We were two little girls looking for something to do on a quiet Christmas Eve in the funeral home.

Our father was downstairs working on a body. Upstairs, my sister and I sat on the floor in a little room my mother called “the children’s den”. If, for some reason, the floor collapsed beneath us we would have landed right atop our father’s big white porcelain embalming table. And on this night, this Christmas Eve, we would have been introduced to the elderly man who lay upon it.

We were supposed to be asleep, so we scooted near the small television wearing our matching red Christmas nightgowns and turned the sound down low as we searched the four channels to choose our evening’s entertainment. It was late, and one of the stations had already gone off the air. But wait, what was this? We paused when we heard the first dark chords of the opening music to A Christmas Carol. We looked at each other wide-eyed, for there was nothing we liked more than being scared. This sounded promising and like no other carol we’d heard. Our young lives spent entirely in a funeral home surrounded by the steady flow of the dead, and we still searched for ghosts, sought them out at every opportunity. If there was a haunted house to be explored, a ghost story to be heard, an abandoned farm to be analyzed, we were there. We even roamed the hallways of old hotels whenever we were on holiday, where we hoped to detect an undiscovered crime scene or possibly stumble upon an apparition.

We found our ghosts late that evening in a rerun of the 1951 film classic, A Christmas Carol. This man, this Scrooge, held our attention.

The Alastair Sim version of Dickens’s story was our first impression of London. We imagined the real England to be exactly like this film, completely colourless, where people spoke in different accents, all called London.

Huddled together on the floor with blankets and pillows we remained entranced with the story, when, just before Scrooge’s transformation, the UNDERTAKER appeared! This undertaker looked nothing like our handsome father.

And he was a thief!


Even though we didn’t know exactly what it was that moved us so, we understood the redemption bit. The story was so well written and acted that we were in tears when old Scrooge bought the goose for the Cratchits.

And then, with impeccable timing, here came our own Bob Cratchit, our smiling provider, up from the lower floor of doom. He stood before us with his tie, a working hazard, tucked into his trousers, his hands shrivelled from the continuous flow of water and other unmentionable fluids. (He scoffed at the thick rubber gloves used in those days. So awkward.) Tired from his late night work, he shooed us off to bed, his duties not yet complete as he changed his undertaker’s hat for that of Santa’s.

Thus began my lifelong awe and love of Dickens. I read him every year and always include his carol on Christmas Eve. He had a long hand, err, longhand that stretched all the way to two uninitiated girls living in a small town, in a funeral home, at a time when we felt completely cut off from the world. Yes, his work is sentimental, but I quite like pages of sentiment when they are so beautifully, humorously and tragically drawn.


One afternoon last year I came upon an old stone house in Hampstead, so dark, so dreary that it could have been Scrooge’s house. Then I saw the blue plaque. I ran home to call my sister.

“Guess whose house I walked by today?”

“Um, I don’t know.”

“Alastair Sim’s”

“Who’s Alastair Sim?”

“Scrooge!” I screamed, “Scrooge!”

A Bicentennial of a Different Sort
The Resurrectionist

He stood on the edge of the mob at Tyburn while the human vultures descended upon the corpse of the executed.

He waited as the family fought to claim the body of the condemned from the sporting crowd. Not far from him, the undertakers fought each other to gain the attention of the deceased’s family. Less prominent surgeons fought to buy off the family and purchase the corpse, hoping to cut out the middleman – him - Joseph Naples, resurrection man.

As we shift into full gear for the Charles Dickens bicentennial, the Hunterian Museum recently hosted Kirsty Chilton’s lecture on a bicentennial of a different sort: The account of a man who two hundred years ago kept a diary of his life as one of the busiest resurrectionists of his time. A rare, grave, thing.

Naples’ career began ten years before his first diary entry in 1811. He was unlucky in his young professional life and made silly mistakes. He approached the wrong undertaker who turned him over to the authorities when he tried to sell him a corpse in 1801. Sent to Coldbath Fields House of Correction to serve a two-year sentence, he scrambled over the wall in a successful escape during the 1802 riots behind the prison.

As one of The Borough Gang, Naples worked in a team of eight who supplied London’s leading hospitals with corpses. In clear handwriting he recorded places, names, buying, selling, and prices. He wrote of the bodies of children and babies.

A typical entry:

“At 2 a.m. got up, the Party went to Harps, got 4 adults and 1 small, took 4 to St. Thomas. Came home, went to Mr. Wilson and Brookes. Dan got paid £8/8/0 from Mr. Wilson. I received £9/9/0402 from Mr. Brookes. Came over to the borough, sold small for £1/10. Received £4/4/0 for adult. At home al night”

In 1813 he was arrested again, but by this time his connections to prominent surgeons were so strong that he easily got bail. Arrested for the last time in 1819, it was believed he either finally became cleverer, or changed his name. As a colleague of his once said, “It’s safer to be in teeth.”

The diary reveals his body snatching duties and we come to understand more than a glimpse of his daily work life. Naples kept tabs on other grave robbers; there was in-fighting and fierce competition. His figure haunted funerals where he made notes of the locations of the freshest graves.

The gang also made up the shortfall in other cities in England and Scotland. Naples nonchalantly recorded the task of packaging bodies and preparing them for delivery to Edinburgh as if he were about to post a letter.

It was a seasonal occupation. The heat and overwhelming odours associated with the profession made it impossible to hold anatomy classes in the summer. Naples worked hard throughout the winter, stealing sixty bodies a month, or more. I thought how my undertaker father worried about the icy Southern ground of winter and constantly checked with his gravediggers, concerned he would have to delay a burial. I wondered if, when Naples’ shovel struck the earth, it was ever met with a fierce resistance.

Naples drew a simple, basic moon chart in his diary. Knowing when the moon was waxing and waning was important to his work; he wished to avoid the glare of a full moon, which would have clearly exposed him.

There are few references to his personal life, but here’s one: "Went to the pub, got drunk."

In the 1820’s work became more dangerous and difficult. Cemetery watchers planted in burial grounds with dogs and guns were a new fear for resurrectionists. And in an ironic and bitter turn, Naples and others were horrified to witness their colleagues stolen from their graves upon their death. Terrified they would suffer the same fate of those they had stolen, the resurrection men begged their relatives to promise they would be left undisturbed. They paid off surgeons, clergy and family to safeguard their own graves.

The 1832 Anatomy Act opened the way for body dealing rather than body snatching. The Act gave the surgeons and students legal access to corpses that were unclaimed after death.

It had been a lucrative career for most resurrectionists. One year Naples’ receipts totalled £1,394 8s and one of his associates was worth nearly £6,000 when he died. But many of the body snatchers threw their money away on alcohol, women and gambling. Naples fell into this group.

By the 1830’s, his grave robbing days behind him, Naples worked as a porter, little more than a servant, in the dissecting room at St. Thomas’s Hospital.

Joseph Naples died in 1843 of an alcohol related illness.


“Today at the cemetery I found a tombstone with pictures on it! They had these oval brass frame things around them!”

My untameable glee gave my classmates the heebie-jeebies. In unison they slowly backed away from me. Undaunted, and fascinated by the two small mausoleums in our cemetery, I voiced my appreciation for the way the tombstones poked up around the stone buildings and complimented the overall design.

I counted angels and crosses and made up stories of the people buried beneath the shaded green carpet while my father went about his business. There was no escaping the smell of damp earth or the poignancy of an unkempt grave. The dirt of the cemetery was often caked in the soles of our shoes, the dust of fallen leaves clung to our socks, though, amazingly, the tops of my father’s shoes remained spotless and shiny.

I couldn’t fathom why cemeteries were associated with ghouls and zombies when they were always intended to be a place of peace.

In Victorian England cemeteries were newly landscaped, designed as a destination for contemplation, a lovely place for a stroll. A satisfying Sunday day out often included a visit to the cemetery, perhaps a picnic on the perfectly manicured grounds.

Yet, something wicked and dark haunted grieving families even before the Victorians designed their park and garden-like cemeteries. The peace was often shattered by a violation that struck fear and horror in the mourning public. The work of Resurrectionists, grave robbers, body snatchers, or “sack-um-up men” that thrived particularly in early 19th century England is fairly well known. Scientists and surgeons created the demand that eventually became a colossal tumbleweed, collecting bodies along its way.

There is something deeply unsettling about a disturbed burial. There is something entirely sinister about being denied a burial at all. In the States, and most especially in the American South, the medical community boasted of their source of cadavers. In many cases there was no need for a body snatcher at all. Southern slaves fell under no laws; therefore, their owners could dispose of their property without the consent of their families. Slave-owners sold the bodies of deceased slaves to medical schools. These men, women, and children denied even the right to a burial were rushed post mortem to awaiting surgeons. Many of them were shipped north in barrels of whiskey to supply northern medical needs.

And still there were not enough bodies to go around.

A particularly blunt advertisement from a Dr. T. Stillman, directed at slave owners:

“To planters and others—wanted 50 Negroes. Any person having sick Negroes, considered incurable by their respective physicians, and wishing to dispose of them, Dr. S. will pay cash for Negroes affected with scrofula, or King’s evil, confirmed hypocondriasm, apoplaxi, diseases of the liver, kidneys, spleen, stomach, and intestines, bladder and its appendages, diarrhea, dysentery, etc. The highest cash price will be paid on application as above.”

And still there were not enough.

After the Civil War, myths and tales of needle men and black bottle men in Louisiana haunted the disenfranchised. The body count of these alleged murderers surpassed Scotland’s notorious Burke and Hare. Charity Hospital in New Orleans, the second oldest public hospital in the United Sates by only one month to New York’s Bellevue, was rumoured to go to great lengths to obtain cadavers.

Charity Hospital New Orleans

"I sure don't go out much at this time of year. You takes a chance just walkin' on the streets. Them Needle Mens is everywhere. They always comes 'round in the fall, and they's 'round to about March. You see, them Needle Mens is medical students from the Charity Hospital tryin' to git your body to work on. That's 'cause stiffs is very scarce at this time of the year. If they ever sticks their needles in your arm you is jest a plain goner! All they’s gotta do is jest brush by you, and there you is; you is been stuck.”

From Gumbo Ya-Ya: A Collection of Louisiana Folk Tales by Lyle Saxon, Edward Dreyer, Robert Tallant

Similar to the needle men in intent were the black bottle men; medical students who stood at the door of Charity Hospital where upon admission they administered a dose of lethal poison to incoming patients. In reality, the dose was cascara, black in colour, made dark brown when magnesia was added, a diuretic frequently given to patients after admission. But tales were that it was thought to speed death along its path and given to those on the brink. I don’t know, but where there’s smoke…

This then was the kernel of truth attributed to the tales of the “night doctors” that spread throughout the rural South. Emerged from the realities of medical experimentation, body snatching and murder, whites told African Americans gruesome tales of medical experimentation, taunting them with threats of kidnapping.

The exodus of freed slaves to the north hastened the crumbling of the South’s post war economy. Southern whites hoped to dissuade Freemen from moving to northern cities to work. In an era when superstitions were considered as real as a plate of biscuits with red-eye gravy, whites roamed African American neighborhoods at night to spread fear, covering themselves in white sheets, pretending to be spirits coming to claim them for dissection. The similarity in appearance of the night doctors and the white-robed Ku Klux Klan lead some individuals to refer to the night doctors as “Ku Klux doctors”.

The Devil in the Cemetery


I once asked my father, “What do you all talk about in the embalming room?”

A cynical streak must have run through me from an early age, or surely I wouldn’t have dreamed up the answer I expected to hear. I thought they swayed away from the conversation of death. Yesterday’s poker game, or the freshest man-gossip, like Luke’s new tractor, or the shocking news that Henry secretly bakes pies; these were the topics I imagined swished back and forth across the embalming table and its sheeted occupant.

With my ear to the closed door, not sure if they were aware of my presence by the groan of the floor when I shifted weight, I heard murmurs, the sort of low-voiced chorus men make. I stayed, straining to hear until my father inevitably cranked up the odd machines and when they began to hum, I ran away.

They worked at their unthinkable, unmentionable tasks remembering the person who lay before them and his or her place in the community. They spoke of her family, his last wishes, how big the funeral might be. They ran through the list of “survivors” - always thought that an odd word for family members – that would be read on the local radio news the following day. Mr. Thurmond is survived by….

Slowly, methodically, this father of mine and his employees brought to close another life.

The funeral business was and continues to be a predominantly male profession. Men work their grief with their hands. They dig graves, embalm, act as pallbearers, they are lifters of heavy funeral furniture; even the three florists in our town were men. They rush about constantly with “important things to do”. What then of the women?

I was thinking about this the other day when I read in the Sunday paper that crazy quilts are in vogue now. The crazy quilts fad brought to mind mourning quilts, the work of female hands that represented a way to busy their grief. Many women used the crazy quilt pattern to form mourning quilts, like this one from the late 19th century in Kentucky.

The mourning quilt takes many forms and enters subgenre land. This Civil War era quilt of grief uses patches of men’s shirting and includes fabric from a uniform.

Slowly, methodically, fabric, needles, thread, stitching, stitching, stitching, women mourned through their fingers. Their contribution was sometimes thrown over a plain wooden coffin, or, crossing the prairie, when burial time was short and there was no means to build a coffin, the mourning quilt served as a shroud.

There were Memorial Quilts and even Deathwatch Quilts on which symbols of mourning were stitched as the family waits the final illness of the patriarch. A personal favorite mourning quilt is the Graveyard Quilt. The most famous made by Elizabeth Roseberry Mitchell in 1839 and part of the collection of the Kentucky Historical Society in Frankfort Kentucky.

In the center is a fenced graveyard with four coffins, each represents a deceased family member, upon which is stitched their name. There is space in the graveyard for thirteen coffins, one for each of Elizabeth's family members who are represented in the coffins around the border, probably basted on and therefore easier to remove. When a person died their coffin would be moved into the graveyard. According to family history Elizabeth made this quilt after the death of her two young sons. Quite a frank and finite way of depicting the life of a family and I swallowed a few times when I first saw it.

My father once told me that everything is political, even death and mourning. I hadn’t a clue what he was talking about. Now I do. Jonathan Shannon was the first male winner of the American Quilter's Society Best of Show Award in 1993 with his quilt, "Air Show". A year later his new quilt, a mourning quilt, "Amigos Muertos" was rejected as an entry to the American Quilter’s Society. Shannon’s quilt commemorates artists lost to cancer and AIDS. The director of the show told Shannon that the quilt was considered to be upsetting and that it wasn't the sort of quilt that visitors to the show would want to see. In response Shannon wrote an open letter to quilt makers and received four thick binders full of replies of support – a turning point in the quilt-making world regarding the political aspects of death, mourning and the subject matter of quilting.

“Amigos Muertos” later won the National Patchwork Championship in England.


With Stevyn Colgan's kind permission

Oh the hilarity of growing up in a funeral home. The hours were long, the work was deadly brutal at times, but the sound of laughter often cut through the steel grey cloud of gloom we lived above.

My father had a knack of drawing in the oddest characters to work for him and over the years I watched them come and go. They were mostly male back then, except for the hairdresser and the shroud maker. It took a certain kind of person, an all-rounder, to heave-ho, dig graves, and otherwise dress up in their finest to open the door to the weeping public.

The buzz from preparing for a funeral is quite addictive, and when eventually it all fell quiet, that is, when the funeral home was not busy, the various rooms filled with card-playing, coffee-drinking, and joke telling, a myriad of scenes of grown men at play. I provided musical entertainment. Those piano and organ lessons really began to pay off; before I could reach the pedals of my father’s Hammond organ, I was already driving everyone to madness with my accomplished rendition of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”. My father strode to and fro leaving a permanent imprint on the tatty carpet as he performed his rituals and tasks. As he breezed by, he never failed to command me with a hand movement to lower the volume.

I wasn’t always as conspicuous. You’d be surprised how quickly a group of men can forget the presence of a little girl lurking around the corner in another room. Once, a youthful employee accidentally dropped a bottle of embalming fluid, it fell to pieces when it hit the linoleum floor and, well, you can just imagine the mess - and the stink – good lord, the fumes could set nostril hairs alight! Out comes the mop and the next thing you know he’s turned the mop upright and begun waltzing around with it on the embalming room floor, skirting the scary furniture, pretending it’s his girlfriend. The men somehow found this hilarious. I could only cringe in my corner at the thought of my father discovering the irreverence.

Something has awakened the memory of the embalming fluid spewed all over the room, the bright puddle on the floor. I’ve written before about the overwhelming odor of the flowers that always permeated the funeral home. I’m able to conjure that fragrance in my memory in a second, and particularly as it melded with the pungent odor of the embalming fluid. In fact, I can’t really enjoy the fragrance of flowers without thinking of the image of the colourful bottles lined neatly on a shelf. Case in point. My friends Emma and Andy of The Frolick fame, discovered a cologne while on a recent trip to New York, which now, kind thanks to them, is mine.

Funeral Home Cologne – Carnation heavy, sweet, with a faint kick of formaldehyde.

There’s no formaldehyde in the cologne, but it’s there. For me, it’s there.

For some reason, people think I enjoy undertaker jokes and I’ve had to endure them all my life. They’re all bad, they’re all silly and I share with you the worst, but not the most distasteful, of the lot.

How do undertakers speak?


Do undertakers enjoy their job?

Of corpse they do.

What did the undertaker say to his girlfriend?

I em balmy about you.

Did you hear the one about the undertaker who signed all of his letters 'Eventually yours'?


I still remember what a thrill it was that first day I was able to string a few words together and read a sentence for the first time. It wasn’t long before many of life’s mysteries began to disappear like a cube of sugar on the tongue. Not only did books shed light, I was also quite taken with mundane things like my mother’s grocery lists. I felt I’d discovered her secret language. Then one day I was asked to produce my birth certificate at school. I removed it from my plaid satchel on the short walk to school and for the first time read:

Father’s Occupation: Undertaker

Didn’t the penny just drop! Reading it in black and white somehow brought to the fore the very lifestyle I had taken for granted. And that our home was only up a staircase from all of this undertaking business, well, it cast an entirely new light on the thing.

Just as I was being to understand it all, as best as a young girl could, my father thrust upon me a meeting with the most eccentric character in our town. She immediately began talking the Edgar Allen Poe talk… you know, favorite stories, memorable characters, nevermore, the dreary dreary and Lenore. The woman all but insisted I read his works. I realize now that it was dreadfully demanding of her, as I was too young to fully grasp Mr. Poe’s writings. However, I rose to the challenge and when I ran across The Premature Burial my little heart skipped a beat.

“The grave was carelessly and loosely filled with an exceedingly porous soil; and thus some air was necessarily admitted. He heard the footsteps of the crowd overhead, and endeavoured to make himself heard in turn. It was the tumult within the grounds of the cemetery, he said, which appeared to waken him from a deep sleep, but no sooner was he awake than he became fully aware of the awful horrors of his position.”

The questions, the worry, the browbeating that ensued! I entreated my father to defend his honour. Had he ever witnessed the kind of terror revealed in this shocking tale? “Of course not! The very idea!” said my father. I was then given a bare bones lesson on the effects of embalming.

He failed to inform me that reports of premature burials date back to the 14th century. I wondered if he ever learned this gruesome history in mortuary school; he didn’t like to talk about it so I never asked.

In 1661 the story of a butcher from Newgate Market in London was published in a pamphlet called “The Most Lamentable And Deplorable Accident”. Mourners were horrified when they heard a shriek from his tomb, but by the time his rescuers reached him it was too late. It was just one of many stories about premature burial avidly read by the public at the time.

By 1700 paranoia about being buried alive ran rife and in 1790 the security coffin was designed. One type involved a tube that protruded from the coffin. Everyday the parson would stroll through the cemetery and have a sniff down the tube. If he didn’t smell the effects of decomposition after a few days, the grave was exhumed.

Bells and whistles! Bells and whistles! By the 19th century safety coffins came equipped with bells, whistles, firecrackers, sirens and even rockets.

None were more popular than the Bateson Life Revival Device. A rope wrapped around the deceased’s wrist made for a worry-free burial. One tug on the rope and the iron bell securely mounted in a miniature bell tower onto the lid of the coffin sounded the alarm.

In 1902 Rufina Cambaceres a nineteen-year-old girl of Argentina died while dressing for her wedding.

Although it was an unusual occurrence, three doctors certified that she was indeed deceased. The next day she was buried despite the view of several of her relatives who thought she had only fainted. At their insistence her coffin was opened. They gazed in disbelief upon the tragic result. Rufina whose poor hands and face were marked with injuries had been buried alive. Scratch marks were found on the inside of the coffin.

Her parents, deeply aggrieved and heart-broken, erected a statue at the entrance to her mausoleum in the famous Recoleta Cemetery in Buenos Aires as a warning against premature burial.

Perhaps the most vivid and recorded tale took place in Ireland. In 1705 the resurrectionists got wind of the recent burial of one Margorie McCall in Lurgan, Co Armagh. Margorie had been happily married to a doctor until she fell ill and succumbed to a fever. At her wake many of the mourners tried in vain to remove the valuable wedding ring she wore, but her hand, swollen from illness and death, would not allow it. After the wake she was buried quickly for fear the fever would spread.

The very night of her burial the grave robbers crept into the cemetery with their tools eager to claim the golden ring and steal her body to sell on to local surgeons. Digging through the freshly disturbed earth, they scattered the dirt until they hit the coffin. They removed the lid and their lanterns shone on Margorie and her ringed finger. At first they pulled and tugged at it, but her finger was so swollen they soon knew to continue was futile.

There was nothing left to do but try to hack off her finger because they certainly weren’t going to leave the ring for the surgeons. Just as Margorie’s finger began to draw blood she wakened from her stupor and sat upright, eyes wide open and began to scream bloody murder. It was said that the resurrectionists ran for their lives never to return to the trade again.

Margorie pulled herself up from her grave, walked through the cemetery - a sight of horror one might imagine - and continued home. She knocked on her own door, quickly opened by her husband and there she stood in her burial clothes, dripping with blood and her finger half hanging from her hand. The tale goes that her husband died of shock right on the spot. He was at some point buried in the same plot that his wife had once occupied. Margorie re-married and raised several children. When she did finally die she was buried in the same cemetery where she was first buried alive and where her tombstone reads:


Sitting up with the dead

People tell stories in the South of “sitting up with the dead”. These all night family vigils held before funeral parlors first opened their somber doors, and before the practice of embalming changed the face of death, placed the care of the deceased firmly in the hands of the survivors. Families made do in those days.

The coffin was brought to the parlor, or if they couldn’t afford a coffin they might have placed the body on the sofa or the dining room table. Tasks and rituals handed down for generations kept mourners busy and comforted. Often a bowl of water and a cloth set nearby was used to periodically bath the deceased’s face and hands. During hot weather a veil might have been placed over the coffin to protect it from flies. A flyswatter did the trick in lieu of an expensive veil.

Friends made a point of visiting to tell stories of the deceased and to comfort the bereaved.

The body was never left alone at night. Superstitions and fears prevailed. Relatives thought the devil might rush in and take the body away. And if not the devil, the rumours of body snatchers frightened the bejesus out of those who were suffering and thus vulnerable and emotional.

Family members took turns guarding the body, staying awake to be certain that their loved one was well and truly dead. Mistaken deaths were unusual, but not unheard of. Superstitions aside, the family also had real concerns and felt obliged to protect the body from rodents and dangerous burning candles, fireplaces and gas stoves.

Sitting up was such a strong tradition that when my father first opened his funeral home it was not uncommon for a family to request to spend the night. He could hardly refuse, although he was always slightly miffed. After all, what was his purpose if not to protect and serve? When I first became aware of this practice I had a gazillion questions. Where were they going to sleep? They don’t. Where and how would they eat? They brought their own food and ate in our little “hospitality” room. What in the world were they going to do all night? Fight off sleep. Other than that, who knew? Would my mother prepare breakfast for them? No. Once the night passed, they would go home to change clothes, freshen up and prepare for the funeral.

My father said that most of the people who wanted to spend the night at our funeral home had originally been born in the mountains, at least three or four hours away. Their need for ritual pulled and tugged at them; they wouldn’t dream of missing “the sitting up”. My mother thought that in some cases, people from out of town would rather stay with us for free than pay for a night in one of our town’s two hotels.

Most of the time I never saw the night visitors. But I often went to sleep knowing they were roaming around downstairs, floating from room to room, sitting in front of the casket. One night I forgot they were there. I slipped downstairs to get a Coke. When I reached the bottom of the stairs I heard them whispering. It scared me to death! I was wearing my nightgown and felt that sudden horror of being terribly exposed. And I knew if they caught sight of me I’d probably scare them to death. But I was already downstairs and I did want that Coke badly. I thought if I could carefully tiptoe past the chapel, I could then sneak into the room where the Coke machine sat humming away.

They were still speaking in low voices as I went past. I caught a glimpse of a teen-age boy with his long, thin legs stretched out over two of our wooden folding chairs. Three women huddled together. An older man sat straight up in his chair, fast asleep. They’d brought pillows and blankets. These were strewn across the chairs and looked strangely out of place. My father had turned out most of the lights and the night visitors sat in a faint creamy glow. I scurried past them to the room in the back, quickly pulled out a cold bottle and then snuck past them again on my way up the stairs.

The next morning I asked my father if they were still there. “No,” he said. “They left at dawn.”

ye Sign of ye Naked Body & Coffin

From a trade card of a Fleet Street undertaker. 1710

When I walk along London’s streets and pass a funeral director’s shop front, I am compelled to peek through the window. Can’t help it, must be done. Funeral homes in the States are rarely shop fronts, my father’s was set in a rambling old house on a residential street, so I find it fascinating to read the advertising on the windows, to note that an undertaker has set up shop next to a pub, or a newsagent. When I peer through the glass I never see anything very interesting, the interior always looks a bit blah. Most of the time I can’t see anything at all, which I guess is how it should be, but I wonder if they could be just a bit more inviting.

My father or one of his employees would stand at the door and wave to people passing, or open the door and say things like, “Why hello there Bill, how the world are you?” That’s the kind of thing one could do in a small town. Bill always answered with, “Glad to be coming through your front door instead of the back.” Funeral home humour, you gotta love it.

I feel uneasy about the way funeral directors advertise these days. It all seems so transparent. The use of caring words, phrases, and lyrical descriptions intended to give us hope that the process isn’t going to be as bad as we anticipate. Advertising used to be more direct.

When undertaking became a specific trade in the 18th century the businesses advertised aggressively and vigorously. In Hogarth’s Gin Lane one can just make out a shop sign in the form of a coffin hanging dismally in the air above the undertaker’s premises.

I guess it’s appropriate, if not necessary, for an undertaker to announce his presence to the locals.

And perhaps they can’t be blamed for offering you a complimentary household product that will remind you that they’re always there, lurking in the background.

My father did his share of advertising. I wish I’d had enough sense to keep the pens and pencils, calendars, balloons and fans that sprouted up like weeds around town over the years. I always began the school year with a satchel full of black pencils with the funeral home’s name boldly embossed in gold lettering. I passed them out to everyone and pretended not to see the rolling eyes, tried to forget the snickering.

To my utter surprise a friend of our family actually did keep a couple of things, one of which I didn’t remember at all. Telephone numbers that begin with letters was before my time. It looks like something you might see in an Alfred Hitchcock movie.

Behold the potholder.