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No unity for the Mitfords - even beyond the grave

Never marry a Mitford or you'll get involved in family feuds which carry on for generations. The sagas of the literary sisters go beyond the grave - and, in this latest instance, concern precisely that: graves.

There was more than one notable absence at Jessica Mitford's memorial celebration at the Lyric Theatre in London last night. Nobody expected Diana, Lady Mosley, to turn up: the widow of Sir Oswald Mosley had fallen out with her sister Jessica decades ago.

But everyone was hoping to hear the Hon Deborah Freeman-Mitford speak about her sister, the most rebellious of the celebrated sisterhood, who died aged 78 last summer. Debo, as the Duchess of Devonshire is known, was down on the programme to speak. Her decision followed reports that the gathering was to be a festival of the bizarre rituals highlighted by Jessica in her expose of the American funeral industry, The American Way of Death, written in 1963.

Rumours that undertakers would be parading their wares and a Cadillac- shaped coffin sitting on the stage summoned images of an occasion with which Debo wanted nothing to do. "Debo took offence," said a source. "She thought: `This isn't a memorial for my beloved sister, it's a circus in a theatre.' It's very sad. It's a total misunderstanding."

But, according to one of the managers of HC Grimstead Ltd, a green burial company exhibiting DIY cardboard coffins in the stalls bar, the display of the wackier end of the funeral market was cancelled at the last minute. "SCI, the big funeral conglomerate in the US, was cancelled because of bad press," he said. "I believe they were going to go over the top." However, there was a reference to elaborate death memorabilia, albeit on film. The audience saw clips of Jessica inspecting "shoes for the diseased" and "fancy caskets" lined with duvets and decorated inside with frescoes.

Last night the organisers were doing their best to play down Debo's no- show. "She's the only one who is still fit enough to come," Morag Pavich, one of the event's co-ordinators, said earlier. Officially, Debo didn't come because she was unwell. However, a spokeswoman at Debo's house, Chatsworth, in Derbyshire, had not heard she was ill. "Her grace is away, I'm afraid," she said yesterday. "I'm not sure when she is back."

Some might say it would not have been a true Mitford send-off without a token squabble. Since their early twenties, Jessica and Diana only saw each other once, when they met for half an hour as their elder sister, Nancy, lay dying.

"I quite honestly don't mind what Decca [a family nickname for Jessica] says or thinks," Lady Mosley, 86, said recently. "She means absolutely nothing to me at all. Not because she's a Communist but simply because she's a rather boring person, really." Jessica's death from lung cancer last summer was not enough to reconcile Diana.

"I'm afraid I won't be going," Lady Mosley said of the memorial. Their falling-out dates to the Second World War, when Jessica denounced Diana as dangerous because of her links with Fascism, and she was kept in jail for three-and-a-half years.

Six hundred friends and family were invited to "Decca's" memorial. The speakers included Helena Kennedy QC, Maya Angelou, the American poet, and John Mortimer, the novelist. Among the audience was Salman Rushdie. Eight years ago this week, when the fatwah was issued and many Americans ran for cover, Decca was seen parading a badge saying: "I am Salman Rushdie." The journalist Christopher Hitchens records how Decca had said to him: "Yes, I know it looks a bit silly on me, but I do think that Ayatollah chap is a bit of a stinker and I thought it might help to put him off the scent."

Jessica was once telephoned in California, where she lived most of her life, by an English journalist writing an article about the Mitford sisters. She had already spoken to Nancy, who had said: "Sisters stand between one and life's cruel circumstances." Jessica was startled into saying that surely sisters were life's cruel circumstances.