Mr. Horace Duncan died on Christmas Eve. With this news, in my seventh year, my fourth living on top of my father’s funeral home, my heart sank. I stood downstairs in my father’s small office, my stance firm, arms folded at my chest.

"Why can’t Mrs. Duncan come by the day after Christmas? Why does she have to come tomorrow? It’s Christmas Day." 

My eyes accused him, as if he had caused Horace Duncan’s demise himself.

“It just ruins everything!” I continued. “What about Santa Clause? And the turkey? What about the smelly old oyster casserole?"

He stood looking out the front door, and nodded to a few of our community as they rushed down Main Street in the frosty air. They waved, never guessing they were on the tip of my father’s tongue as they strode by the funeral home. For here came The Undertaker’s Family Lecture, not for the first time, and certainly not the last. The clothes on my back, the food on my plate, the yearly vacation; all these were provided by the loyalty of the people of our town.

“And by our good friend Death,” I said under my breath.

“And if you think you’re upset, just think how poor Mrs. Duncan feels.”

I couldn’t tell him that I didn’t want to think about how Mrs. Duncan felt. From his point of view it was a sacrilege not to manifest compassion. I was just a young girl, and because death was never far away, in fact, just downstairs, I was already somewhat tired of it. And it was Christmas, for god’s sake.

We often worked Christmas around the dead and their families. Embalming time figured in the mix; the time-consuming little details of preparation in all its forms were still required whether Santa came or not. It was just another day for Mr. Death.

I should have trusted him more: My father was not one to let a dead body ruin a holiday. He had a plan.

On that Christmas Eve night the stairs creaked and groaned from the weight of a man dressed in red. Santa climbed the staircase of the funeral home to our living room. After an intake of breath, I succumbed to a moment of magic. Santa admired our tree and then sat on the sofa. As I climbed onto his lap and set about telling him that he better get busy because he had very little time left, that old familiar scent assaulted my nostrils.

I leaned into him, cupped my hands around his ear and whispered, “I know it’s you, Fount.”

It was the potent cocktail of the embalming room’s odour that first revealed his identity. A mixture of all the malodorous items in that dark room lingered upon his skin and hair, and floated in an invisible cloud around him. Then I took a good look at his hands. Shrivelled, wrinkled, from his recent chore, just like my father’s. And finally, the eyes of Fount, my father’s employee, were familiar.

Mrs. Duncan came by the next day, but she didn’t stay long. She just wanted to drop by with a suit for Horace. She brought a fruitcake. And something of those first four years of living in the funeral home gave me a little kick, and I felt badly for her. Then the sadness gradually faded, and the next thing I knew I was sitting at the big table laughing at the smelly old oyster casserole.

  Line block reproduction of a drawing by F.L.Griggs of St Mary's Church, Hitchin,1901. St Albans Museums


Martha Harper’s Haint

One day I was playing in the cemetery when a car pulled up beside me. A rough looking woman rolled down her window and poked her head out.

“Hey, little girl. Where’s that gravestone with them pictures on it?”

“You’ve passed it already. It’s right behind you.”

She turned the large white steering wheel of her beat up Plymouth Fury and parked, straddling the graveyard’s paved pathway and the grass.

I could just make out my father’s figure on the other side of the cemetery. He pointed to the yet undisturbed ground as he spoke with his gravediggers. Bobby and Luther were late again, a terrible problem because it was imperative that the grave be ready for the next day’s burial. The sun was beginning to set, and all hell would break loose unless the dirt began flying fairly quickly.

While Bobby and Luther worked, I followed the woman to my favourite gravestone. It was the colour of bleached slate, and on the bottom, copper picture frames in the shape of two ovals protruded from the stone. They were made more unusual by heavy protective covers. I squatted down and lifted the latch on the first one, and then the second, to reveal sepia photographs of the dead couple.

Rusting ceramic photograph - Carcassonne Cemetery

The woman sank to the ground beside me and melted into a mound. The crooked hem of her worn, baggy dress settled around her in a puff. Her coat looked to be a man’s duster jacket and she drew its tatty collar closed against the breeze. She stretched her legs out until her scuffed work boots rested near the grave. The boots were a sorry sight; the laces were missing and the tongues extended with a life of their own.

The woman placed her head on my small shoulder and I caught the sweet scent of bourbon. Then she began to cry. Though she was a stranger to me, and I was only about eight years old, I was accustomed to weeping. It was the background music at my house, the funeral home. I sat very still.

“These here people. They haunt me, ya know. ‘Specially that there woman. I seen her in my dreams a few times. She’s the spittin’ image of my dead mamma.”

“Well, these two people… they’ve been dead a long time. Maybe they’re related to you.” I offered.

She laughed, and then cried again. You can’t really talk to woman when she’s on a jag.

“I was pert near a wildcat when my mamma died. Still am. I’m Martha Harper, by the way, only daughter of Laura Sue Harper,” she slurred.

I was going to introduce myself, but she continued, “Don’t grow up to be a wildcat, girl. Don’t go givin’ your mamma heartache. Now, when I really need my mamma, she ain’t here in person. Sometimes her haint sits on the chair in my bedroom. Sounds crazy, don’t it, but I knowed she’s there. Scares me to death. She just sits there and stares at me. What does she want?”

The woman sat up, turned, and looked at me as if she expected an answer.

“Gosh, mam. I don’t know.”

Slowly she made her way up. Dried leaves stuck to her clothes, but she didn’t notice. She patted the gravestone and kissed the woman’s photo before she climbed into the back seat of her car.

“Gonna have a little nap now.” She lay supine and disappeared from view so that only the bottoms of those old boots dangled out the window. She called out from her resting place.

“Nice talkin’ to you, girl. And Happy Halloween.”


Rarely has a piece of funereal furniture caused more controversy than in the remarkable journey of a particular bronze casket.

My education in caskets began at an early age. There are all sorts today, and even in days of yore when there weren’t all sorts, there were choices. At the time my father owned his funeral home there were obvious differences between a coffin and a casket; a coffin was made solely of wood and shaped similarly to the human body, narrowing at the head and feet. A casket is rectangular, the same width from top to bottom. Generally padded and lined, they’re lowered into the ground after the grave has been lined with a vault. The biggest difference between a casket and a coffin is that the casket opens at the top so the head and shoulders of the deceased may be viewed. Though the least expensive casket was constructed of plywood and covered in a felt-like cloth, caskets were usually forged of various metals. The most expensive casket was bronze. 

The story begins with an undertaker who became greedy.

Vernon O’Neal received a phone call one November afternoon in 1963. A man’s voice on the other end requested the O’Neal Funeral Home’s best casket for immediate delivery to Parkland Memorial Hospital. Vernon chose a solid bronze casket with a white satin lining. It weighed over 400 pounds when empty and came with a hefty price tag as well - $3,995.00. In 2012, that translates to roughly $30,000.

Vernon waited for his colleagues to return from a lunch break and subsequently set out, unknowingly, to President Kennedy’s tragic emergency room scene. After a brief moment of recovery from witnessing the results of the bullet that shattered President Kennedy’s skull, he quickly set to work alongside several emergency room nurses to protect the expensive casket. They used a plastic mattress covering to line the inside and wrapped the President’s head in several bed sheets and another around his body.

A kafuffle and swearing match developed in the hallway of the hospital between the Secret Service and the authorities in Dallas who insisted that they had legal rights to perform the autopsy. The Secret Service, on a mission to take the President’s body back to Washington, forced their way past the Dallas medical examiner, police and justice of the peace. The President’s bronze casket was loaded onto Air Force One at Love Field and finally arrived in Washington, D.C.

At the Bethesda Naval Hospital, another funeral home entered the story. The bronze casket could no longer be used. Despite the effort to protect it, the inside was stained with the President’s blood and missing a handle from the scuffle in the emergency room corridor and subsequent flight. Washington’s Gawler Funeral Home provided the casket that would be seen on the world’s television screens. The elegant flag-draped casket made from hand-rubbed, five-hundred-year-old African mahogany would eventually rest in Arlington National Cemetery.

But what of the bronze casket?  Less than two months after the President’s burial Vernon O’Neal invoiced the government for $3,995.00. The government’s view was that the bill was “excessive” and subsequently O’Neal offered a $500 discount. The government was still hesitant to agree to pay. They learned, however, that what O’Neal really wanted was the casket, which was stored in a warehouse in Washington, still in possession of the Gawler funeral home. Vernon had plans for that bronze casket. He’d been offered $100,000 from a party interested in placing it on public display and possibly even conducting a tour around the country, a blatant and tasteless cashing in on the tragedy of the assassination.

Appalled, the Kennedy family urgently requested the government to pay O’Neal, which they did, and the General Services Administration took possession of the casket in 1965. That year the House of Representatives passed a bill that required any object related to the assassination to be preserved as evidence. Enter the bronze casket once again. A congressman from Texas wrote to the Attorney General who had replaced Bobby Kennedy a year before, and suggested that the casket had no value for anyone other than “the morbidly curious” and recommended that it be destroyed. Attorney General Katzenbach agreed.

The Air Force drilled forty holes into the casket and filled it with three 80-pound sandbags to ensure its inability to float to the surface or wash ashore. It was then placed in a pine box that was also drilled full of holes. On February 18, 1966 the Air Force set out to the Atlantic Ocean with the bronze casket in a C130 transport plane. The drop point, several miles off the Maryland and Delaware coastline was chosen because it wasn’t near shipping or air lanes. Also, members of the Air Force knew that at one time the President had mentioned that he liked to be buried at sea in this location. According to released documents, the casket lies 9,000ft down at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.



I once asked my father if anyone famous lived in our town. When I think back to this I am amazed that he answered seriously.

“No, no one famous lives here.”
“Not even the Egg Man?”
“No, not even.”
“Why not?”
“Well, we live in a small town and most famous people live in large cities.”

Poor old us. The sum of celebrity sightings in the town where I grew up was:
Celebrity – 0
Regular people – a little less than 9,000

Apparently we were once a hotbed for any travelling performer who passed through. In 1903 an architect from Chicago swooped down to Kentucky and built an opera house in our town.


There was nothing even faintly operatic about the kind of shows that somehow reached our little enclave. The religious element was so fierce that to call it what it really was, a theatre, was not allowed. The opera house debuted one night stands with performers who made themselves at home for a few hours in the dressing rooms. Vaudeville and minstrel shows played to audiences who sat eagerly in the boxes and balcony. Lectures were popular, as were home talent shows in which I can only imagine parents and spouses elongated their posture and puffed their chests out proudly while neighbours cringed inwardly.

The opera house closed during the war and like a product on an assembly line, it was passed from owner to owner.

At long last the drought grew to an end when the biggest celebrity our town had seen in a living breathing person stopped by our funeral home out of necessity. He was also the smallest celebrity to ever walk among us.

My father called him a live wire. His personality contained a tall dose of high-octane charisma, though he stood less than four feet tall at his adult height. His real name was Johnny Roventini, but by a stroke of luck in 1933 he became the most famous product spokesperson for Philip Morris Tobacco Company, so much so, that he became known only as Johnny Philip Morris.

In 1929 the construction of the Hotel New Yorker was complete.

Along with its 43 stories and 2,500 rooms, it boasted that ‘the hotel's bell boys were 'as snappy-looking as West Pointers’.  Their uniform: red-trimmed black cap with a chin strap, a bright red tunic with gold buttons, red-striped black trousers, and white gloves.

In 1933 Mr. Biow of the Biow Agency landed the lucrative Philip Morris Tobacco account. In a stroke of Mad Men genius, he focused on the fact that the cigarettes had a man’s name and thought it might be unique for a bellboy to page the non-existent Philip Morris. Biow was advised to sit in the lobby of the Hotel New Yorker to observe a 22-year-old bellhop. Johnny Roventini had suffered a pituitary gland disorder that not only halted his growth, but also the development of his voice, which he now used to call out a perfect B-flat tone naturally and clearly for every ‘page’.

Mr. Biow approached Johnny with a dollar in hand and asked him to page Philip Morris. The bellboy was unaware that Mr. Morris didn’t exist and repeatedly called out, “Call for Philip Morris” in his distinctive voice. Johnny was upset that his page went unanswered, not knowing he was essentially auditioning. Later he was quoted in Variety, "I went around the lobby yelling my head off, but Philip Morris didn't answer my call. I had no idea that Philip Morris was a cigarette.”

Johnny became a living trademark. For the next forty years he was never seen out of his bellboy uniform and was heard around the world, first in radio advertising, and then in broadcast media, notably helping the I Love Lucy show kick-start its success.

The demand for thousands of pubic appearances in store openings, parades and other public events summoned the need for dozens of “Johnny Juniors” who made it possible for him to be in two places at once. But there were no impostors in our town; we met the genuine Johnny. We lived in tobacco country and every year the Tobacco Festival took an all-consuming and prideful place in the autumn line-up of events. One would think we were organizing Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. It was the perfect venue for Philip Morris, and Johnny was a parade-appearing aficionado by that time.

For twelve years he sat on the back of a white convertible in our parade and called his page for Philip Morris without amplification. And the crowd went wild…

Our funeral home, which was on the residential end of Main Street, provided the perfect position in which to view the parade. I ran back and forth from a window upstairs to other vantage points, both downstairs and on our stoop where our front door was open to the community. Before and after the parade, Johnny came running into the funeral home badly in need of a cold drink and to answer the call of nature. He took the time to shake everyone’s hand and thanked us for our hospitality. I absolutely dogged my father to search for me if I wasn’t around for Johnny’s arrival. For a couple of those twelve years my younger sister was near his height and could not understand why he spoke to her as if he were an adult. Even though he was well into middle age when we met him, she couldn’t grasp his miniature stature and basically wanted him to be her playmate. She was especially confused when he patted her on the head. I’ll never forget his kindness and his full acceptance of how people reacted to him. 

By 1970 Congress had banned the advertising of cigarettes on television and radio. Johnny retired in 1974. He never married and died at the age of 88.


At the steaming height of most summers my parents dragged me away from the air conditioning, into the car and down a country road ten miles to Shakertown. We entered a large tent set in a field where we sat for three hours on thin wooden bleachers, the music of crickets soon overwhelmed by the evening’s theatre. I grabbed a paper fan from the grass as the re-enactment of the story of Mother Ann, a religious visionary from 18th century England, unfolded in fits of song, drama, and dance.

Avant-garde, revolutionary, even touted as a miracle worker, Mother Ann, an illiterate factory worker from Manchester formed the Shaking Quakers, better known as The Shakers. Their utopian, strictly celibate, and self-sufficient communities grew from a small group that immigrated to America in 1774 into flourishing communities, the southernmost of which was formed where I sat swatting mosquitoes in the humid night air. At their height in 1840 more than six thousand believers lived in nineteen communal villages from New England to Ohio and Kentucky, and there were twenty thousand members over a century.

The most eccentric and defining aspect of the Shakers was their form of dance, the earliest of which was spontaneous. They whirled themselves around, trembling and shaking ecstatically until they fell to the floor in a trance.

In the early 1800s choreography entered the worship service. An anonymous visitor described the preparation:

"At half past seven p.m. on the dancing days, all the members retired to their separate rooms, where they sat in solemn silence, just gazing at the stove, until the silver tones of the small tea-bell gave the signal for them to assemble in the large hall.”

They believed the dance kindled the fire of truth and the shaking warded off evil. As described in an article in The Telescope in 1909, the choreography became ritualistic and stylized.

“A number of singers, probably a dozen or so, both sexes, would take their position in the middle of the room, half of them facing the other half, and begin a kind of song or chant. 
While doing so they would step back and forth in a fashion resembling a double shuffle. If the spirit seemed to move the watchers, they would rise and, two abreast, would begin marching round the singers in the center. Soon the march would turn into a dancing step, the faces would be uplifted, and the hands outstretched, palms upward, with a gesticulation as if the worshipers were grasping for blessing falling down from heaven. This would be continued indefinitely, sometimes the marchers and dancers falling from sheer exhaustion."

All of their hymns, songs and music were composed and written by their members, generally, under ‘divine inspiration’. They developed their own form of music notation known as the "letteral system" using letters of the alphabet rather than conventional notes.

Music Lessons

In 1944 one of those tunes was resurrected and hit the world stage. Aaron Copland said he was thinking neither of Appalachia nor Spring when composing his now iconic ballet. Martha Graham renamed Ballet for Martha by using a line from a Hart Crane poem. Spring represents a body of water, not the season.

O Appalachian Spring! I gained the ledge;

Steep, inaccessible smile that eastward bends

And northward reaches in that violet wedge

Of Adirondacks

Copland, who was known for using folk music in his ballets, steered away from this habit in Appalachian Spring with the exception, ironically, of one obscure Shaker tune – “Simple Gifts” – which he used as the basis of the finale and which then went on to become the most famous melody of the ballet. "Simple Gifts" was composed by Elder Joseph Brackett and originated in the Shaker community at Alfred, Maine in 1848. It was not a hymn, or song of worship; it was written specifically as a Shaker dance song.

A century after the queer Shaker dances were formalized and the lyrics ‘Tis a gift to be simple were penned, the collaboration between Copland and Graham was born and lauded as groundbreaking. One wonders if she studied their movements for the similarity is striking.

Shaker Sister

Martha Graham Dancers

Shaker Dance Demonstration

By 1911 that last of the original Shakers were dying. To attend a funeral of a Shaker one would think it was anything but. The funeral was an important religious service in their community and they looked upon death as a joyful occasion. Funerals were attended happily and with smiles. The women wore white along with their strange, tight-fitting bonnets with a frill at the back.

In the former Shaker community in Harvard, Massachusetts lies a unique, one acre burial ground. The tombstone markers of individual Shakers including their death dates have been preserved. Created in 1792 using stone markers, a few of which are still in place today, approximately three hundred Shakers are buried here. In 1879, the town removed most of the stone markers and replaced them with cast iron markers in the unusual shape resembling a lollipop.


Whenever I’m asked where I’m from I always say, ‘Originally’, pause for originally to sink in, ‘from Kentucky’. Compelled to further qualify the answer I add that I’m not from that part of the state - not those eastern mountains where the hillbillies live. The barefoot, gun toting, moonshining, coal dusted people from the hollows - that wasn’t, that isn’t, me.

Then I feel badly about working so hard to convey that not all Kentuckians are the same. Truth is though, there is a sizeable difference in the section of the state where I grew up that lies within a kiss of Tennessee, and the eastern half that borders the Virginias.

The Scots-Irish influence in the Appalachians was prominent in the 1770s when the first flow of settlers blazed across the Wilderness Road, over the Cumberland Mountains and into a region that was too dangerous for most to conquer.

But by the late 1780s the eastern region of Kentucky could be considered a Little Europe where the Ulster-Scots, English, Scottish Highlanders, German Lutherans and the French Huguenots settled.

Eastern Kentuckians have always suffered from dialect prejudice. The twang is strong, and the dialect is a-prefixing heavy. “I’ll come a-moaning and a-crying.” One might hear, “He clomb a tree,” and “I’m agin that idea.”

I’ve scratched my head several times trying to understand this older form of their language, still spoken today. Hilarious really, given that my Southern accent was once as deep as the yellow loam of Mississippi.

It is true that there is a darkness, a bleakness to the mountains raped of their coal.

The most isolated families somehow survive an incredibly harsh life. But from the depths of the desolation rises the beauty of the old bluegrass music, their gift for storytelling and a poignant tradition that is still honoured – a home wake.

This is ‘Home Funeral’, a photo taken by Shelby Lee Adams in 1990.

At a home wake in the mountains, friends and families would file into the home of the deceased from the coal mines, the farms and the factories to pay their respects, and then gathered in the kitchen for sandwiches and coffee. A country wake in the mountains might last days as opposed to what was then the normal practice of a two-night maximum at our funeral home on the other side of the state. In our town, my father was responsible for turning the tide in the length of visitations by encouraging people to sit for one night instead of two. Even though he was heavy on the charm, I’m not sure how he managed that, come to think of it.

I remember only one family that chose to hold a home wake instead of settling down in one of the dark, cool rooms in our funeral parlour. There may have been a few more, but it was very rare by the time I came along. I thought it would require less work for my father, but instead, there seemed to be an awful lot of to-ing and fro-ing and detailed organization. The phone rang constantly with calls from the townspeople who were unused to home wakes. Aggravated and confused, ‘Where the hell is he, Frank?’ It came to that.

Mr. Watson died of a heart attack at a frightfully young age. Not yet fifty the day he fell to the floor in a silent heap, our community was shocked by the news. First, my father collected him, brought him to the funeral home and prepared him, then carted him back to his home. The Watsons (not their real name) lived just up the street from us, but my father couldn’t exactly wheel him across Main Street, so the hearse was employed to transport Mr. Watson back and forth. After he was laid out in his living room in a casket, the Watson’s home was open for visitation for a few days until the funeral. During the unusually long wake I pestered my father with questions. Why so young? Why no warning? What is heart disease? And most doggedly, why wasn’t he here with us? Mr. Watson’s family wanted him near, he told me. Couldn’t bear to part with him, not yet.

Because he was fairly well known and suffered a particularly tragic death, Mr. Watson’s family decided to hold the funeral service in the church, a space large enough to deal with the overflow. My father drove to their house once again to transport him to the church, also on Main Street, and then, finally, to the cemetery.

Mr. Watson was the father of a girl who was only a year younger than me and this made his death more memorable to me than his age, or his home wake. She and her older sister were father-less before they graduated high school. After Mr. Watson was buried, the grief took hold of them like a grief I’d never seen.

Mrs. Watson and her daughters were always late to church on Sunday mornings. No matter what time they arrived for the service, they walked the long aisle all the way down to the front, everyone’s eyes upon them, and sat in the second row from the front, which was always, without fail, empty.

When our hell fire and damnation preacher got going, the three females huddled closely together. They inched towards each other, leaving a long empty space at both ends of the pew. Then my friend placed her head on her mother’s shoulder and soon her little body trembled. The shiver turned into silent convulsions. The harder she tried not to make a sound, the more violently her body shook. She remained silent and animated, lost in her grief throughout the service. Their Sunday ritual did not end in just a few weeks; their grief rode them for a very long time.

Both of Mr. Watson’s daughters were brilliant and eventually thrived…until one day the girl who was my friend fell to the floor in a silent heap. Dead. Heart attack. Before she was fifty.


Funerals used to be so simple. They were never called a Celebration of Life, or a memorial service. Just funerals. Tom’s funeral. Jane’s funeral. As a child I never said, "You can’t come over to play today because we’re having a celebration of Mr. Slater’s life."

It never looked like a celebration and it never sounded like a celebration.

In 1888, when the successful novelist and phenomenal social reformist Mary Ward buried her mother in the Lake District, she called upon a group in Ambleside ‘who form a little society for performing music at funerals’ to play a hymn, some organ music and the ‘Death March’. She thought the ceremony was beautiful, simple and peaceful.

For the sixteen years I lived in our funeral home the soft tones of the Hammond organ rose above the quiet chatter and hypnotized me and whatever audience the day brought. From that efficient music box poured the notes of one hymn after another.

Our town was seeped in religion. A plethora of Southern Baptist churches outnumbered the one Presbyterian, the one Catholic, and the one Episcopalian church and thus defined the region.

Holy Roller churches and their glittery loud services sprang up overnight.

Tent revivals dotted the fields in the summer.

I always thought it might be nice to change the repertoire. I wondered how my father would have reacted if a widow insisted that he use Chattanooga Choo Choo to open the service because it was her husband’s favourite. Or, could he substitute That Old Black Magic for The Old Rugged Cross? But there was no chance that a funeral service in our town would host anything other than a hymn played simply.

The melodies of How Great Thou Art, Shall We Gather at the River and When the Roll is Called Up Yonder were played on the smooth keys of that organ over and over… And over. So I’m sure I’ll be forgiven for a certain numbness that washed over me when after a few years I no longer heard them. They remained in the background like a ghost sound and one refrain dissolved into another, into another.

When I moved away, returning only for short spurts, then not at all, the world changed and funerals and their music changed with it.

In 2006 a survey of five thousand Britains revealed their vote for the year’s

Top 10 Requested Funeral Songs:

Goodbye My Lover - James Blunt

Angels - Robbie Williams

I’ve Had the Time of My Life - Jennifer Warnes and Bill Medley

Wind Beneath My Wings - Bette Midler

Pie Jesu - Requiem

Candle in the Wind - Elton John

With or Without You - U2

Tears in Heaven - Eric Clapton

Every Breath You Take - The Police

Unchained Melody - Righteous Brothers

Moving right along to the

Top Country Funeral Songs of 2011

Dancing with the Angels - Monk and Neagel

Angels Among Us - Alabama

I Can Only Imagine - Mercy Me

There You’ll Be - Faith Hill

When I Get Where I’m Going - Brad Paisley

Go Rest High on that Mountain - Vince Gill

Daddy’s Hands - Holly Dunn

Holes in the Floor of Heaven - Steve Wariner

If I Had Only Known - Reba McEntire

My Wish - Rascal Flatts

And finally,

‘Glee’ Season 2 Episode 21, Funeral Song List

Try A Little Tenderness - Otis Redding

My Man – Barbra Streisand

Pure Imagination - from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory

Some People - Gypsy

Back to Black - Amy Winehouse Death makes its own music.

Once a piece of music is heard at a funeral, whatever the tune may be, is it ever heard in quite the same way again?



“She’s the one with the bun who looks like a grandma,” said the manicurist of the St. Regis hotel in Manhattan. The jaded employees of the grand hotel barely noticed the train of celebrities who normally paraded through reception and they were blasĂ© about the international heads of states who’d slept there. But when Pauline Tabor waddled in on a bright March day, the manicurist and bellhop bounded up the stairs to catch a glimpse of one of the South’s most famous madams.

Pauline’s story began sixty-eight years before her trip to New York. Roughly thirty miles north of the small community where we lived in my father’s funeral home, a two-lane road stretched past tobacco farms, cow pastures, a slew of churches, and the surviving buildings that the Shakers once owned, to Bowling Green, Kentucky, a sleepy little university town.

Pauline was born to strict church-going parents in 1905. They made sure her virginity remained intact until her marriage at the age of 18 to a rogue who gave her two sons and nothing more except headaches and heartache from his carousing. Soon she was a divorced woman, a Sunday school teacher no less, with no means of support. She and her two children moved back into her childhood home. With her parents’ business swiftly failing thanks to the trickle down effect of the 1929 stock market crash, Pauline needed to contribute.

She knocked on the doors of the few commercial streets in Bowling Green, but faced the prospect of no work as the Great Depression deepened. She tried door-to-door selling, but housewives tried to steal her merchandise, dogs bit her, lonely men at home propositioned her, and the commission checks were always late.

With the help of an older man with whom she had a longstanding platonic relationship, she found her way to Louisville, Kentucky where she worked in a tobacco company until she was stricken with typhoid. For six months she languished and recovered so slowly that she had to call upon her parents to take her back to Bowling Green. Due to “damaged glands” she ballooned to two hundred and fifteen pounds, (15 5/14 stone) a burden upon her 5-foot, 6-inch frame.

Almost penniless, again Pauline slogged along with samples of cosmetics and silk stockings to the doors of Bowling Green’s residents. One day while tired and hungry she decided to treat herself to lunch in a downtown hotel. After she dined, the bellhop slipped her a note from a gentleman who had noticed her arrival. Pauline met him in his room and asked him for ten dollars. He responded, “Honey, I don’t want to buy you. I just want to rent you for a while. Five bucks and nothing more.” The deal was agreed and thirty minutes later she left the hotel “not feeling a bit unclean or guilty” and realized there was money to be made.

Miss May, the madam of a brothel in Clarksville, Tennessee kindly gave Pauline a two day crash course in whorehouse etiquette, health and safety, and how and when to grease palms of the people who ran the town. In addition, for the very short time Pauline remained a prostitute, Miss May taught her how to attract men in spite of her girth and lack of beauty.

Bad luck followed her in her first attempts to set up a brothel. One house was destroyed by fire, another by a flood from which she was rescued by a man who floated by her house in a raft. Finally, in 1944 she settled into her most famous home, a red brick house on Clay Street located daringly close to downtown Bowling Green.

When the house opened at six o’clock each evening Pauline expected routine. She inspected the girls’ grooming, cranked up the jukebox and opened the door. She required the girls to be flirtatious, seductive and to attract as many men as possible. If any one of the girls couldn’t muster enough bravado on a regular basis, she was out.

The turnover for each client was about twenty to thirty minutes. Money was collected first and stored safely away. The prostitute then carefully washed the man with soap and water. A certain amount of foreplay was included, the job was performed, the girl washed the man again, and herself, then they both dressed and went back downstairs.

A prostitute could service two to three men an hour. On busy nights, and most of them were, she could turn twenty to thirty tricks. When moralists accused prostitutes of being lazy, Pauline responded with, “Try working a twelve-hour shift in a busy house sometime.” No matter how busy the evening, Pauline knew exactly how much she was due. She split the proceeds fifty-fifty with each girl and any who tried to cheat her were swiftly kicked out the door, no second chances.

Every man who appeared at her door was screened before they entered and before they left. She measured drunkenness, meanness and mental illness; apparently she could tell by the look in their eyes. She owned revolvers and shotguns and threatened a deserving man if he was unarmed. If he was carrying and robbed her, she waited until he was in his car, then shot up his car aiming to damage.

Her clients were millionaires, politicians, policemen, lawmakers, teachers from the university, students and countless husbands whose marriages Pauline is certain she saved. One of her clients was known as the Peeping Tom Judge who paid Pauline for wardrobe space. For two years one of the prostitutes agreed to let him spy on her while he sat folded up in the chifforobe. One night, in a moment of excitement, he almost fell out. Pauline was furious and revoked his privilege forever.

Pauline’s girls were given beautiful clothes, health checks once a week and allowed one week off a month as long as they didn’t flaunt or haunt the downtown area. They were housewives looking to earn enough to feed their children, students paying their way through college, women earning seed money to set up legitimate businesses, and beauties from all corners of the South. Her rules included no lesbians, because in her experience they were jealous and fought too much, and no falling in love with clients. She offered personal advice, foremost of which was to make as much money as quickly as possible, save it, and then get out of the business before it was too late, before they became too old and the job “damaged their souls”. She was a strong advocate for legalizing and regulating prostitution.

Pregnancies occurred no matter the diligence in preventing them. Pauline’s best and most trusted abortionist was a black woman who used a bit of proper medicine, but relied most heavily on the folk cures handed down to her from her ancestors who were slaves.

Pauline was perhaps the only madam of her era who was required to end a strike of prostitutes. She hired a new girl who was homely. This flat-chested woman braided her hair in long plaits, and did nothing to hide her freckles, relying instead on a clean, scrubbed look. She felt that to compete with Pauline’s beautiful and seductive women she had to maximize her Lolita image. Customers flocked to her and virtually ignored the others. The girls went on strike until Pauline fired the woman to keep the peace.

Pauline particularly enjoyed the wealthy and lusty oilmen who reserved the house for a couple of days when they were in town. They spent freely and enjoyed themselves, unlike the politicians of which she said ‘didn’t know how to have a good time’. She allowed a few customers to fulfil their desire to be whipped and closed the house to other clients during marathon nights of screaming. A well-known Kentucky horse trainer requested an evening of horseplay, tied to the bedposts. At his command, he was whipped into such a violent frenzy that he broke free. When he got out of hand Pauline ran in and smashed him over the head with a heavy water pitcher. She charged him a fortune.

The madam indulged her love of antiques and decorated with Tiffany lamps, chandeliers, GallĂ© cameo glass and heavy ornate furniture. Her most valuable piece was a cabinet made by two brothers in Ohio County, KY in the mid 1700’s. Her beautiful bedrooms were always freshly wallpapered, every room a different colour and each room was meticulously colour coordinated, including the sheets. She created lush lawns and gardens. In the 1970s her antiques were valued at $500,000.

So it was all good, dirty fun and games. No. Not quite. You can’t run a notorious house of prostitution in the town in which you were born without tears and suffering. Bowling Green was only about 20,000 people strong in the 1940s. Downtown was merely more than a pretty park square with a smattering of shops lining a few blocks. Any friendships from her childhood, marriage, or life as a young woman were over. Her sons were sent to their grandparents for extended stays and suffered ridicule and embarrassment. Pauline Tabor couldn’t walk down the street without people pointing, staring, hissing and being subjected to punishing remarks from the group she called the ”Holy Joes”.

Money helped. When the hypocrites came to her in secret and asked for cash handouts she never rebuked them. Her charity knew no colour boundaries. Black families were grateful for the food, clothing and toys she provided at Christmas. Her own family members were not shy of asking favours. “When I first when into the business I would meet some of my family on the street and they would duck into a door to keep from speaking to me. But when I started making a little money they would go out of their way to see how sweet they could say, ‘Hi Pauline’. That’s when I started ducking in doors.”

Pauline retired a wealthy woman in 1968. She bought a 148-acre farm and became one of the nation’s first organic farmers. She even married again for a short time and after his death said that her bookmaker husband was “marvellous” and spoiled her.

Law enforcement and Holy Joes had tried to run her out of business for ages, but it was urban renewal that tore down the red brick house. When Pauline found out that a few men were selling the bricks, her anger led her to action. “If a couple of shrewdies figure to make a killing on the bricks of my house, by God I’ll not be upstaged. I’ll tell stories that bricks can’t voice.”

She did just that in her book, PAULINE’S – MEMOIRS OF THE MADAM ON CLAY STREET. She never named names, but told the truth, sometimes brutally, in a jolly and entertaining voice. The book was published in 1971 in a regular hardback edition. Also published was a special numbered edition covered in red velvet and enhanced with a brass lock and key. Years later I found a dusty old copy of the velvet book and read it in one sitting, drop-jawed and blushing.

After the publication of her book, the producers of The Dick Cavett Show flew Pauline to New York for an appearance on his nation wide television show. The staff at the St. Regis said she wasn’t famous - she was infamous. The producers settled her now 240 pound frame in a rocking chair, which suggested to the audience that a sweet old grandmother was going to entertain them with a few homespun tales of the South. Imagine the crew's, guests' and television audience’s reactions when Pauline frankly and explicitly described her forty-year career as a madam.

In 1982 she moved to Texas to live near her son. Pauline died in a nursing home at the age of eighty-seven. I was surprised that she wasn’t brought back to Bowling Green to be buried near the rest of her family. I thought there might have been a big bawdy memorial stone or an elaborate marble statue in her honour.

If there was one thing my father taught me it was that it doesn’t matter how big your life has been, or how small, how celebrated, or quiet. It comes to this.

Pauline Tabor

In Memoriam