In the 1960s, British aristocrat Jessica Mitford wrote a best-seller on the funeral industry’s practices. Twenty years after her death, she can still teach us how to handle mortality.

“In this world, nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes,” Benjamin Franklin once quipped. If some scientists and businessmen are to be believed, Franklin’s assertion is now only half true. For the sum of $200,000, you can pay to have your whole body saturated in antifreeze and placed in a giant refrigerator in Scottsdale, Arizona. (To shave down the price to $80,000, you can let your flesh rot and preserve your brain alone.) So far, around 1,000 people have signed up for the service in the hope that they will one day be defrosted to live a second life.

Whenever I hear of these schemes, I can’t help but think of Jessica Mitford, who died 20 years ago. The sister of the novelist Nancy Mitford, she was by turns a communist rebel, investigative journalist, civil rights activist and pop singer, opening a gig for Cyndi Lauper and recording a duet with the writer Maya Angelou. The author JK Rowling admired Mitford so much she even named her first daughter after her.

But it is for Mitford’s 1963 book The American Way of Death that she should be remembered today. An unsentimental (and often gruesome) examination of the extravagant and bizarre ways we cope with mortality, its message is more pertinent today than ever before.

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‘Running-away account’

Decca, as she was known to her family and friends, was born to Lord and Lady Redesdale in 1917. The sixth of seven children, Decca’s dissatisfaction with her aristocratic life emerged at an early age: at just 12 years old, she was already planning her escape by establishing a ‘running-away account’ at the family bank.

Decca became known as the ‘red sheep’ of the family, using diamond rings to carve hammers and sickles into her bedroom window

Those dreams of escape would become increasingly earnest as her parents and two of her older sisters, Diana and Unity, began cultivating fascist sympathies. Unity eventually moved to Germany and forged a close friendship (some claimed a romance) with Adolf Hitler, while Diana married the leader of the British Union of Fascists, Oswald Mosley – with the Fuhrer in attendance.

Repulsed by their ideology, Decca became the ‘red sheep’ of the family, using her diamond rings to carve hammers and sickles into the glass of her bedroom window. Her principles only solidified at the age of 19 when she met Winston Churchill’s socialist nephew, Esmond Romilly, at a house party. She promptly cashed in her running-away fund and the two eloped to join the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. Downcast and dejected after Franco’s victory, they returned to England before eventually emigrating to the USA.

Her life was soon marked by tragedy, losing first a daughter to measles and then Esmond himself, who was killed in combat during World War Two. But she married again and established a new life for herself, joining the San Francisco branch of the Communist Party and campaigning for the civil rights of black Americans. By middle age, she turned her hand to investigative journalism, specialising in exposing social injustice – including a particularly provocative article detailing increasingly extravagant funeral services, often pushed upon families who could ill afford the expense.

Death became her. Combining her social conscience with gallows humour, the article attracted considerable attention and soon blossomed into a book. It was revelatory reading. Even those who had recently suffered a bereavement understood very little about what occurred in the cool confines of the mortuary. “Thousands of books have been written describing, cataloguing, theorising about the funeral procedures of ancient and modern peoples from the Aztecs to the Zulus, but about contemporary American funeral practices almost nothing has been written,” Mitford noted.

Mitford’s descriptions were so gruesome that her first choice of publisher had decided to terminate their contract

Mitford’s descriptions were so gruesome that her first publisher decided to terminate their contract. She had paid particular attention to the process of embalming – describing in exquisite detail how each body is “sprayed, sliced, pierced, pickled, trussed, trimmed, creamed, waxed, painted, rouged and neatly dressed – transformed from a common corpse into a Beautiful Memory Picture”.

It was ostensibly a sanitary measure, to prevent further decay and to present the mourners with a poignant last glimpse of their loved one. In practice, it amounted to extensive post-mortem cosmetic surgery. The embalmer would drain the blood from the veins – the sooner the better, to avoid cellular damage, before refilling the arteries with embalming fluid. This came in a number of separate tints, allowing the funeral director to colour with a brown suntan or a healthy rosy glow or simply to regain the “natural undertones”, and helped to firm up the skin with youthful plumpness. Following that, the mortician would then nip and tuck the tissue across the body with implants, pins and fillers to mask blemishes and swellings that come with age and illness, before sewing the face into the most attractive (and youthful) expression possible.

Finally, the teeth were whitened, make-up applied, and the corpse was dressed in its final outfit. Mitford was surprised to find an enormous range of clothes marketed specifically for the departed; her particular favourite was a special brand of bra designed for “post-mortem form restoration”. She argued that mourners were also encouraged to pay exorbitantly for the most expensive coffins, ostentatious flowers and sentimental memorabilia (such as commemorative, heart-shaped ash-trays), with the underlying message that it would be disrespectful to buy anything but the best.

Mitford questioned the dignity and utility of these invasive procedures. She was dismayed that morticians would sometimes discourage an essential medical autopsy because it would make it harder to beautify the body and she objected to the fact that the they often veiled their services in pseudo-psychology, arguing that a lavish funeral, with a pimped and plucked and polished corpse, was essential for the grieving process – despite little evidence this was the case. The vulnerable families would have done far better to see a qualified psychoanalyst, she thought, than to be encouraged to pay for a luxury satin-lined casket and more roses in their funeral wreaths.

More than anything, she baulked at the fact that death was being prettified and sanitised, masking the brutal facts about our mortality. Mitford decided now was time for the public to look death in the face.

America agreed. Mitford had expected to sell just a few hundred copies, but the first print run – a whopping 20,000 – sold out on the day it was published. The book topped the New York Times best-seller list and remained on it for most of the year. In 1965, the filmmaker Tony Richardson used it as inspiration for The Loved One, billed as “the motion picture with something to offend everyone” and starring Liberace; in 2013, David Bowie listed it as one of his “top 100” books.

The interest did indeed appear to leave its mark in the way people treated the dead, with many more opting for cremation and a simple, bare-bones “Mitford service”. She was delighted when one funeral director named a cheap and cheerful coffin after her. In her letters, she noted that Robert Kennedy even told her that The American Way of Death had informed his arrangements for the funeral of his brother, President John F Kennedy.

Today, science offers more ways than ever to mark your passing, and we can be sure that Mitford would have approved of some more than others. The Urban Death Project in Seattle, for instance, turns corpses into compost – a greener way of returning dust to dust than a typical cremation. Cryogenics, on the other hand, may seem like the apotheosis of all she deplored, although we cannot make too much of the comparison. As New Scientist recently pointed out, valuable medical research may emerge from these projects.

At the very least, conversations about death may be losing some of their stigma. Take the “Death Cafes” that encourage frank discussions of the subject. First established by Swiss sociologist Bernard Crettaz in 2004, the “café mortel” offers a venue to talk about mortality over tea and cake. The followers of this movement argue that we need to become more involved in the practical decisions that mark our final exit from this world, the ways we would like to be remembered, and of how we grieve for others.

Mitford certainly faced her own death with the same frank humour with which she had also embraced her colourful life. In early 1996, she had begun revising and updating her magnum opus (Death Warmed Over, as she had started calling the new edition) when she was diagnosed with metastatic cancer and given months to live. She remained upbeat and was grateful that she had just enough time to finish her book and tie up some of her life’s loose ends. She died on 22 July at the age of 78.

She had once teased that, despite her appeals for a simpler and more dignified attitude to death, she herself wanted an elaborate service with the “streets to be blocked off, dignitaries to declaim sobbingly over the flower-smothered bier, proclamations to be issued – that sort of thing”. Her friends complied, ordering six black-plumed horses to pull a glass-enclosed antique hearse through downtown San Francisco, followed by a twelve-piece brass band.

If Mitford could have seen the spectacle herself, she would have surely curled her lips into a mischievous smile. Having devoted so many years of her life to the funeral industry, her only regret had been the fact that she could never attend her own, once writing: “Goodness, I wish I could be there.”

David Robson is BBC Future’s feature writer. He is @d_a_robson on Twitter.

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