What if the place you called “home” happened to be a funeral home? Kate Mayfield explores what it meant to be the daughter of a small-town undertaker in this fascinating memoir evocative of Six Feet Under and The Help, with a hint of Mary Roach’s Stiff. The first time I touched a dead person, I was too short to reach into the casket, so my father picked me up and I leaned in for that first, empty, cold touch. It was thrilling, because it was an unthinkable act. After Kate Mayfield was born, she was taken directly to a funeral home. Her father was an undertaker, and for thirteen years the family resided in a place nearly synonymous with death. A place where the living and the dead entered their house like a vapor. The place where Kate would spend the entirety of her childhood.
The author of this book, Kate Mayfield, is the Undertaker’s Daughter. In this true story, the author, Kate, shares her life with us beginning with her early childhood memories. The story takes place in the sixties and seventies. When we first meet Kate, she is living above the funeral home that her father, Frank owned in the segregated town of Jubilee, Kentucky along with her parents and siblings. Basically, Kate was the first person in her family to be carried from the hospital once she was born and taken directly into a funeral home – because that’s where her family lived, and where her life began!
Frank not only operated a funeral home, but he also ran an ambulance service so they had multiple telephones in their home. They didn’t want to miss news about a newly departed, or about someone needing urgent delivery to a hospital. Strict rules of conduct were maintained in the funeral home. When a funeral was in progress, life upstairs had to be silenced and frozen. The phones were muted, the cooking was monitored so strong smells wouldn’t permeate downstairs into the funeral parlor, movements were reduced and the family was required to whisper, with the television and radios all turned off.
As is true in most life stories, their family had their “secrets” like most families do and there is ugly language and poor life choices. Her father was a very social man, an alcoholic who was a flirt and liked the ladies despite being a married family man. Kate’s older sister, Evelyn is afflicted with mental health issues that cast a shadow over Ms. Mayfield’s life, an issue which she doesn’t face until she is much older.
In her story, Kate shares her rebellious teen side – challenging segregation, refusing to accept her parents’ choice for her major in college, and her desire to get out of the town of Jubilee.
This vivid and stranger-than-fiction true story ultimately teaches us how living in a house of death can prepare one for life. This book shares more than just Kate’s story – at the end of each chapter there is an obituary of someone from Jubilee with their life, death and funeral. This little feature kind of adds authenticity to Kate’s memoir and makes the book more interesting.
I received this book without cost from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.