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.