The Newman Brothers Coffin Fitting Works left such an impression upon me that I felt compelled to offer this tribute to the history and the people who worked in this wonderful death-related business.

I hope you enjoy this 1.5 minute video. Please turn up your volume.

Paul Cripps of bitesizevideo is responsible for the visual magic and editing.

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In a subtle, creeping moment I realized that my life was not normal. No other child in my class slept above a room full of caskets. To descend the stairs in our house meant discovering who might be lying in one of those open caskets, a reposed, powdered face ready for viewing. No child I knew looked forward to a visit to the cemetery, or was subjected to sitting in long stretches of silence while a funeral service droned on downstairs, the organ music signalling The End notes.

Since then I have sought the unusual without much thought that the draw emanated from that languid funeral home, a dot on the map of the American South. I could never foresee that once I left my father’s house of death, I would one day stand in a remarkable historic coffin fittings factory in Birmingham, England.

When I first read of the existence of the Newman Brothers Coffin Furniture Factory I experienced a mighty magnetic pull to discover what was sure to be a treasure. When I realized the goal of the talented people at the Birmingham Conservation Trust, I felt a strong urge to shout:


In 1894 raw materials arrived via the Birmingham Fazeley Canal to the yard doors of 13-15 Fleet Street, a short street then full of manufacturers. Today, Newman Brothers is the last to stand, the only complete historic building left, gloriously sandwiched between the towering jagged modern buildings that now dominate the street. 

Its almost hidden position faces east where light streams into the small paned cast iron windows of the three-story Victorian building and into the windows of the rebuilt 1960s two-story building.

This was the setting where for over one hundred years artisan funereal work was accomplished to such a high standard that the coffin fittings produced here, from raw material to finished product, were world famous and seen on the coffins of Churchill, the Queen Mother and Princess Diana. 

Winston Churchill's coffin is lowered into the grave at Bladon Graveyard

In an atmosphere where everyone felt part of a family, and wherein a large number of females were employed, like Diamond Lil who read teacups, and Dolly who was a little deaf, employees are well remembered in photographs and in the palpable oral history arm of the project. Polishers, stampers, and piercers are brought to life through interviews and the products they created in the Grade II listed building.

Stamp Room

Though Newman Brothers had plans to begin manufacturing coffins, the plans never came to fruition; however, from the mid twentieth century they began manufacturing burial shrouds and coffin linings. 

When the factory was sold in 2003 everything was left in situ, as if the entire company had just stepped out to lunch. Thousands of artefacts littered the rooms. Along with stock, manufacturing tools and equipment, items of poignancy were startling. Overalls hung on a hook. A woman’s handbag was left behind. Tea making accoutrement stood at the ready, and the tongs for making toast hung by the fireside.

The Newman Brothers travelling salesman's bag, fully stocked.

Imagine Mr. Allen on his Triumph motorbike, his samples bags filled with breast plates, coffin handles, crucifixes, catalogues and shroud material, all tucked away in the wickerwork sidecar and headed all over England and Ireland where his was the first motorbike to travel many of its roads.

When I was a child I often watched my father polish the handles of one of his many caskets. Not that they needed this extra care; the casket and its fittings arrived in perfect condition. Could any of them have possibly originated from Newman Brothers?

And how many ways might one use a casket handle? They make a nice paperweight, or door handle…

The plans for the museum are terrifically ambitious. The use of film, sound, an iBook interactive element, special hands on activities for children, object interpretation, to name only a few mediums, will contribute to create one of the premier examples of how a Victorian factory actually worked, while simultaneously showing the changes in the business of death and funerary rituals from the Victorian era to the present.

The renovation has begun and next year 13-15 Fleet Street will be home to its own unique jewel in The Jewellery Quarter of Birmingham.

Many thanks to my guide, the brilliantly informed volunteer Barbara Nomikos who deftly lead me room by room, step by step through the fascinating pre-renovated world of funeral furniture manufacturing. Grateful thanks also to Suzanne Carter of the Birmingham Conservation Trust for permissions and introductions.

MEMENTO MORI:  Alive and Well in SoHo

“Our graveyards have been planted next to that women, children and lesser folk should grow accustomed to seeing a dead man without feeling terror, and so that this continual spectacle of bones, tombs and funerals should remind us of our human conditions.”

Michel de Montaigne

Pertwee Anderson and Gold, and The Museum of Curiosity have collaborated on an exhibition that explores objects of memento mori. An astonishing variety of artists boldly ask viewers to contemplate their mortality through their work. I went along to have a look. I stepped into an intimate SoHo gallery where I left the bright glare of day and was at once enveloped in the tomb-like dark grey walls. Pointed, effective lighting enhanced the works of art. I’ve selected a few that were particularly striking, though any one item in the collection is more than worthy of a visit.

The following were created by Jim Skull. (I know!) Jim Skull is influenced and inspired by the “strong cultural heritages of Africa, New Zealand, Asia and Oceania”.

Papier mache skull, antique beads, murano black glass

Papier mache skull, antique cannetille

Papier mache skull, artificial flowers, taxidermy bird and insects, gold leaf

Papier mache skull, artificial flowers, taxidermy bird and insects, gold leaf

All of the above images Copyright Jim Skull, courtesy of Pertwee Anderson & Gold

Franklyn and Brendan Connor are twins and artists who grew up in an extreme Christian cult known as ‘The Family’, the same cult that included the actors River and Joaquin Phoenix. When Franklyn and Brendan were sixteen they ran away. As they learned about the outside world they communicated with each other about what they discovered with notebooks and sketchpads, which resulted in their special form of making art together.

Death Calls

Acrylic on canvas

Image Copyright The Conner Brothers, courtesy of Pertwee Anderson & Gold

This piece by Tasha Marks in collaboration with David Bradley and Annabel de Vetten is one of my favourites. It drew me in quite innocently and then I discovered…it’s edible.

Edible Vanitas Case

Mixed media including chocolate, sugar, marshmallows, apples, pears and ambergris

Image Copyright Tasha Marks, courtesy of Pertwee Anderson & Gold

Nancy Fouts’s work has been seen in the Victoria and Albert Museum, among many others, and has been endorsed by Banksy. In her words, "I hoard stuff in boxes and then I lay it all out and many ideas happen like that." Ms. Fouts is originally from, ahem, Kentucky.

Hang on
Medical skeleton, resin, rope and paint

Freedom is Overrated 
Taxidermy bird, perspex, dome, black wood and glass display case

Images Copyright Nancy Fouts, courtesy of Pertwee Anderson & Gold

“The decision to erase paintings painted by other artists came partly from graffiti,” says artist Paul Stephenson. “The paintings I use, my surface, have already existed fully as objects.” When asked by Garage Magazine to what he is particularly drawn:  “Paintings that have a recognisable, iconic format and a clear subject. That is why I have worked a lot with 17th - 19th century portraiture as it has this iconic quality. We know the framework of these portraits so well that even when the central subject is erased we know what should be there and we begin to imagine it.”


No lady,
       Oil off canvas

Image Copyright Paul Stephenson, courtesy of Pertwee Anderson & Gold

Prepare yourself now for another sibling duo, Jake and Dinos Chapman, whose work is sometimes described as the anatomical and pornographic grotesque. 


Cast human skull, resin and oil paint

Side View

Image Copyright Jake and Dinos Chapman, courtesy of Pertwee Anderson & Gold

To end, a gentler image by Michal Ohana-Cole whose “art practice instigates the complex everlasting relationship between money, death and sexuality as well as the notion that one inevitably controls the other.”


Godspeed you (No.13), 2013

Pigment print

Image Copyright Miachal Ohana-Cole, courtesy of Pertwee Anderson & Gold

Memento Mori is on exhibit until June 14.  


People often ask me if I was frightened growing up in a funeral home. Yes, I was. But not for reasons you might think.

When an entire month passed in its lazy way and no one died – that was scary. Caskets to buy, hearses to maintain, and all that. I overheard my parents’ tense voices discussing the competition, revealing that, no - Alfred hadn’t received a death call all month, either. It was like death held its breath. I thought of the stillness in that.

I’ll tell you what else scared me - Petal the clown. Every year when the woody scent of autumn pranced through the air, the participants of the Tobacco Festival Parade gathered around the corner from our funeral home. Main Street transformed into a circus-like atmosphere, as if we’d all gathered under the Big Top. At eight o’clock in the morning beauty pageant contestants in satin evening gowns climbed atop the floats, shivering as they shielded their bouffants from the breeze. In the moments leading up to the start of the parade, organizers barked instructions over the drumbeats of the high school bands as they warmed up. All was chaos as parade goers and participants scrambled to their places.

Just before the convertible carrying the Grand Marshall began to roll down Main Street, several participants broke ranks to answer the call of nature. It was inevitable; they’d been waiting for hours. Many would pop into one of the three churches on our block, and a few rushed into our funeral home where, unless we were “busy”, our house of mourning hosted a jolly, excited bunch.

Just when the funeral home became quite again, a clown came lumbering in with minutes to spare in a wave of sweat and the stale, rank odour of a bender. I’d never seen a clown in person before, though I’d noticed signs in larger towns.

I was expecting someone colourful, happy and, well, funny.

His morning stubble grew out of the white patchy makeup. The sinister red smile was a bit runny with his perspiration, his teeth long and yellow. ‘Petal’ had become smeared on his nametag. The all-in-one-clown suit, dingy from wear and too few washes, billowed out, something like this:

Petal walked with a deliberate and heavy step towards me in flat exaggerated shoes. 

 He bent down, his macabre face in mine. “Where’s your bathroom?” he asked in a gruff, demanding voice.

I screamed.  He grabbed me by both arms, “What’s wrong with you, girl? Where is it?” I pointed, then ran to find my father who was outside filming the crowd before he, too, would enter the parade driving the love of his life, a 1937 Roadmaster Buick.

Meanwhile, Petal, was taking an awfully long time. My father said it had something to do with his costume. I couldn’t imagine. He stumbled out with a curse, the tip of one of those long shoes fought with the carpet.

A half hour later, when the parade was in full swing, Petal sauntered by the funeral home waving to the crowd, throwing candy to children. He pulled out a horn with a large rubber bulb at the end of it from a deep pocket, aimed it at me, and honked. There was something mean about it.

I never learned who Petal was without the grease paint on his face. My father didn’t know him either, and he knew everyone. I’ve had a healthy fear of clowns since. 

A troupe of clowns - my nightmare.


Late in the afternoon, possibly the coldest London has seen this year, I headed for the second time in a month to Drury Lane.

I think it was Dickens’ Sketches By Boz in which I first read of Drury Lane in his essay, Gin-Shops:

“we will make for Drury-Lane, through the narrow streets and dirty courts which divide it from Oxford-street, and that classical spot adjoining the brewery at the bottom of Tottenham Court Road, best known to the initiated as the Rookery."

I would have been in high school in Kentucky when I read about gin shops, a rookery and the wretched houses teeming with the whole of humanity in its less than humane state. A setting so completely foreign to me, this Drury Lane, that my only point of reference would have been a little moonshine shack in the backwoods of our “dry” county.

How strange then that I set off with purpose the other day to discover what lay behind the ornately flanked door of the Happy-Go-Lucky Funeral Parlour on Drury Lane.

In vain I had already searched Google for a phone number, a website, something, anything I could use to contact them in advance to make an appointment. I had hopes of an interview with an undertaker who I’d already imagined as kind and respectful.  (If you don’t already know, I grew up in a funeral home.)

Nothing. I found no information whatsoever - this should have been a warning of some kind. What sort of funeral home doesn’t want to be found?

I arrived to find the entrance shuttered.

What a disappointment. I stood shivering for a few minutes before I walked away towards Longacre. Then I stopped halfway down the street. What a wimp, what a wuss I was. How silly to give up so quickly. I did an about-face, marched back and opened the door to a shop across the street from the Happy-Go-Lucky. Full to the brim with artist supplies, brushes sprouting from every corner, a young woman emerged from the back to greet me.

“I’m sorry to disturb you, but do you know anything about the funeral parlour across the street?”

“As a matter of fact, I just tried to Google them the other day and couldn’t find out a thing.”

“Yes, I tried that, too. Zero.”

“I’ve never even seen anyone come out of there,” she said.

“Oh, I have. On Valentine’s Day. I walked by with two friends and a man stepped out of the funeral parlour holding a broom. He wished us a Happy Valentine’s Day. That’s why I came back. Life does exist in there somewhere.”

She laughed.

I crossed the street and again had almost given up when I began to snoop around the restaurant next door to the Happy-Go-Lucky. There are velvet-cushioned seats, the kind that are normally tucked underneath a lady’s dressing table, framed in floral displays and set along the wall of the building. They looked forlorn outside in the cloudy cold. Overly dramatic arches of greenery created a covered path to the restaurant’s entrance.

I stepped inside and was immediately visually accosted by the lavish décor. It was late afternoon, before the magic of the light of the numerous chandeliers struck the glassware. The tired, cheap designs and gimmicks were apparent; a mix of Gothic, Rococo and others I didn’t recognize. It looked like the morning after of a bacchanalia of decorators. Then it struck me that the murals bore a curious similarity to the painting above the funeral parlour’s entrance.

It was quiet in the restaurant, no customers yet filled the elaborate balcony seating, the opera boxes, or the long tables set for the evening – the place was huge. A waiter approached and when he heard my questions he referred me to yet another waiter who finally introduced me to the hostess. An older woman who had been sitting in a dark corner watching me rose and made her way toward me.

“Do you know anything about the funeral home next door?”

“No, no,” she said in a thick accent that I couldn’t quite place, her language formal. “It is not a funeral home. It is our office.”

“Ah. I see. Why, then? Why do you advertise it as a funeral home?”

“It is just a joke. We think it is funny. You know, most funeral homes – they are so serious.”

I began to feel a bit sour.

I put my gloves back on and as I did so these were her last words to me:

“Please do not die in here. We will not be able to take care of you.”


My undertaker father never cremated a body. Our small town, an insular Southern community, had no crematorium and was pro burial, as were most small towns at that time. During my childhood cremation was thought of as distasteful and unnatural; the practice was spoken of in whispers. Only upon one occasion, that I recall, did a family request that their patriarch be cremated. On that day, my father drove the corpse to another town an hour away, the nearest dot on the map to fulfil the family’s wishes.

My imagination went wild:  How did the skin burn? What do flaming muscles look like? How long did it take? Was there an odour?

I finally moved away from that house of death, and as an adult quickly adjusted and embraced cremation as a wholly valid choice. Other departures from the conventional casket burial have emerged; natural, or green burials, biodegradable coffins, and so on. But sometimes I still stumble upon a death ritual that challenges my strongly held value of live and let live. This was the case when I learned of the ancient custom of widow burning.

“…loosening their hair, and unveiling their faces, they went to the gate of zenåna, and presented themselves before the assembled populace. All opposition to their wishes now ceased. They were regarded as sacred to the departed monarch. Devout ejaculations poured incessantly from their lips. Their movements became invested with a mysterious significance; and their words were treasured up as prophetic.

Meantime the pile had been prepared. The eight victims, dressed in their richest attire, and mounted on horseback, moved with procession to the cemetery. There they stripped off their ornaments and jewels, distributed gifts to the bystanders, and lastly, mounting the pile, they took their places beside the corpse. As the Maharåna had left no son, his nephew, the present Sovereign, applied the torch. The crash of music, the chanting of the priests, and the cries of the multitude arose simultaneously, and the tragedy was consummated.”

“The Sacrifice of Sati”, by two queens and six concubines in India on the 30th of August, 1888 as described in WIDOW-BURNING by Henry Jeffryes Bushby.

The term Suttee, or Sati, is applied to the person; the act or the rite of widow burning is Sahagamana. An expert in ancient civilizations tells me that many peoples have had a custom of sacrificing the dependents of the dead including servants and slaves. In addition, other authorities believe that Scythians gave birth to the idea of voluntary death, or “sacrifice” of the deceased’s widow specifically, and planted the seeds of the practice in lands they settled. In India, where Sahagamana was most prominently practiced, its birth is traced in 300 BC. In Eastern Europe, especially in the Ukraine and South Russia, the Scythians practiced the ritual in the 6th to the 4th century B.C.

In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, no travel to India was complete without a reference to the Sati by a steady flow of eyewitness accounts. While many widows threw themselves upon the pyre voluntarily, many did not. The use of drugs, force and restraints to prevent escape were witnessed in horror. The woman was bound by cord, or in many instances, bamboo poles were used to push her down on top of her husband, or logs were thrown upon the woman as she lay on top of him. A Sati might be soaked in camphor, or ghee might be poured on her. It was reported that in an effort to shorten her suffering, a widow’s face was painted red with a mix of gunpowder and sulphur. Incense burned in concert with her flesh.

The practice was labelled as a voluntary sacrifice, a “supreme test of conjugal devotion” and the widow often paraded to her death in a bride’s dress among a crowd of thousands. The Sati should not solely be imagined as an elderly woman, but quite literally in many cases, a child-bride.


No religious sanction was ever attached to Sahagamana – all was superstition. There were reports of women who might have initially committed voluntarily, who then lost courage and fled the fire only to be thrown in by the crowd. In stark contrast in 1789-1814, other witnesses, both men and women, described how peaceful the Sati appeared and how the rite was performed “with great sensitivity”. As if those who pushed the widow into the flames extended a tender hand.

Sahagamana was to be found among many castes and at all social levels. By the end of the eighteenth century the practice was banned by European powers, but the ban was ignored, and though efforts have been made to reinforce laws against it, the most recent known case was in 1999. Much controversy surrounds this particular widow’s final act, as she was not known to have any desire to become a Sati. There were accusations of her having been coerced.

Sacrifice. Murder. Suicide. How best to categorize this ancient ritual? Is it even accurate to define it as a ritual? The Hindu Times in 2010 refers to it as the “Sati system” wherein it describes this memorial Sati stone that dates back to 1057, and has been carved with pictorial representation.

More often palm prints are a typical memorial used to honour the Sati.

The Sati stones can be found in the outskirts of the villages all over India. At times they’re placed at the spot where the widow became `Sati`. Unfortunately, the sculptures don’t tell us if the Sati walked willingly to her death.