On the old Jack Paar show back in 1965, and before they both became famous directors, Mike Nichols and Elaine May did a hilarious satirical bit inspired by the issues exposed in Jessica’s book:

As you can see, there is a lot of keeping up appearances, so much so, even death can’t end it! In the 1963 edition of her book, Mitford discovered part of the underlying problem:

Secondly, there is the myth that the American public is only being given what it wants—an opportunity to keep up with the Joneses to the end. “In keeping with our high standard of living, there should be an equally high standard of dying,” says the past president of the Funeral Directors of San Francisco. “The cost of a funeral varies according to the individual taste and the niceties of living the family has been accustomed to.” Actually, choice doesn’t enter the picture for the average individual, faced, generally for the first time, with the necessity of buying a product of which he is totally ignorant, at a moment when he is least in a position to quibble. In point of fact, the cost of a funeral almost always varies, not, “according to individual taste” but according to what the traffic will bear.

How many little “L” laws can you spot in the previous paragraph? That stings a bit, because it pokes our weak spot, vanity—that exploitable and inexhaustible resource. I will admit though, it got my inner Old Testament prophet going. How dare these greedy vultures steal from the widows and orphans! Not a very nuanced view, but I had a head of steam going.  As things often do, only a few years after getting all hepped up about this, circumstances, as well as my perspective, changed.

A small family-owned-and-operated business is a rather intense dynamic. When my father passed away, it not only turned family life upside down; it did the same with the business. It’s hard to explain, but everything is inextricably intertwined in that scenario.  Around this time, HBO’s Six Feet Under premiered. There were so many aspects of the show that paralleled what I was struggling with at the time, it became eerily biographical. A small family run funeral parlor (switch out for small manufacturing business),  Fisher and Sons, suffers the unexpected death of the father (check), and the eponymous sons and their mother attempt to keep the business going (check). Basically, I was Nate and there was a Brenda, enough said.

Watching the Fishers struggle with tight finances while trying to compete with the larger corporate funeral companies gave me a different perspective on their industry as a whole. It seemed like some were much more pious, not unlike a calling into ministry. Business with a conscience.

Or is it that Manichean?

Doing a little more digging, I listened to some funeral-industry-based podcasts—yes, it’s a thing. Surprisingly, it reinforced much of what I gleaned from both Jessica Mitford and Six Feet Under. Smaller funeral homes are under great financial pressure, but directors were honest about being tempted to “up-sell” clients on amenities when times were lean. That, combined with having to absorb the cost of non-payment, while being constantly on call, often serving as grief counselors—let’s just say, it’s a stressful job. On the corporate side, the stresses are no less. Grow or die is a strong current to swim against, let alone with.

The industry provides a service that we not only request but measure ourselves against. Whether from the application of the funereal arts, or our own insecurity, all of it attempts to to screen us—for a fee we willingly pay-from the elephant in the room—death.

To paraphrase the title of one of John Owen’s books, as Christians, we believe in the death of death. That is such a bedrock of our faith, that Christ’s Resurrection and victory of over death; if it is not true, we are, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:19, “of all people most to be pitied.”

Digging into the realism, Robert Jenson says:

And those who have indeed overcome an undignified sort of fear of their own deaths are the very ones who seek to halt—perhaps at risk of death!—the needless deaths of others. In all that it promises, the gospel co-promises defeat of death also for you and me.

We don’t get style points for how we die, or lie in repose, and we certainly don’t get points after death. We don’t need them. We have all the points. The very reality of what Christ accomplished for us will either be true or not, at that very moment.

Robert Farrar Capon, in the first chapter of his book, The Foolishness of Preaching, lays out a little “passion play,” as he calls it. A girl is drowning while a horrified group watch helplessly from the beach. The lifeguard swims out to save the girl, and yet both drown. This is not the normal heroic storyline we are expecting. The camera zooms in on a clipboard left lying on the seat in the lifeguard tower. It says, “It’s all okay, trust me, she’s safe in my death.”

Capon goes on to say, in screenplay format:



Historical Documents:

I could only laugh at this clip years after the fact; it happened:

Terrific 1988 interview of Jessica by Christopher Hitchens: