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.