by Jim Pavlidis

Image by Jim Pavlidis

I just lost my mother, and so have been thinking about our American way of death. You may know of a book by that title, written by muckraker Jessica Mitford in 1963, and revisited in a recent updated version. Mitford once joked about her journalistic style, “Objectivity? I always have an objective in mind.” Mitford exposed the high cost of death and the funeral business (and in other books, shamed other American businesses, like prisons).

Her angle on the “biz” still fits our zeitgeist. We Americans pay little public attention to mourning and grief. It’s practically un-American not to have a nice day. I googled “death statistics,” hoping to find some indicators of the economic cost to business or government for providing leaves for a death in the family. In the U.S., is this typically paid or unpaid leave? What are the economic costs for depression associated with mourning? How many Americans have trouble taking time off from work for funerals or finding needed time for settling estates? Could we cut costs by more actively engaging in this common and necessary human process?

I couldn’t find much about the topic. Imagine the size of our silence about this. Nearly two-and-a half million people die each year, (2,425,900 in 2006, says the National Center for Health Statistics).

The NCHS press release is happy about our life expectancy rates, up from last year, now age 78, but I’m saying, what about the family impact of those 2.5 million deaths? How do we the living deal with it? Who is measuring our “private” costs? Many of those 2.5 million are not only grieved and mourned, but estates must be settled by family members or appointed others, and their deaths cost Americans a good lot of money, particularly when travel costs for today’s far-flung families get included. What is the emotional cost when that time or travel isn’t affordable?

I found the U.K. and Canada talked more openly about death, calling it “bereavement,” and apparently they’re more generous in accounting for real costs. The Department of Work and Pensions benefits pays 2000 British Pounds immediately, or $2960 in today’s currency market, to help pay for immediate bereavement expenses. Social Security pays out $500 and calls it a “death benefit.”