Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Undertaker's Daughter

The undertaker’s family lived on the second floor of the one funeral home in the little East Texas town in which I grew up – and I was always curious about what that must have been like for the man’s three children.  But the kids were all older than me, and I had no one to ask, a minor problem that made Kate Mayfield’s The Undertaker’s Daughter irresistible.  As it turns out, the memoir is more complicated than I expected it to be. 

Mayfield admirably answers all the questions I had about what it must be like to live around dead bodies and caskets, and (in her case) to sleep directly above the spookiest room in any funeral home, its embalming room.  In addition, she talks about things like the card parties her mother regularly hosted, parties of her own with girlfriends during which they scared each other (and, in the process, themselves) with an Ouija Board, of all things, and the times her father and his own friends “partied” in the home’s oversized garage area.

But all the time anything like this was happening at Mayfield & Son Funeral Home, everyone in the family was subconsciously waiting for the phone call that would announce the imminent arrival of the next dead body – because that’s when things really got crazy.  Then, life on the second floor had to be conducted in almost total silence so as not to disturb the mourners downstairs.  And meals were most often of the sandwich variety so that those same mourners would not be offended by any cooking smells.  To the Mayfield kids, though, it all seemed perfectly normal.

Kate Mayfield
But the real beauty of The Undertaker’s Daughter is in what the author reveals about the inner workings of her family.  Life inside the funeral home was even more difficult than everyone in the little Kentucky town already suspected it might be.  The Mayfield family, as are most, was far from being a perfect one, and Kate Mayfield’s frank account of what was going on behind the scenes is an intriguing one.  Among other things, she explores the often-strained relationship between her parents; recounts what it was like to live with an older sister whose mental problems made her a genuine threat to the safety of her siblings; and exposes the social and sexual mores she herself ignored. 

At times, in fact, The Undertaker’s Daughter reads more like a coming-of-age novel than it does a memoir.  Particularly moving is Kate Mayfield’s strong attachment to her father and how her feelings about him change as she discovers more and more of his personal secrets.  But even with as much as she ultimately learned about her father, the author knows that he took some of his secrets with him to the grave.

Simply put, The Undertaker’s Daughter makes for a fascinating read – and it will be a shame if some Hollywood production company doesn’t turn this into an equally fascinating movie.


  1. I'm not sure about this one, but your review does make me curious. I remember the funeral home in my father's tiny home town. It was a huge and housed both the family and the business. As a child, I could never pass that house without wondering about the family that lived there.

    1. I never thought much about it before, but it must have been a common thing back in the day for the undertaker to house his family on the floors above the actual funeral parlor. You mention it from Louisiana, I experienced it in Texas, and the author writes of it in Kentucky.

      About the book itself, I can already tell that it will be somewhere high on my list of nonfiction titles when I make that list for 2015. It is an excellent, if sometimes depressing, memoir. The revelations about the inner workings of the funeral home are just a bonus, I think.