The Undertaker’s Daughter, by Kate Mayfield (Gallery Books, 350 pages)
When Kate Mayfield was a child, she hated to visit her grandfather’s house in the country, where the indignities included cleaning a chicken coop, fetching water from a well, and using an outhouse whose seat was too big. “I closed my eyes and prayed that I wouldn’t fall in and that no spiders would crawl up fromthe depths of the pit,” she writes. “I worried about splinters. Good grief, I pleaded, take me back to the funeral home.”
For most people, the worst outhouse would be better than a funeral home, but a funeral home is where Mayfield grew up. The Undertaker’s Daughter is her memoir of a vaguely creepy upbringing in Jubilee, Kentucky, a two-funeral-home town where competition was fierce for bodies, and hope for a death-free holiday season was always tempered with concern about how January’s bills would be paid.
Without the inherent black comedy (say, the American Express card stamped “Mayfield & Son Fun Home), being a funeral director is like being a doctor, in that you’re always on call. “We tried to behave like normal people,” Mayfield writes, but normal is not possible when one’s livelihood relies on others’ despair. “Every summer, we valiantly tried to get away. We couldn’t make plans until my father was sure no one looked in obvious danger of dying.”
Mayfield’s family had the additional challenge of living atop the funeral home, which meant that as an infant, she was carried directly from the hospital nursery into a funeral home. Living there meant the phone could ring at all hours, and when it did, normal life stopped. “A dead body in the house meant that we would be sequestered. Even though many of Jubilee’s dead rested with us over the years, we were the ghosts of the house. Our family learned how to disappear with those four words: ‘We’ve got a body.’” Even if her mother had a meeting of her bridge club scheduled, the game was off, and the platter of deviled eggs went into the trash, “the whole lot splattered with deep red paprika, as if they’d been murdered.”
For Mayfield, death figured into all aspects of life, as when she conversed with the local farmer who delivered eggs and observed his swollen body unconcealed by overalls. “He’s going to need a really big casket someday,” the girl thought as the man drove away — not an unusual observation for someone who slept directly above her the funeral home’s casket room.
The memoir surprises with how much in it isn’t about death, but about life instead. Mayfield’s father’s alcoholism and infidelity figure largely in the story, as do the pre-segregation ways of the South. (The family had an African-American maid, and Mayfield dated an African-American, giving a stage to assorted atrocities of the South before it reluctantly changed.)
The Undertaker’s Daughter is also a coming-of-age story — feisty young girl aches to escape a suffocating small town — and there’s a fascinating side narrative about a Princess Diana-style marriage with three people in it. Mayfield’s father is a kind man who buries children for free and buys flowers for the casket when a widow is too poor to pay, but his deep relationship with an elderly dowager in town mystifies his family and erodes vital relationships.
Through all of these literary corridors, however, strides death, impersonal, unforgiving, unashamed. Mayfield learns — and teaches her readers — the undertaker’s business, how to glue eyes closed and sew a mouth shut; how embalming fluid restores rosiness to tissues; how families fight over an event that you’d think would bring them together. Occasional asides tell the stories of the bodies that came through the funeral home: a classmate of Mayfield’s who drowned, the family shot dead by their father, the deceased whose wife stood over the coffin and whispered “Thank you, Lord, thank you, thank you. Thank you for allowing me to finally put this bastard in the ground.”
An author’s note assures that no real names are used (somewhat annoyingly, even those of her own family), which allows her to violate the privacy of the dead. The dead, of course, have another kind of privacy within the four walls of their coffin, as Mayfield explains when she writes about how families obsess about what to bury with their loved ones.
“I became quite worried about what kinds of objects were buried with the dead and barraged my father with questions: ‘Will that man be buried with his wedding ring?’ ‘What will happen to that woman’s brooch?’ ‘What does a child take with them?’”
“My father answered with a calm certainty, ‘Mostly, what the dead take with them are their secrets.’”
In this finely tuned memoir, however, Mayfield reveals more than a few.