Please find my Christmas post on Gallery Books' 
XOXO After Dark website here.


I’d been living in New York for three years. I survived a slap in the face from a complete stranger on drugs, three years of school at the Academy of Dramatic Arts, the demise of a relationship, an attempted mugging and an unfriendly landlord. What next, I wondered.

I received a call from one of the executives at the Academy offering me the opportunity of an audition. I stifled a squeal and said yes of course thank you very much. The address was a bit odd; not the normal stage door, or even a West Side casting director’s office. All I knew is that the audition had something to do with the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Yippee.

I arrived at a Mad Man’s office: Big desk, perfectly pressed shirt, gleaming hair, intimidating. He invited me to sit down to talk about Raggedy Ann. Did I know of her? What did I think of her? Yes, of course I knew of her and, “I think she’s just adorable, a gift to children the world over,” I say.

How would I like to be Raggedy Ann in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade? $200 for my trouble. Why yes, I certainly would. Immediately I imagined myself glowing from a stellar makeup job revealing Raggedy Ann-ness, waving from a huge float, appearing child-friendly and adored by every toddler in Manhattan.

This was a far cry from my first ever paying job – playing the organ for funerals in my father’s funeral home.

I arrived at West 69th Street at awfully early o’clock on Thursday morning wearing my disappointingly just okay costume. Underneath I wore a pair of 80-year-old man longjohns. No fool I, there was sure to be a breeze on that float.

There was no Raggedy Ann float. I would be walking in the parade. There was no makeup artist. Instead, I went slack-jawed to see a representative making his way towards me carrying a massive head in his arms. My head. My Raggedy Ann papier-mâché head, the size of a city block. Just as I was adjusting to this remarkable change in circumstances, a wild-eyed young man staggers over reeking of the previous night’s alcohol binge and announces himself as Raggedy Andy. Another representative quickly hides his unshaven face in the Andy version of the papier-mâché monstrosity.

Suddenly the thumping drums of high school bands, the blaring noise of organized chaos is muted. 

What had once been my view of hundreds of feet now became inches with no peripheral vision. It was like trying to function inside a tree trunk.

Off we go! Andy grabs my hand and jerks me along; on and on we skip down the streets of New York sandwiched between two floats filled with celebrities, comfortable in their special seats.

Children wave, parents point at us, or no, maybe they’re pointing at the dancers.

We turn the corners and our section hits the 40’s near Times Square. We enter the Blade Runner version of the parade. Suddenly the sun hides behind a dark sky. I’ve worked up a sweat inside the massive head by skipping half the length of Manhattan in longjohns, which are damp underneath the dress, pinafore and pantaloons.

There are three times as many people along this part of the route and most of them are young children herded by comparatively few fully stressed adults. When Raggedy Andy-with-the-hangover and I appear the children go absolutely wild. 

They scream our names and scream some more. Then they break loose from their parents, scramble under the barriers and Good Great God they are on top of us! Andy and I are separated at once. Children tear at our clothes, they reach up to smack at our huge heads, they hold on to our legs. For one terrifying moment I thought I would be knocked down completely and right there on Thanksgiving morning die a death from child attack on 42nd street.

Say what you will about big burly intimidating New York City policemen, but thank the heavens they were alert to our distress. They pulled the children off us and performed human barrier technique in a very satisfying way.

I never saw Andy again.  It took months to wrangle the $200 from the Mad Man.

Happy Thanksgiving. Enjoy the parade.




When I recently gave a talk in Birmingham in the newly restored Coffin Works Shroud Room, I became engulfed in a beguiling sense of synchronicity. I grew up in a funeral home. My father was an undertaker in a small town in southern Kentucky and that means that most mornings, before I skipped off to school, I could be found peering into a casket in which the deceased was dressed in a shroud.
When I left Kentucky and went abroad for the first time, I didn’t go to London or Paris, like most Americans. I landed on the shore of the Nile in Luxor and crossed that ancient river by ferry to the Valley of the Kings, the burial ground of all burial grounds. Enamored with the ancient Egyptians’ burial practices, I learned about the single length of cloth used to wrap around the body of the deceased. 

These shrouds were sometimes inscribed with the name of the deceased, whole chapters from The Book of the Dead, and spells, like this shroud, inscribed with spell number 64:

In 680 BCE this netted, beaded shroud was created for an Ancient Egyptian mummy. 

The arms of the net are tubular faience beads.
The word "shroud" originated in fourteenth century England to describe the clothing used to dress or wrap a corpse prior to burial, derived from older words scrud meaning garment and screade - a piece or strip of fabric.

The early shroud contained the decaying corpse and covered the body. During the eleventh century, ordinary people would have clothed their dead in a loose shirt before wrapping them in a sheet, sometimes wound tightly with extra bands of cloth -  a winding sheet.
The sixteenth-century shroud, a length of linen or plain wool, like the one seen here on John Donne in his funerary monument was also tied at the head and foot.

Donne’s effigy at St. Paul’s Cathedral was the only statue to survive the Great Fire intact.
In his final sermon in 1630 at Whitehall, Donne’s spoke these words:
"We have a winding sheet in our mother's womb, which grows with us from our conception, and we come into the world wound up in that winding sheet, for we come to seek a grave.”
In the United States, there is no doubt that the homemade shroud was a significant part of 19th-century burial customs. 

Notices for meetings of “Shroud Committees” or “Ladies’ Shroud Sewing Societies,” where charitable ladies made shrouds for the poor were listed in the newspapers. There are many news articles about elderly ladies buried in a shroud made by their own hands decades earlier. Women from the 16th through the 19th century would sew their own burial clothes when making their wedding trousseaux because women were so likely to die in childbirth.
In the mid 20th century the Shroud Room of the Newman Brothers Coffin Works buzzed with the hum of the Singer sewing machines.

I imagine these ladies talking about their children, or their plans for the weekend. I imagine the shrouds boxed up, ready for delivery. 

Today in the Coffin Works’ newly refurbished Shroud Room there are splendid spools of brightly colored thread and shelves filled with bolts of fabric. 

While the shroud makers at Newman Brothers kept their fingers busy, a woman who lived far away from Birmingham on a farm in Kentucky needed a way to earn extra money. She was quite a good seamstress, a fact that a lady in a haberdashery recognized, and she suggested to the farmer’s wife that she consider making burial shrouds.
In this small, seemingly sleepy southern town where the town square has not changed for decades and where the funeral business is fiercely competitive, as a child I waited anxiously on the swing on the veranda of our funeral home for the appearance of the woman I called the Shroud Lady. She opened her green cardboard boxes to reveal her hand sewn shrouds, similar to this.

She sold shrouds to my father for many years until one day an elderly woman decided she wanted to be buried in her own clothes and thus changed a long held burial practice in our town. And there you have it, from the north of England to the Southern United States, a shroud story.