“Will Santa Claus still come if someone dies tonight?” This was the kind of thing I worried about when I was a child and lived in the funeral home. We had chimneys, we had fireplaces, but would Santa bother to pop down if he knew that he might land near a dead body? Was Santa frightened of the dead? I was assured that being the kind of man who could travel the world in one night, a corpse would hardly impede him.

Winters in our small Southern town were bitterly cold and icy. This always seemed to surprise people. Nestled in a corner of the upper South, we suffered from winds and frigid temperatures from the North, and in the summer, the swampy heat from the lower South. ‘Twas the worst of both worlds.

One December night an unexpected, furious snowstorm descended upon our town and in a matter of a few hours we were knee deep in the stuff.

Our friends Flo and Billy were having dinner with us that night and no one noticed how serious the blizzard-like conditions had become until it was too late. Even if the roads had been safe, they couldn’t possibly climb the steep driveway that led to their house. They were snowbound at the funeral home. Can you imagine being sequestered in a funeral home if you weren’t used to that sort of thing? Flo woke in the middle of the night disoriented and sleepless; she climbed out of bed to sit by the window to watch the storm. Brave woman stumbled in the dark and broke her toe.

December was a busy month at the funeral home. It wasn’t necessarily that people died more quickly or in larger numbers than any other month, although the elderly and infirm did tend to fade away at the end of the year. Rather, it was that my father made certain that the funeral home performed and offered services beyond the call of duty. This required more than the burial of the dead. December brimmed with giving.

Anyone could stop by the funeral home for Christmas cookies or that god-awful fruitcake and enough steaming hot coffee to float a boat.

He bought and delivered gift baskets full of fruit that didn’t look quite real for the time of year. Christmas cards were sent to almost everyone in town. Small tokens of potholders, calendars, pencils and pens emblazoned with Mayfield & Son Funeral Home and our phone number were given to anyone he might have overlooked. There was a great deal of toing and froing. For someone who spent so much time with the dead, he was ultimately a people person.

I wasn’t allowed to complain when people died. Tragedies occurred, shock and sadness was accepted, but to complain about a death would be akin to an orthodontist wishing that every child be born with perfect teeth. It was inevitable that over a period of thirteen years the phone would occasionally ring on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, a call that might upset our plans and was sure to take my father away from the tree. On those occasions I retreated to my room and sulked.

There’s no easy way to dig a hole in frozen ground and if the ground is frozen hard enough, it’s impossible without dynamite. We had no dynamite, or sophisticated digging equipment, no morgue and no storage space, so frozen ground was often a worry.

But I had it all figured out. I thought it would be a good idea to appeal to Santa’s kindness and request that he land on empty, frozen plots in the cemetery. If he touched down hard, the sharpness of the sleigh’s blades, the weight of all the toys and the hooves of the reindeer would surely break enough ground for our gravediggers to get a spade going.

I quickly set out to write a letter to Santa Clause requesting a slight detour in his landing plans for our town. My mother mailed it as she did every year, without knowing its contents. For years I was certain that on that year Santa kept everyone alive through the holiday season.

Wishing you a happy, healthy and successful 2011.


I am aware that I walk a fine line. There’s a certain risk of exploitation when writing about death, the funeral business and the funeral home in which I grew up. I could be accused of being too glib, too morbid or disrespectful. So I hope and trust that the needle of my morbid-o-meter stays firmly pointed in the middle.

I didn’t follow in my father’s footsteps, although the thought crossed my mind when I was about eight years old. It was then that I first discovered that my father was an artist, though he probably never thought of himself as such.

A funeral director is not necessarily a mortician and a mortician is not necessarily a funeral director. My father was both. On my birth certificate, the answer to the request for the father’s occupation reads ‘undertaker’ and it’s how I’ve always answered the what-does-your-father-do question. The room clears quickly.

One funereal custom prevalent in the South that generates controversy is that of viewing the body. People are divided on whether or not this age old custom is valuable. My father told me that it helps the bereaved to place the idea of death firmly in the mind. Many people understand intellectually that death has occurred, but emotionally they are unable to comprehend. Most people these days have not had much experience with death. The mortality rate is higher, people die outside the home, and many people live far away from their families and haven’t been present for the death itself. Seeing, and even sometimes touching the deceased presents a tactile, visual confirmation that a person is not just gone away, but actually dead and they see exactly how death is different from life.

“Well, he looks real natural, Frank.”

This, probably the highest compliment my father received, was the aim. The bereaved sees their loved one at peace and if the undertaker has done a good job they won’t even notice the makeup or how much work went into making them look natural.

The fear of bad makeup is one of the largest reasons a family would choose not to hold a viewing. A heavy-handed undertaker who creates, on both men and women, a waxy orange glow, garishly rouged cheeks, and enough greasy lipstick to dim a Vegas showgirl are the results of a very bad artist indeed.

Many people think that undertakers search high and low for a cosmetician, but that’s not true in most cases. The undertaker/mortician is well trained and if he performs his or her other duties well, not much makeup is needed.

The Undertaker's Best Friend

The first time I watched my father put the finishing touches on an elderly woman I was mesmerized. He always did this in the chapel where he could check the makeup against the lighting, which was softer and rosier than the prep room. His suit jacket hung on one of the chairs, his sleeves were neatly rolled up and he tucked his tie into his trousers. In one hand he held a palette of lip colours and in the other, a long, thin wooden brush. Slowly, with a steady hand he added a little more coral lipstick to her lips.

“That’s not a very nice colour.” I said.

“It’s okay.” He said while he worked.

“It’s not what the ladies are wearing today. Mother always wears red.”

He stopped and turned to me.

“It’s what the family wanted. It’s the colour she wore everyday of her life. That’s what’s important - that they see her as she was.”

Lesson learned.


It was an ancient ritual in the South for a woman of a certain age and a certain social standing to clock in at the beauty parlor, which my mother did twice a week without fail. The men about town may have owned seats at the coffee counters, but god help any one of them who came between his wife and her beauty parlor appointment.

Mildred Bond washed and rolled my mother’s hair, then sat her under the dryer until her face turned pink and her ears heated up to bright prickly red.

Out came the rollers, at which point Mildred went to work teasing my mother’s hair and arranging it into, ahem, a style. Think Country & Western without the glamour. The beauty parlor was always thick with hairspray, half of which seemed to land on my mother’s do. She didn’t rise from the chair until her hair was absolutely immovable.

No, not really.

Although there may have been a few steel magnolia customers at Mildred’s place, she was no Dolly Parton. A farmer’s wife who spoke in a soft country twang, Mildred moved calmly from head to head in her plain white uniform and white shoes. Her own hair, the color of a young doe, seemed less important in height and not quite as stiff as her customers'. Constantly she pushed her glasses up her powdered nose and was the kind of woman who looked as if she’d been sixty all her life. Strange then to see her with her husband, who was the spitting image of Superman in overalls.

I learned quite by accident that Mildred was guilty of moonlighting. One evening my mother told me to find my father and tell him dinner was ready. He wasn’t in the office, nor in the casket room, so I knew I was going to have to check the embalming room. I was as skittish about the embalming room as anyone might be, but I had developed a grin and bear it attitude over the years. I knocked on the door. No answer. I knocked again. Nothing.

I heard strange sounds, stranger than usual, through the heavy wooden door, so I slowly cracked it open a bit. My father said, “Come on in!" as if inviting me to a party. There stood my father with a horrible thick hose in his hand. There stood his employee by a shiny white machine. And good god, there stood Mildred Bond with a strange contraption in her hand. She waved the noisy thing around the head of a woman who lay on the table draped in a sheet. It was a blow dryer, the first I’d ever seen. I felt I was on the set of a science fiction movie.

Very early blow dryer

Mildred looked up at me and smiled her easy smile. “Hi,” she drawled, “how are you this evening?”

Oh just great.

Some doors are best left closed.


My father’s funeral home sat in the middle of the residential section of Main Street. Ours was an odd little stretch of the street. On one side of us there lived a chiropractor who practised out of an old Victorian house. At that time, our town’s citizens looked upon the field of chiropractic as suspect and related to sorcery. People occasionally knocked on his door and from my seat on the veranda I did my best to be certain they got out alive by monitoring their exit.

On the other side lived two widowed sisters who I never saw in the flesh in the thirteen years we lived there. I heard dishes clattering from their kitchen window, the smell of their burnt toast and coffee wafted past and I could just make out their shadows as they walked to and fro in front of the dark mesh screen that protected their window.

Across the street was another Victorian house brimming with a family of Holy Rollers. You just never knew what might be going on in there.

Every day was Halloween in our neighborhood.

On October 31, my father spent a small fortune on CANDY – the panacea for all life’s scary, icky moments and childhood hurts.

Children will do almost anything to get their hands on it, including knocking on the door of a funeral home on Halloween night.

One might think that the funeral home’s would be the last doorstep trick-or-treaters would darken on a Halloween night. Might be just a bit too real - a dead body, a casket or funereal accoutrement. God knows we had enough odd-looking stuff stashed away in old cupboards.

The children were not at all frightened by my father - he was the friendly sort. An undertaker who realized the best advertising and marketing campaign was based on one in which you are remembered as a giver, not a taker. So there he stood in his perfectly tailored and fashionable suit, (I always thought he must have made some Faustian pact with Pierre Cardin) threw open the door to the goblins and filled their bags with candy. We had hundreds of little visitors, all dressed in crazy costumes, excited to be at the funeral home. The undertaker gave good candy.

I wanted to decorate.

I preferred to hang cobwebs, make the kids walk through the funeral home with the lights off to find their candy secreted behind coffins, or piled up on a gurney, put my stamp on a haunted house installation, bob for apples, sell tickets.

But nooooo, the most my father would allow was a couple of freshly carved jack-o-lanterns on the front stoop.

One year, my father loaned one of his less expensive caskets to the school for a special Halloween event. Oh for a photo of THAT.

If we happened to be “busy” on Halloween night we hoped that the string of cars outside the funeral home and the number of plainly dressed adults entering would be a sign for the children to pass us by. You’d be surprised how many couldn’t take a hint. To ward off pint sized witches and devils and to prevent them from screaming “trick or treat” to a grieving widow, one of the funeral home’s employees was stationed outside where he cheerfully steered them away.

“Ya’ll come back next year, ya hear.”


Internationally recognized as the leading authority on Jack the Ripper, Donald Rumbelow is said to run the best Ripper walking tour in London.

I emailed London Walks, London’s premiere walking tour firm, three times to make sure the Donald would actually be present on the early autumn evening my friend and I chose to take the tour. “Arrive early. It gets crowded,” she said. No kidding. Over one hundred people converge outside Tower Hill tube station on a balmy, soon to turn nippy night. Fortunately, half of the unknowing throng trail after another guide.

With the energy of a much younger man, he carries a canvas trolley full of brochures, books, water bottles and a little plastic stool upon which he stands surrounded by the crowd. His voice, something like a lion’s, penetrates the faithful. He’s also a crowd control expert; we relax at his assurance that he will always be seen and heard as he employs a step right up, no-one-left-behind attitude.

Here’s a man who is passionate about his subject. He’s an author, has been interviewed countless times whenever a Ripper expert is needed and he tells us he spent two glorious hours alone with Johnny Depp walking this same route when Mr. Depp was conducting research for his role in FROM HELL. Okay, so now we know with whom we’re dealing.

Donald is a talented storyteller. He paints the scenes of 1888 London by reminding us of our romanticized images donated by film and television, of which he tells us are only a paltry two percent accurate, and then smacks us with the reality of what life was really like for an East End London prostitute. His description of a toothless, men’s boot-wearing woman who has piled all of her clothes on her person because she has no home in which to hang a skirt, is gruesome and dire indeed. Though miserable her existence is, she still would rather live in the stench of the rookeries, filthy city slums, than to meet such a sudden and certain death.

The Ripper walking tours are quite famous, and indeed, our small army of Rumbelow converts fly past four other groups like a swarm of bees in the night. The cringe factor is high when we pass a young man wearing a headset who is vigorously, and badly, acting out a scene for his group. My friend and I lock eyes. Ha! We think. We are with the best and you, my friends, are clearly not.

Donald tells us “things may happen” during our winding walk through the cobblestones streets and abandoned squares.

For example, a man who particularly dislikes walking tour groups routinely rides down the street on his bicycle while shouting a string of curses. He is nicknamed ‘Old Bollocks’ by consensus of the guides. Donald warns of drunks who might want to replace his guiding expertise, and an unaware naked man or two who might appear in a window of one of the flats. Anything, it seems, may happen.

To cross a single street is to cross an invisible line that separates the heady richness of the original Square Mile in the City of London where one can easily feel swallowed by the concrete, from Petticoat Lane and Middlesex Street where the odour of a long simmering curry hits the nostrils and the abandoned market stalls leave a ghostly impression.

After hundreds of years the difference is still blatantly apparent.

The Rumbelow Effect is in full force as he describes the scenes of the murders and the state of the victims in detective-like detail.

And here lies the difference in Donald and the other guides. He is an investigator, and in fact, an ex-City policeman. Once, as he swept up his little stool and trolley and scurried to the next stopping point, I ran along beside him and asked about his research. “Police records, police records,” he told me. “ And I’m still investigating.” As if I needed telling.

At the last stop on our Ripper ramble we gather around him once again. My friend and I, caught on the edge of the group, are probably the first to see Rumbelow’s eyes look past us to a fellow lurking about. Not just any fellow demands his attention; he is this group’s “things may happen” moment. Dressed in a black frock coat, a bowler hat and smoking a meerschaum, a young man stalks our group. Under the bowler sprouts insane black tufts of hair, and a touch of smeared black hollowing makeup surrounds his eyes. He keeps his distance as if he knows that Rumbelow won’t tolerate any infringement upon his show.

Our visitor circles us for a few minutes and then points his finger at his chest and mouths silently. “I’m Jack the Ripper.”

If only he’d resisted making that claim before he slowly disappeared. It would have been the perfect end to a perfect evening.

The Suspects


I’ve been thinking about all the strangers who used to spend the night with our family. When we were busy my father usually closed the funeral home around ten o’clock, except for the nights when, through a sense of tradition, superstition or an emotional inability to leave, the family of the deceased requested to stay the night. The ancient custom of sitting with the dead, ‘night-watching’, annoyed me royally. It was difficult enough to sit still for hours while underneath our floorboards the choral hum of people flowed through the funeral home. It was creepier having living strangers downstairs all night than it was hosting the dead ones.

I hurl the blame at those who interrupted the sleep of my childhood and aim it at the Middle Ages. Before the Middle Ages death was not contemplated, the body was tossed back to the earth with nary an attempt to memorialize even the burial site.

First off, in the Middle Ages you’ve got your memento mori all over the place; the artists’ shocking reminder that we will indeed, all die. Why, in the face of famine, plagues and disease, a reminder of death was needed, is a question for the church.

Death and the Devil Surprising Two Women

Most works of memento mori were products of Christian art. The concept of the immortal soul became universally accepted because it appealed to the idea that one’s identity did not dissolve at death. However, death was a rude and unwelcome guest and the gruesome images were a reminder to live well and good.

Carved from a single piece of ivory, c. 1650 artist and origin unknown

Examples of memento mori can also be found in Asian and Buddhist art.

The ritual of watching the dead varied according to culture and religion. Christians believed there was a need for special prayers for the soul; a soul that might benefit from a shove in the right direction. The Jewish custom of visiting the sepulchre for three days following death was in part out of hope that the departed might gain consciousness.

Once watching became a ritual in all its varied forms, it wasn’t long before people were paid to do it. Watchers were hired to protect the body from animals, body snatchers and thieves. In the 14th century professional watchers who were bored with the endless hours of tedium played games and tried to “rouse the ghost” and raise the dead with black magic or witchcraft as one was wont to do in the Middle Ages. Food and some form of alcoholic beverage were provided: mead, wine, beer, or whisky, a crust of bread and cheese. Party central, if you will. See where I’m headed here?

German Watcher 1754

The transition from moving the deceased out of the home parlor and into ours had long been made.

There were those who came from deep country ways who were superstitious and pleaded that they didn’t want to leave their relative alone all night. My father was a tad insulted that they wouldn’t entrust them into his complete care. There were no gas lamps or candles to spark a flame, the doors were securely locked, there was no danger of night animals, and after all, safety was included in the price. He would never mention that their dearly departed was soon to be much more alone than they were now, instead, he caved in and said of course anything they wished was fine.

It’s easy to take advantage of an undertaker. A good one will refuse you nothing. Tennessee habitually coughed up people on our Kentucky doorstep who claimed it was too far to travel back and forth for the duration of the visitation and funeral. When they asked if they could spend the night, my father could hardly refuse.

Selfishly, I wanted to listen to records, watch TV and stomp around at night, especially after an entire day of tiptoeing around upstairs. I now realize that I have the watchers to thank for forcing me to pick up a book to retreat from their stories to those of my own choosing. We gave them a few more hours with their loved ones; they gave me years of entertainment and a certain addition to my education.


As a young girl the most natural thing in the world to me was to play in the town cemetery. I often hopped in the car with my father when his business took him to our town’s burial ground. He checked on graves, stopped by to place a marker in the rich soil, or had a word with his gravediggers.

A tent often protected a fresh, open grave until the graveside service was over, or in case the skies poured before it was time to backfill. If a storm blew through we drove by to make sure the tent hadn’t collapsed. There was always something to do at the cemetery.

We spent a lot of time across the street from the cemetery sitting at a Formica counter where he drank coffee with the men.

A waitress with a beehive and large orange lips always gave me a wink before setting a plate of pie topped with a tall meringue in front of me. I twirled around on the stool, fork in hand and admired the view of the cemetery from that perspective.

Old Cemetery by paprika-jancsi

One day my father reached into his pocket and pulled out a large iron key. It was the key of mystery, the key that opened the door to an anomaly; there were only two mausoleums in our county.

My father fiddled with the key in the rusty lock and struggled with the heavy chain on the door. When my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I was surprised to see how small the space was. He explained the drawers and answered my questions about the strange, deceptively empty storage room. Stone vases jutting out from the wall awaited fresh flowers. I was relieved to spot a small vent at the top of the wall. At least we wouldn’t suffocate if we were accidentally locked in. The mausoleum really wasn’t as much fun as I expected.

Tombstone, gravestone, monument, headstone - all names for the thing that marks a plot of land and the person who was. My favorite cluster:

The Hardy Tree St. Pancras Churchyard

I was partial to a particular tombstone erected in the early nineteenth century decorated with images of the deceased husband and wife, each sepia toned photo was displayed on porcelain plaques and framed in brass ovals. I visited their tombstone regularly, as if I knew them.

Many years later, although too soon, much too soon, my father died an early death and was buried in the cemetery in which we’d spent so much time together. Years later still, I came back to the cemetery to visit his grave. I felt I had a complete intimacy with our little necropolis. I thought I knew every turning, every tree, every tombstone that marked the path to my father’s own tombstone. I drove through confidently with my British husband, who was visiting Kentucky for the first time and already in a deep state of culture shock, when the unthinkable happened. I couldn’t find my father’s grave.

I drove round and round in circles. The paved pathways in the small cemetery, hardly roads, had no names, but I was certain of my surroundings. “I’m sure it’s here.” I said one too many times. I drove down different paths; perhaps the cemetery had grown a great deal more than I thought. I stopped the car, laughing at how ridiculous it was. I got out and walked around, then got back in and drove around again. After an hour of this, my husband, perplexed and attempting to be helpful, gently suggested that we’d been on this route before, perhaps we should ask someone. “You must be joking. I absolutely will not ask anyone where my own father is buried!” But the fact was that I couldn’t find his grave and now it was not funny at all.

I tried to remain calm, but in all truth, I verged on the hysterical. How was I to tell my mother that someone had stolen my father’s tombstone? I didn’t know how and I didn’t know why, but stolen it was. It was the only possible answer. I called my sister.

“Are you sitting down, because I have something terrible to tell you.”

“What is it?”

“I don’t know how we’re going to tell Mother.”

“For god’s sake, what?”

“Daddy’s tombstone is gone. Someone’s stolen it!

She burst into laughter.

I was shocked into a stupor of silence by her reaction.

“We had it removed for further engraving. We’ve just now gotten around to it. It’ll be ready in a couple of weeks.”

“Oh.” Long pause. “I thought it was something like that.”

“Right. Sure you did.”